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The Shadow Catcher by Marianne Wiggins

Connie Ogle
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Past and present converge in a postmodern The Shadow Catcher, a story of hope and disillusionment in the American west.

The Shadow Catcher

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743265203
Author: Marianne Wiggins
Price: $25.00
Length: 336
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-06

As Marianne Wiggins' bold, multifaceted new novel opens, a character also known as Marianne Wiggins considers the power of art in memory: "Some things you remember for a lifetime; other things, mysteriously, bleed away, or fade to shadow." She's referring to a Leonardo da Vinci sketch of an Italian coastal village, drawn from a startling, high perspective. "... I've learned to estimate how high above the ground I am, looking from an airplane window. ... But how did Leonardo know?"

Wiggins' perspective for The Shadow Catcher is equally lofty and twice as expansive as the novel unfolds across the western plains to the Pacific, illuminating a rugged landscape of myth, hope and disappointment. Though at times devastatingly enlightening about the American psyche and filled with lovely fragments that snag one's consciousness, this ambitious work is less likely to linger in memory than we might have hoped. Wiggins is an exacting writer always worthy of our attention, but here too many postmodern contrivances distract from her ruthless, intelligent, gleaming prose.

Author of two collections of short stories and seven novels -- including the breathtaking, National Book Award- and Pulitzer-nominated Evidence of Things Unseen, about the advent of the nuclear age -- Wiggins uses a two-pronged approach to explore the life of the legendary western photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis. Digging into the photographer's past in a parallel story line is the modern-day, fictional Marianne Wiggins, an Angeleno who has written a novel about Curtis and is resisting Hollywood's attempts to glamorize him. (One producer envisions a Curtis project as Citizen Kane meets Dances With Wolves.)

This faux Wiggins -- the real one thanks her sister in the acknowledgments for "license to decorate our shared history" -- stumbles into a mystery involving her family, but the personal developments are considerably less interesting than the detailed reconstruction of Curtis' wife Clara, orphaned early, dependent on the careless generosity of strangers and eventually wedded to disillusion. She is resistant to the pull of the West that lures her husband: "We're not made for open spaces, she considered, they humiliate and humble us and make us search for God in granite niches."

The beautifully rendered Clara gives resonant shape to Wiggins' musings on the enigmatic Curtis -- wayward husband, absent father, acquaintance of Teddy Roosevelt, emblem of a great national restlessness -- and leads the author to intriguing insights into sexual politics, the mythology of the West and the relationship between physical and emotional distance.

Borrowing from W.G. Sebald, whom she also thanks, Wiggins strews photographs and the occasional historical document throughout the book, a device that pulls us deeper into contemplation of Curtis' work. And she searches for meaning in Curtis' iconic portraits of Native Americans and finds it unexpectedly, indulging in Big Thinking that would be thrilling if only we didn't have to contend with Peculiar Punctuation:

"Panorama" was all I could think about: the immensity out there: the compromising BIGNESS. And then I came face to face with a display of Edward S. Curtis postcards. ...

"All the Curtis postcards were HEADSHOTS.

"A whole rack of them.

"And I realized: `You don't go into the West to make HEADSHOTS.'"

"You go into the West the way Ansel Adams did -- the way Timothy O'Sullivan and William Henry Jackson and Carlton Watkins did: for The Big Picture.

"For the Views.

"The "pan-o-rama."

"But there they were, lined up on a metal rack in Wall, South Dakota: face after face after face of `intimacy' -- and oh, my Aunt Sally: `who are we kidding when we think we can run?'"

It's an arresting passage, but the schizophrenic typography distracts from Wiggins' larger point, which is that none of us can escape personal demons even as we try to outrun them. The Shadow Catcher is full of themes of flight and travel and the ways in which history informs the future, and often the deft observations bend to an odd, emphatic style: "The American road is an Indian nation." FIREBIRD. CHEROKEE. MUSTANG. WINNEBAGO." YES. We "get" it.

The storylines eventually converge, and the final revelations strain plausibility as coincidence looms as large as any peak in an Ansel Adams poster. Some things we do remember for a lifetime. But despite its many majesties, The Shadow Catcher offers a few too many elements that we would just as soon forget.

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