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Book Review

Novel journeys through the West, past and present

Marianne Wiggins's 10th novel merges history with memoir and imagination. Marianne Wiggins's 10th novel merges history with memoir and imagination. (Lara Porzak)

As exceedingly rare as it is to "make it new" -- Ezra Pound's modernist call to arms -- the recently deceased German writer W. G. Sebald managed something like that. His "novels," hardly novels as we traditionally know them, are absolute must-reads for the original and haunting manner in which they intertwine travelogue, history, fiction, and photograph. (The best known are "The Emigrants" and "The Rings of Saturn.") No surprise that contemporary novelists are shooting for his wake.

Of course, running one's narrative skiff alongside a brilliant innovator's looming frigate is never as easy as it appears. Evidence: the many Hemingway/Fitzgerald/Carver wannabes whose work has sunk without a trace. The wonderful literary critic James Wood, in describing Sebald's work as "mysteriously sublime," "bending and opaque," "amphibiously slippery," points toward the potential riptides an influenced writer must navigate. The hazards are not easily skirted.

Marianne Wiggins, in her 10th book, "The Shadow Catcher," enters these waters with daring and brio. The novel is filled with the spirit of Sebald in the way it conflates a journeying memoir with the imagining of a portion of the life of the legendary photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis. Equally Sebaldean, she interpolates into the text a nice handful of Curtis's memorable images, including portraits of Native Americans striking poses of "false solemnity" (in Wiggins's estimation), but also photographs of the open-plained West that are affectingly ambiguous.

Two story lines spring up, one tracing the moves of the character/author Marianne Wiggins, who is writing a book called, yes, "The Shadow Catcher" and trying to track down a terminally ill man who has stolen her dead father's identity. The other thread attempts to animate the early adult years of Curtis's much put-upon wife, Clara. Like many a monomaniacal artist before and after him, Curtis leaves family members to swim for themselves.

These narrative lines offer up a melange of both the problematic and pleasurable. The historical piece, centered on the Curtises' courtship, is the more dramatically cohesive of the two. In convincing fashion -- and in pinpoint prose -- we inhabit the rising and then plummeting fortunes of a wife set aside. Despite her pioneer-fired pluck, Clara is left behind, first by her self-centered husband and then by the children she herself raised, this despite their father's avid indifference. Wiggins directs us rather clearly here, in a feminist-tinged charge that at this juncture feels already well leapt past, to the way a woman is often blamed for the man leaving. Meanwhile, one is left to wonder about the driven and selfish cipher that Curtis remains to the end. His uncompromising and surely complex imagination represents sadly underexplored terrain.

The contemporary road in "The Shadow Catcher" is a bouncy one as it hops from the Hollywood pitch session for the Curtis biopic to the "author" colliding -- in credibility-straining coincidence -- with the ghosts of her father and Curtis in the same hospital room in Las Vegas. Along the way we get a running commentary on the makings of the West, its mythic appeal and its grim underbelly, and our very American drive to "print the legend" (in famous words plucked from a famous John Ford western). Where Sebald's work is bent around the beguilingly elliptic, Wiggins whips things up in a style that's more obvious, politically pitched, California-Technicolored, self-help-laced, but also gripping and comic.

The charge could be made that Wiggins has middle-browed the avant-gardist Sebald. That may be so. But when she ventures toward the ongoing mysteries of male leave-taking and into the loss of the protagonist's (her own?) wayward father, Wiggins gets closer to the spirit of the masterful German and the way he can leave you in a cloud of breathless sorrow and strangeness.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a writer living in Somerville.