JULY 15, 2016
THE MIRROR THIEF, Martin Seay’s debut novel, is a shape-shifting colossus: it’s a crime novel, a piece of intellectual origami, a historical swashbuckler, and a rumination on identity, illusion, and mimesis. The story leapfrogs across five centuries, following the fates of three different men, each of whom is caught in a cat-and-mouse chase through some iteration of Venice — the Republic of Venice in the years after its population has been decimated by the plague; Venice Beach, California, at its midcentury nadir; and the modern luxury resort on the Vegas Strip. What binds these stories together is a book within the book, an obscure volume of poetry titled The Mirror Thief, the tale of a 16th-century alchemist who dares to steal a Venetian mirror. This is no ordinary crime: so desired were the famed mirrors of Venice, and so fiercely guarded the secrets of their production, that glassmakers were forced by edict to remain on the island. The penalty for the theft? Death.
Each of the three protagonists is an emissary of sorts, an unorthodox detective. In 2003, on the precipice of the shock-and-awe campaign in Iraq, an injured ex-Marine named Curtis Stone arrives in Sin City. He’s been hired to track down the aging, elusive gambler Stanley Glass, whose card-counting wizardry may or may not be linked to his preoccupation with numerology, mysticism, and the occult. The narrative then jumps back to 1958 and follows young Stanley — runaway, squatter, burgeoning con artist — as he prowls the seedy bohemia of Venice Beach, searching for Adrian Welles, reclusive author of The Mirror Thief and the man who just might hold the secret to its talismanic power. And in 1592, in Venice, Italy, the city of masks, the nimble alchemist Crivano, a man of many faces himself (spy, physician, former prisoner-of-war) conspires to smuggle the secret of mirror making (and an elite team of craftsmen) away from the island, even under the watchful eyes of the Council of Ten and their cloaked, minatory henchmen.
As one character observes of Welles’s book, “It’s all supposed to be very smart and serious, but at the same time there’s something goofy and Dungeons-&-Dragons about it too.” The same, happily, could be said of Seay’s: while it’s marbled with rich and cerebral discursions (characters expound on everything from the literature of Hermes Trismegistus to the finer points of glassmaking), at heart it’s a pulpy, metaphysical thriller, replete with teenage greaser gangs, human-heart-eating pirates, secret societies, and charlatans of every stripe. And at a whopping 600 pages, it manages to be both meaty and erudite, epic and granular — a thoroughly immersive experience.
Like the antiheroes of noir, Curtis, Stanley, and Crivano are loners, survivors. They arrive in their respective cities anonymous, invisible, trailed by the darker elements of the past: carnage, trauma, the ghosts of war. They’re all in limbo, no longer tethered to (or perhaps hoping to erase) the trappings of their former lives. Like Thrice-Great Hermes, each is an “intermediary between worlds, a crosser of barriers,” belonging nowhere yet able to move anywhere — among the high-rollers at casinos, through beatnik cafes and junkie dens, into the homes of nobles and senators. But as their missions grow increasingly cryptic and dangerous, as they circle deeper into reptilian underworlds, they find themselves no longer predators but prey. To survive requires superior gamesmanship, wariness; the eyes are everything. But where is the line between vigilance and paranoia? It’s this tension that propels the plot through occasionally chewy esoterica, and sets the stage for a sucker-punch of a finale. Seay is especially adept at crafting suspense, expertly pacing both charged, sinister conversations and breakneck action sequences. And his commitment to building each world — its atmosphere, its inhabitants, its poetic minutiae — is nothing short of mesmerizing.
It’s also this state of hyperconsciousness that unifies the three stories, linking them by tone, voice, and symbolism, if not always by causality. Each world is its own intricate phantasmagoria, wherein the men, despite their cool demeanors, feverishly siphon every detail from their surroundings. Despite the scope and ambition of the novel, some of the greatest pleasures lie in Seay’s polychromatic sentences:
He scans the map of damage written across his face and wonders how much can be deciphered: the divot in his jaw from a janissary arrow, the ear notched in Silistra by a whore’s hidden razor, the front tooth chipped by the boot of a Persian onbashı in the instant before the musket went off.
A wedding party in full finery: mulleted groomsmen, plump bridesmaids in seafoam organza, the bride’s arm held aloft by balloons that catch headlights in their Mylar skin, a cluster of rolling eyes.
The beach is long and flat and smooth, specked at odd intervals by flotsam that leaves straight comet-trail paths to the water: scattered moon-jellies and by-the-wind sailors, the shells of periwinkles and jackknife clams, the creepy fudge-brown eggcases of skates, lengths of yellow kelp bowed seaward by the tug of waves.
The fetor and light-play of 16th-century Venice is evoked with particular brio: “a film of smoke smears hot light like gelatin across the tiled rooftops,” “[t]he smell of boiling pitch from the Arsenal has scoured away the tideland miasma.” These chapters lean more on jargon for set dressing, a perk for sleuthing readers who might enjoy, say, looking up the distinctions between a sandolo, batela, traghetto, and trabacolo; others might find the attention to nomenclature, despite the verisimilitude, more distracting than edifying.
This kind of meticulous detail is often attributed to the eagerness of a first-time novelist, or a researcher’s impulse to share every overturned stone, but this is a world that demands a certain level of precision. And here is where the novel — beyond the fact that its characters are aliens on unfamiliar turf, that their survival depends on reconnaissance — raises more existential questions. With all of this watching, the ingestion of every lighted surface, the attention paid to even the most quotidian details — what is it we miss? As vigilant as we might be, what of the gaps in perception? Or memory? That which we can’t grasp or even discern; blind spots we don’t even know are there? The novel’s fixation on interstitial spaces, on the deceitfulness of the eye, allows for various musings on optical illusions (the camera obscura, Monet, stop-motion animation), but also asks: What kind of dark magic might these scotomas summon? When we conjure something into being, are we the trickster — or the tricked?
The novel is perhaps less concerned with unraveling a central mystery than with exploring these kinds of ciphers: how images are refracted to produce illusions, facsimiles, and patterns, and how lacunae can be the deep, improbable wells of invention. Initially we see it in the aspirational simulacra of Venice itself: the piped-in music and fabricated canals, the reproductions of campaniles and arcades. We see it in the ersatz streets of a Hollywood back lot, where Stanley and his comrade trespass at night. The novel delights in these permutations of place, how each city doubles as “a map constellated from […] movements and memories,” and how peregrinations through its byways and squares can mimic the circuitous paths of the characters’ brains. But we also see it in the characters themselves: in the masks they wear for others, in the ways they must adapt, refashion, perform. These become recurring themes: how places and personas are made and remade in the hopes of becoming ideal, immortal, even divine. With the possibility of infinite worlds, can oblivion truly exist? What must we see — believe, create — in order to survive?
All battles, according to Welles, are about “the right to memory.” These stories are set at the peaks of Western civilization, golden ages of entrepreneurship and industry: the Renaissance, the economic boom of the postwar United States, the vortex of the information age. And yet while these are historically eras of light (of knowledge, prosperity, transparence), these men offer counter-narratives: of doubt and suspicion, opacity, grief. But Seay pushes these beyond the familiar noir tropes. When the characters are met with morbid or frightening illusions, it’s hard to tell if these are specters of memory (suggested by post-traumatic stress), supernatural materializations, or legitimate dangers from the outside world. The implication of madness-as-magic could easily grow heavy-handed, but here the chimerical encounters manage to be both humanizing and terrifying.
“It is a rare rhetorical gift,” opines one character (a bookseller, no less), “that permits a man to speak knowledgeably about a topic and still deliver his audience into a state of enriched confusion. At times I think this skill chiefly defines the profession of magus.” Enriched confusion does abound here, what with plots that fold back on themselves, convoluted heists, rogues and double-crossers, and some very inspired twists. Like a magus, Seay has conjured three dazzling, hallucinatory worlds from just a few particles of history. As Welles says of his Mirror Thief, “I filled in the gaps as imaginatively as possible. Of course, it is precisely those lacunae that made it possible for me to write the book at all.” In other words, it’s what we don’t know that allows us to invent — and perhaps by that invention we come to see ourselves. What we were searching for was within us all along.