David Grand’s new novel about the germination of Hollywood is no day at the pictures. Even its title, “Mount Terminus,” sounds arduous, as though to scare off Sunset Boulevard tourists. Grand may be writing about fantasies in celluloid, but he’s engaged in serious myth-making. The magic lantern of his prose projects a dark storm of thwarted romance, industrial hubris and baroque fairy tales. A silver screen won’t be nearly heavy enough: Roll down the plutonium screen!
The story takes place on a mountaintop estate in Southern California around the turn of the 20th century. A wealthy man named Joseph Rosenbloom lives here like Prospero in Xanadu. (Don’t blame me for that mixed metaphor: This pastiche splices scenes from a vast library of stories, from Greek classics to Edgar Allan Poe to “The Great Gatsby.”) Rosenbloom’s fortune stems from his invention of a timing mechanism that regulates the flow of film through Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope. The Rosenbloom Loop is a clever little device, but it’s an even more clever symbol of the role that discipline plays in the creation of illusion: the persistence of vision that makes sequential still images appear to move. In a sense, that’s the wizardry that Grand spins in this zoetrope of a novel as these characters love and build and pine and die.
In the novel’s melodramatic opening, we learn how Rosenbloom, a genius with optics, came to be cloistered on this desert plateau with only his grief and his little boy. Does this tale involve abandoned orphans adopted by kindly millionaires? Are twins separated by scandal? Does a villain vow eternal vengeance? Do three mysterious men appear on horseback? Do movies and popcorn go together?
But the wild extravagances of “Mount Terminus” are belied by the essential coolness of Grand’s prose. If any of these overheated characters ever cracked a smile, the whole luxuriously brooding enterprise would collapse in a fit of giggles.
This bildungsroman focuses on Rosenbloom’s son, nicknamed Bloom. Raised on Mount Terminus by his father and a deaf-mute maid, Bloom spends his days reading classic tales, strolling through the topiary garden and peering down at the desert far below. Before he’s 12, he’s discovered a cluster of secret rooms and become immersed in the lurid tale of the original owners of the Mount Terminus estate. Soaked with passion and revenge, their history inflames the boy’s imagination.
This endlessly inventive story about an artistic youth alone in the world reads at times like a more carefully modulated version of Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” Or you might think of “Mount Terminus” as Marisha Pessl’s “Night Film” on lithium. Grand’s narrative constantly seems on the verge of fading into fantasy. “It is a world of wondrous surprises, is it not?” someone asks young Bloom. “One never knows what astonishments await us.” (Yes, there’s a mummy, too, but I’m not telling where.)
In the pages of this densely layered novel, Grant is doing nothing less than re-creating the origins of American cinema within a lavishly cinematic tale. As Bloom grows up, he proves himself a natural in the new medium of moving pictures, where no rules, no precedents, no limits prevail. Behind the lens of the camera, he feels the elation of “disappearing.” Everything depends on one’s control of light, “the exuberance of God’s great goodness and truth.” He sketches and plots for an industry hungry for phantasmagoric short films — “a way to dream collectively.”
But what does a virgin raised almost alone in a mountaintop garden know of love, of greed, of the world at large? Never fear: The world has a way of slithering into even the most carefully guarded paradise, and that’s what keeps “Mount Terminus” from feeling claustrophobic: its attention to the dramatic urban developments all around Bloom’s estate. Ambitious speculators have glimpsed the financial potential in these sleepy orange groves. They have a plan “to populate an entire region of the Earth no one until now had ever thought to populate before.” The public’s thirst for movies requires an industry commensurate with the demand, and what better place to build that fantasy factory than here in the desert, where anything is possible, where directors will control actors “not unlike Mephisto did his statues”?
In one of many scenes imbued with the Escher-like architecture of a Steven Millhauser story, Bloom watches carpenters and set dressers “transforming the respective outdoor stages into a saloon, a Victorian parlor, a hospital room, a lady’s boudoir, an Arabian tent, the deck of a ship, an igloo, a hall of mirrors, a gypsy’s lair.” That transformation, with all its earth-moving risk, violence and wealth, will not leave Bloom untouched on his mountaintop.
As these chapters slowly unspool and Bloom searches for love, events in his life begin to reflect the fantastical tales he’s read and created. Grand reaches for the kind of magic that novelist David Mitchell creates, but at times this hall-of-mirrors exploration verges on the laborious. It’s hard to shake the sense that more interesting, more exciting developments are taking place in the novel’s background while Bloom’s sensitive, observant face fills the foreground.
To a certain extent, that emphasis seems intentional. One of the fascinating optical contraptions Bloom encounters is something called the invertiscope: a wearable periscope that allows the user to develop — over several weeks — the heightened consciousness of “an invisible interloper looking down on his own life.” It’s just one of the novel’s provocative comments on how technology has transformed our lives in ways these innovators never expected. (Has Instagram helped you reach heightened consciousness yet?) A later section of the novel about the promise of war photography to rid the world of brutality is even more harrowing and bitter. Bloom discovers the medium’s great paradox: that for all their promise to let us feel what others are feeling, movies are even more effective as a means of escape.
Grand, who teaches writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, doesn’t make it easy on himself to develop an audience. His previous novel, “The Disappearing,” appeared 12 years ago. His name on the marquee may not draw huge crowds nowadays, but he remains a writer’s writer, and readers who want something magical and demanding will find in the elegant reels of “Mount Terminus” all the Technicolor the mind’s eye can take in.
Charles is the deputy editor of Book World. You can follow him @RonCharles.
By David Grand
Farrar Straus Giroux. 368 pp. $26