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Unclad Spirits

THE HAUNTING OF L. A Novel By Howard Norman Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 326 pp., $24

April 28, 2002|JONATHAN LEVI | Jonathan Levi is a contributing writer to Book Review.

A large number of plane crashes, train wrecks and general acts of destructive criminality punctuates Howard Norman's latest novel, "The Haunting of L." But the central crime of the book is set on Sept. 11. On that date, Peter Duvett, photographer's assistant, stumbles off an airplane into the trading outpost of Churchill in Manitoba, Canada and sleeps with his new employer's wife on her wedding night.

That the novel opens exactly 75 years before the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center may be mere coincidence. But in Norman's frozen Canada of 1926, manipulation is the weapon of choice and coincidence is anything but mere. Time itself--as the inhabitants of Churchill's sister city, that Peyton Place of the north, Twin Peaks, Wash., once discovered--may be fluid.

Things are certainly not what they seem. Duvett, a young, dissatisfied Ishmael of photography, has quit a steady job in the relatively bustling town of Halifax, Nova Scotia, to answer a newspaper ad placed by Vienna Linn. After many years of traipsing through the Old and New Worlds, Vienna has set himself up in Churchill, a town of one hotel, one church, several hundred native Canadian Indians and an airplane, to photograph the Eskimos recently baptized by the eager Rev. Painter. Because Painter pays by the photo, Vienna works around the clock and is in as desperate need of a darkroom assistant as he is of ready cash.

It is little surprise that a man of Vienna's talents--like many of Churchill's non-Eskimo inhabitants--is concealing a dirty secret that explains his presence in the wilderness. Years before, he made a Faustian pact with a rich London businessman named Radin Heur (Norman is a baroque baptist himself). Heur pays Vienna spectacularly well to add to his collection of photographs of spectacular tragedy--train derailments, car collisions and their aftermaths--that occasionally require the photographer to manipulate events so that some accidents are not so accidental. A botched train wreck and an inability to repay his advance have sent Vienna on the run from the evil Heur to Churchill and a darkened pantry closet where he can restock his coffers by developing the portraits of newly saved Eskimos.

But it is the developments outside the darkroom that most entangle young Duvett. Vienna's new wife, the exquisite redhead Kala Murie, draws Duvett not only into her adulterous arms but into her own passionate obsession for a very special branch of photography: spirit photography.

Across Canada, and now exclusively to the good people of Churchill, Murie delivers lectures on the subject to both the skeptical and the desperate. She is a disciple of Miss Georgiana Houghton, whose 1882 book, "The Unclad Spirit," describes the spirit photograph as an ordinary picture of a wedding, family reunion or baptism, into which an "uninvited guest," usually a dead friend or relation, insinuates himself in shadowy relief. "No one actually sees or speaks to this person," recounts Duvett, "the person isn't even vaguely recalled. Yet when the official photograph of the event is developed, there he is, or there she is--the uninvited guest."

Are spirit photographs real or are they fraudulent? Clearly, photography and verisimilitude are easily confused and just as clearly, photography preys upon the wishes of the hopeful.

Duvett, whose proudest talent is an ability to write captions, understands that despite the apparent clarity of the photograph, it still needs a little help to focus the understanding of the observer. His proudest caption explains the shadowy smudges on Vienna's most daring photograph: "Esquimaux Souls Risen From Aeroplane Wreck." It leaves unspoken, however, the reasons why Vienna happened to have his tripod and camera at the dawn take-off and, more significantly, why his beloved Murie happened to be a passenger on that plane. And yet, the silence of these mysteries is not the pause following the organ sting of an early radio melodrama or a slow-mo David Lynch climax before the commercial.

It allows the reader's mind to rise through time up to the present day to wonder whether Norman's yarn is a cautionary tale, a commentary on the skepticism of the millions of people who fail to accept the evidence of images and the veracity of captions, who wonder how accidental the presence of any photographer may be. If so, it is a parable writ with a delicate hand.

Duvett tells his story with the unadorned voice of the heroes of Norman's other excellent Canadian tales, "The Bird Artist" and "The Museum Guard." It is a voice of simplicity but assurance that knows that the caption below the photo is only the hook and that the real drama of the tale will appear through the skills of a master developer. There are some mysteries that may never be solved.

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