In “The Electric Hotel,” those themes are spooled through an irresistible and dizzying international tale of early cinema. Claude Ballard is a French medical photographer turned film director at the turn of the last century. He becomes an ambassador for the Lumiere brothers’ marvel, the cinematographe: a motion-picture camera, projector and printer all in one. He travels the world showing and filming urban street commotion, a slow-motion falling cat and — tenderly but creepily — the very last breaths of his own tubercular sister, Odette, in a Paris sanitarium.
In Sydney, Claude hires an Australian teen, Chip Spalding, whose stunt specialty is lighting his sinewy loinclothed figure on fire before high-diving into the ocean. In New York, Claude encounters the mercurial French stage actress Sabine Montrose, her comically pretentious acting coach and spiritual counselor, Pavel Rachenko, and a scrappy, small-time Brooklyn arcade operator and wannabe movie producer named Hal Bender.
Together the five of them launch a film studio in New Jersey, but — as echoed in cinema careers ever after — ardor, debt, ambition, ego, narcissism and stunt perils work their way into the chaotic scripts of their lives.
Claude’s pining for the voluptuous Sabine is projected in a globally lust-inducing clip of her bathing on a Manhattan rooftop. Years after their one early luminous and theatrical night of lovemaking, his reverence toward her curdles into an obsessive, orchestra-accompanied gothic film called “The Electric Hotel.” Sabine plays a tubercular widow with children. She lures men to their demise in her electrically wired inn, then meets her comeuppance.
Claude hopes that extinguishing her character on film will extinguish his passion for her. But the scenario is also a perfect metaphor for the incendiary power that film, as a medium, has over him, and over the rest of us, as the decades flicker seductively, elusively past.
The expensive production involves a live tiger, an exploding zeppelin and a crowd of bussed-in city down-and-outs posing as a lynch mob atop a New Jersey cliffside. Behind the scenes, a litigation-crazed Thomas Edison ruthlessly hawks his own film technology and stalks rivals with patent-infringement lawsuits. Audiences are so agog at the new medium that they cannot distinguish fiction from reality or characters from those who play them.
The torturous production is only the core of the novel, which follows our principals into the subsequent First World War, the brutality of which mocks the contrived fake-blood Grand Guignol horrors of a movie. In a frame story, all of this is recounted in Los Angeles by Claude, in 1962, to a film-history doctoral student, Martin Embry, who wants to restore the Frenchman’s singular achievement.
Smith manages to pack so much story and layer such rich characters into this generous but disciplined narrative because of his rare gift for poetic concision. Take, for instance, the few pages in which he describes, in retrospect, Claude’s overwhelming experience of seeing a motion picture for the first time.
“Louis Lumiere opened a hatch on the lamphouse and lit the limelight, then he began to steadily turn the hand crank, the air sharpening with quicklime and emulsion. Claude would remember his eyes smarting and a swallow, a moment of suspension before everything changed.” There is a “catacomb of dappling motion and light” as workers at the end of a shift push through enormous factory doors, among the figures “a man astride a wobbling bicycle, women in hats and sturdy shoes with aprons and baskets, a brown dog circling and tail-wagging in the foreground. … Claude felt their humanity in his chest, the headlong plunge toward home.”
A reel of a family swimming sweeps Claude back to a childhood fever that warped his vision as his mother lay dying in the room next door. Claude recollects emerging from his illness “with a wire-frame prescription wrapped behind his ears and it was suddenly as if he’d swum to the surface of a very deep lake. The world rushed back in as the coppered edge of an October leaf, the crinoline hem of his teacher’s skirt, the yellow-white flange of a chanterelle mushroom on his father’s foraging table.”
Smith describes the sensation of a new medium but also sketches for us Claude’s physical and emotional backstory. He also hints at the origins of Claude’s filmic viewpoint; his sad, myopically framed distance from the world; his later obsession with the older Sabine; and even some of the symbols that will become key to his later film.
That is but one example of Smith’s quicksilver technique in service to his panoramic imaginings. You will find similar in each of his four other novels.
“The Electric Hotel” is in some sense a historical sequel to “The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre,” about the hallucinogenic travails of the father of modern photography, another medium that was greeted with wonder and deep suspicion. “Sara De Vos” explores the history and psychology of a consummate mid-20th-century art forger and the 17th-century woman painter who inspires her. “Bright and Distant Shores” is a vast, vibrant tale of an 1890s sea adventurer pulled between his wanderlust and the passions and responsibilities that await him at home in Chicago. “The Beautiful Miscellaneous,” a 1980s period piece about an accidental savant with a demanding physicist father, is an outlier from Smith’s more distantly historical works. It has the dark but playful ironies of John Irving, with a dab of Larry McMurtry.
Let others bake in the sun with their thrillers. Hide in the shade with Smith, instead, and emerge at dusk with a quickened literary metabolism and an enigmatic smile.
Alexander C. Kafka has written about books for The Washington Post, Boston Globe and Chicago Tribune.
The Electric Hotel
By Dominic Smith
Sarah Crichton. 352 pp. $27