NBCC Awards Finalists in Fiction: Marianne Wiggins’s “The Shadow Catcher”


This is the thirteenth in a series of blog posts by NBCC board members covering the finalists for the NBCC awards. The awards will be announced on March 6, 2008, at the New School.

Marianne Wiggins, “The Shadow Catcher,” Simon & Schuster.

“It’s a tricky business, this invention of identity,” comments Marianne Wiggins, the fictional character whose overlap with the flesh-and-blood author Marianne Wiggins remains secreted somewhere between them in “The Shadow Catcher.” Ostensibly a tale of chasing down the life of photographer Edward S.Curtis, the separate but perhaps equal Wigginses explain with their conflated and singular narrative voice that,as a novelist,she is someone “used to chasing shadows for a living.”

Wiggins the character even spots the manuscript of “The Shadow Catcher” in a meeting with her agent and movie people who have had a “Curtis project” in mind for years. Wiggins the author has a slightly different project in her sights: mapping the difference between being and representational accounts of being, whether in photographs such as Curtis’s or the hand-me-downs from her own family, whether in fiction or biography or documents or paintings or memory. What she has created in her teasingly effervescent play with traditional themes of the American West,cowboys and Indians, the big-sky geography, the chimeras of Las Vegas and Los Angeles, is a quick-flowing and rich slurry of ideas in which CONCEPTS are sometimes capitalized, nuggets panned out of what is the deceptively casual-seeming commentary of the narrator Wiggins as she seeks, along with her research on Curtis, insight into her own past.

Wiggins (you decide which one) has received a telephone call informing her that her father is in the intensive care unit of a Las Vegas hospital, having suffered cardiac arrest. This is jarring news, for her father has been dead for more than thirty years, although she never saw his body and at times has had fantasies that he was still alive somewhere. We may or may not be dealing with identity theft—but did the work that Curtis did in photographing Native Americans, voluminously, involve a type of identity theft as well? That is one of the underlying linkages between story lines as “The Shadow Catcher” plays out, along the way plaiting together what appears to be biography, first-person cultural reportage, and fiction in ways that render them nearly indistinguishable from each other, and call into question hard and fast ideas about their differences.

As in a Curtis photograph,we have lives bent to aesthetic ends in “The Shadow Catcher.” Curtis appeared to believe he was capturing a vanishing race and worked to expunge modernist traces in his work — removing a car, say, from the background — whose common use of sepia also made early twentieth-century photographs seem to be, intuitively, nineteenth-century artifacts. “Marianne Wiggins” reports a visual game
she played in wide-open spaces called “Catch the Vanishing,” attempting to view the convergence point of objects as they approached disappearance on the horizon;the way she collapses true biographical facts of Curtis’s life with fictionalized episodes from his and his wife Clara’s lives represents that type of convergence and a mimicry of Curtis’s artistic approach as well.

Wiggins has Clara advise Curtis to “take the sort of photographs that speak the truth about their subjects,” but then again we see him “dress the mess to play the part” he has conceived for his shots. Exactly the paradox that good novelists confront, as Wiggins has done so successfully here. Puckishly, in the novel’s multiple doubling and doublings-back, we find a Navajo character known as “Mr. Shadow” whose father had been a scout for Curtis, and a man named Curtis Edwards
whose life connects to the Wiggins story line. Photographs are interspersed throughout in a manner reminiscent of the late German writer W.G. Sebald’s work, and the sense of play—in life and in fiction—is strong. “I want to believe we’re built for soaring in our thoughts,” the narrative Wiggins voice declares, a sentiment the NBCC would like to second in naming “The Shadow Catcher” one of its finalists in fiction.—Art Winslow

Marianne Wiggins discusses “The Shadow Catcher” on YouTube.

Jane Smiley reviews “The Shadow Catcher” in the Los Angeles Times.

Eric Banks review in Bookforum.

Wendy Smith review in the Washington Post.

Bob Hoover review in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Edward Curtis images here and here.