The images that define us
Some years ago Marianne Wiggins told an interviewer, "Ours is an age dominated not by the written or printed word but by visuals; they define our experience, even how we process our life's history."
Much is at play in Wiggins' eighth novel, The Shadow Catcher, but curiosity about the power of visual imagery to shape our view of ourselves as individuals and as Americans is at the heart of the book. "Shadow Catcher" was a name given to photographer Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952), whose portraits of Native Americans and the landscape of the American West are now iconic. His story - as told from the point of view of his wife Clara, who divorced him rancorously after bearing and raising his children - is the main narrative thread of the book.
A second thread concerns a character named Marianne Wiggins and her trip from Los Angeles to Las Vegas to solve the riddle of an old man in a hospital who has stolen the identity of her father, who committed suicide decades earlier. In a bitingly funny opening chapter, this character, a writer working on a novel about Curtis, is called to a Hollywood meeting for an adulatory film about Curtis. During the drive to Vegas, Wiggins meditates on Curtis, her father and family, Americans' need to hit the open road and a host of other concerns.
The alternating narrative lines work a little like a two-stroke engine, or better yet, like the alternating rods of a steam locomotive, which is an evocative image used often in The Shadow Catcher. And with a little hocus pocus at the end, Wiggins is able to join the threads of story both thematically and dramatically.
All this may sound a little heady. But Wiggins is an adventurous and risk-taking writer with extraordinary gifts. Her scenes and descriptions are so alive that they carry us willingly forward to engage with her in her quest. What kind of person was Edward S. Curtis? Who was her father? Who am I? Wiggins offers us the beauty, excitement and perplexity of the journey and leaves us to determine the answers on our own.