It’s a safe bet you’ll soon be hearing about Dominic Smith, whose first novel The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre appears this month. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, has a story forthcoming in the Atlantic, and he’s good. Mercury Visions could have been a greatish novel–Smith has the chops–although I think it would be nice to exempt one or two historical figures from having novels written about them–if there’s still time.
Sadly, the novel’s not great or even in that general vicinity, and I reveal why in this week’s Baltimore Sun book section.
Here’s a snippet.
Daguerre’s work, like the historical backdrop to his life, is enormously suggestive fodder for a novelist’s imagination. His impassioned preoccupation with natural light and its visual and emotional effects formed a natural bridge between art and science, and his career lends itself equally well to explorations of the intuitive, uneven processes of artistic creation and scientific discovery. A short way into his brash debut novel, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Dominic Smith evocatively posits a formative moment in Daguerre’s fascination with light and its yet-untapped powers. At 12, Louis presses his eye to a tear in a curtain:
“The sun was going down behind the grain fields, and as it descended, it shot an orange glow from behind the hedgerows and poplars. Louis held the piece of white linen in front of the small curtain hole and saw, projected on it, the shimmering image of the lone walnut tree that stood by the stone fence. … The compression of light through the small hole had borne along the image of the walnut tree, projecting it onto the ceiling. Nature could sketch herself.”
In Smith’s vision of the formation of an artist’s imagination, witnessing light’s power to fix an image lashes together nature, art and technology in Louis’ impressionable mind. And, because in the same scene the boy has fallen for Isobel, the young servant girl tending him, love enters into this web of associations as well – he “fell in love with light and women on the same day.”
This too-tidy coincidence makes for a lovely little chapter, but it’s also the seedling of the ultimate failure of Smith’s nonetheless accomplished and impressive novel.
It’s a disappointing debut, but I’d be surprised if Smith doesn’t have better novels up his sleeve. Guy can write.