Research Notes · 06/10/2016

The Mirror Thief

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Martin Seay writes about The Mirror Thief from Melville House.

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The Mirror Thief is set in three cities, all of which are versions of Venice, none of which I was able to visit during the years I was writing the book. Consequently I did a lot of research, of the fairly traditional sort.

A third of the novel is set in and around a Venice-themed Las Vegas casino in March of 2003, immediately prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Another third is set in Venice, California, in 1958, shortly prior to its becoming nationally infamous as a hotbed of the ascendant Beat scene. The remaining third is set in the city-state of Venice in 1592, when the glassmakers of Murano were enjoying the height of their extremely profitable monopoly on the manufacture of flat glass mirrors.

Mirrors are what got me started. Prior to about 1500 they were common enough, but they were almost always small, or curved, or both: helpful for shaving and applying cosmetics, but that’s about it. Venetian mirrors were the first devices produced on a commercial scale that showed people how they appeared to others, in social spaces; for the first time, those who could afford it had convenient access to a technology for crafting and rehearsing their public personae. It’s not coincidental that the emergence of the flat mirror as a commodity coincides with the emergence of the anxious early-modern preoccupation — which we see often in Shakespeare, for instance — with the distinction between the public self and the private self. This preoccupation helped drive the demand for flat mirrors in the aristocratic houses of Europe; I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the availability of these mirrors also helped drive the preoccupation.

To write the 1592 sections, I spent many hours taking notes from university-press titles with vanishingly small print runs about glassmaking, printing, warfare, alchemy, and medicine. I also studied up on the cultural and political circumstances of the era, in Venice and in other regional powers. One book — Venice and the Renaissance by the late architect and historian Manfredo Tafuri — was particularly useful in that it provided a detailed sense of what Venice would have been like as a built environment at the end of the sixteenth century. It’s tempting to think that a city so dominated by Romanesque, Byzantine, and Gothic buildings must look now much as it did five hundred years ago, but that’s not quite the case; as Tafuri makes clear, not only did the streetscapes and canalscapes of Venice change, the changes were occasions for political battles that revealed deeper ideological and philosophical divisions.

The famous Rialto Bridge over the Grand Canal, for instance, took the spare, elegant, single-span form that we know today only after debates between a progressive faction that favored its innovative, functional design and conservatives who demanded a heavily-ornamented, multiple-span bridge. This dispute reflected larger divisions: over the proper role of the church in the governance of the republic, over the question of whether Venice should ally closely with the Papal States or reach out to the Protestant north and Islamic east, and even over the value of empirical versus rationalist philosophical approaches to problems of statecraft and urban planning. Although I had only picked up Tafuri’s book in the hope of figuring out what had and hadn’t been built in 1592, he ended up providing me with much of the material I used to evoke the milieu in those sections, and even with some of my plot.

Writing about coastal Los Angeles in 1958 was easier, since that setting is rather less (although still somewhat) distant and exotic. A lot of my reading for these sections was geared toward understanding the nascent Beat movement there: was it was like, and what it understood itself to be like, which weren’t quite the same thing. I read The Holy Barbarians, Lawrence Lipton’s well-intentioned but fairly trashy study of the scene, which was published in 1959 to sensational popular success; I also read Cain’s Book, a 1960 novel by the somewhere-between-legendary-and-infamous Scottish writer Alexander Trocchi, some of which was written in Venice. My most valuable source was Venice West by historian John Arthur Maynard from 1993, an insightful and terrifically entertaining history of the Beat years in Southern California; it’s a book that deserves a much broader audience.

I did a lot of research to write the Las Vegas 2003 material, too — about blackjack card-counting, about the United States Marine Corps, and about the 1991 Persian Gulf War, among other topics — but the book I kept most readily at hand was a Lonely Planet travel guide that I picked up in 2002, when I first started outlining my story. The novel ended up taking five and a half years to write, and during that time Vegas changed a lot, as Vegas is renowned for doing. I’d bought the guide mostly to keep my geography straight, but as Wynn Las Vegas rose to replace the Desert Inn, as developers imploded the Stardust and the New Frontier, as the kid-friendly pirate show in front of Treasure Island was succeeded by the bare midriffs and light bondage of the Sirens of TI, it ended up being even more valuable as a snapshot of a moment in the city’s commercial and cultural history.

All this research was geared toward nailing down my settings, my characters, and my plot. While I was doing it, I was also doing another kind of reading meant to help me figure out the novel’s underlying structure. Partly this meant identifying and developing themes, or a conceptual framework — but that makes it sound more calculated and calculating than it really was. It amounted to figuring out the personality of the book in much the same way I’d been figuring out the personalities of my characters: establishing its own independent thoughts, beliefs, and values.

This, fortunately, felt less like outlining a manifesto than pasting together a moodboard. Alexander Trocchi’s emergence in Beat-era Venice Beach gave me an excuse to borrow ideas from his associates in the Situationist International, with whom I’d been mildly obsessed ever since reading Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces some years before. Marcus connects the SI to various punk-rock descendants, but also posits ancestors that stretch as far back as certain medieval Christian and Islamic heretic sects; these in turn suggested parallels to alchemists and other early-modern pursuers of the “secret knowledge” of the ancient pagan world — which seemed fitting, since most of what we know about the methods of the mirrormakers of Murano comes to us via the writings of alchemists. Feeding this notion back into the novel’s interest in mirrors, lenses, and image-making then led me to the painter David Hockney, and to his book — called Secret Knowledge, of course — which lays out an enormously controversial, totally fascinating theory about the alleged hidden impact on early-modern painting of new technologies (like the camera obscura) made possible by the availability of high-quality lenses and mirrors.

All this started to add up to a nervous cautionary tale about the limitations and dangers of achieving understanding by way of images. (Hockney has famously characterized photography as “looking at the world from the point of view of a paralyzed Cyclops.”) I wanted the book to counter this suspicion with some contrasting value, and I thought at first that I might locate it in language, spoken and written — Venice was the European capital of printing as well as mirrormaking — but then I decided that this was a little too glib, too self-congratulatory. Books, after all, are hardly less misleading than mirrors; the printed page is another kind of screen.

The real problem with these technologies, I figured, is their tendency to encourage a kind of disembodied idealism: to screen our perceptions through pre-established narratives, and to make those narratives invisible to us. I came to this conclusion while reading The Optical Unconscious, a book by the art historian and theorist Rosalind E. Krauss, which ended up being very important despite (or maybe because of) the fact that much of its content eluded me. Though some of the book is confounding, Krauss’s central assertion — that art critics have fetishized the act of seeing while presenting it in abstract and bloodless terms, instead of as the bodily function that it is — couldn’t be much clearer or more powerful.

These thematic considerations, I hope, are recessed deeply into The Mirror Thief: I wanted readers to feel them there without encountering them directly. And here too Krauss was a helpful influence. In The Optical Unconscious she describes Jackson Pollock’s revolutionary drip paintings from the late 1940s, and how the web of paint and debris splattered on their surfaces almost always conceals a figure beneath: totally covered by the seemingly random riot of small visible events, but quietly imparting a form and structure to the whole. This, it turned out, was a great image to keep in mind.

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Martin Seay’s first novel, The Mirror Thief, was released by Melville House in May. Originally from Texas, he lives in Chicago with his spouse, the writer Kathleen Rooney.