The 19th-century, San Francisco-based photographer Edward Muybridge is the subject of Seidman’s (One Smart Indian, 1977, etc.) sweeping historical novel.
Seidman maintains some facts of Muybridge’s life—he was an inventor, a pioneer of motion photography and an eccentric—but most of the story is fiction. The story begins with a turning point in Muybridge’s life: While training his camera on a newly built railroad, he witnesses a violent train robbery and manages to photograph the perpetrators. He also has a fateful meeting with a train passenger, Holly Hughes, a famous dancer and early feminist (this Holly Hughes is fictional, but it’s curious that she shares her name with a present-day feminist performance artist). Muybridge and Hughes begin an intense romance that fills the first third of the book, but serious complications are on the way. After enraging an audience by speaking out against corseting, Hughes accepts a dubious offer to do research by posing as a Chinatown prostitute. Muybridge enters a business deal with former Governor Leland Stanford, who may have shady connections. Meanwhile, one of Hughes’ former lovers has arrived from France—and as anyone familiar with Muybridge’s actual biography can guess, the lover’s story will not end well. Seidman is at his best with meaty plot twists, and the tale gets more gripping in the second half when the crimes and betrayals begin piling up. Yet the romance at the core of the book never quite resonates, as both Muybridge and Hughes come off as stock characters—he’s brilliant and impulsive, she’s outspoken and sexually free—and the sex scenes are a bit clumsy (she’s a “warm pleasure-giving, pleasure-taking vessel filled to the brim”).
If Seidman had better connected with 19th-century bohemia, this could have been a true historical epic instead of an enjoyable soap opera.