THE LOST GLASS PLATES OF WILFRED ENG by Thomas Orton

THE LOST GLASS PLATES OF WILFRED ENG

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KIRKUS REVIEW

An intricately plotted, very interesting first novel that intermittently echoes both Gaddis’s The Recognitions and Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman while patiently tracing a disgraced artist’s arduous path toward some sort of authenticity in his personal life. Seattle photographer (and art historian) Robert Armour unwittingly committed fraud when he brokered the sale of several erotic photographs falsely represented to him as the work of Edward Weston. A chance to restore his reputation arises when Robert discovers, in the home of “rich no-talent” amateur painter Judith Lund, a set of photographic plates he instantly recognizes as the work of Chinese-American master Wilfred Eng, a revered landscape photographer whose deepest energies had been dedicated to “portraying the racial imbalance in America.” The negatives that Robert has stumbled onto are nudes, studies of Ellen McFarland, the young wife of a San Francisco millionaire—and, as had been previously disclosed, in a titillating “scholarly” volume (Love Diary of a San Francisco Lady), Wilfred Eng’s lover. Orton’s tricky narrative deftly balances the intrigues into which Robert’s scheme to market the negatives quickly plunges him—and which also involve Robert’s divorced Diane Mays and her young son “Budge,” a duplicitous colleague (Parker Lange) and his twin mistresses, the wrathful Judith, and the profit-motivated Eng descendants—against the plaintive testimony of Ellen McFarland’s candid meditative outpourings (of which there’s rather more than initially meets the eye, so to speak), and the eventually revealed truth about Wilfred Eng’s real feelings toward the wife of a plutocrat who represented everything the reformer in Eng had hated. A clever, highly informed dramatization of the truth that Robert Armour thinks only he understands: “If old photography taught any lesson it was that no one could live without the past, even if they [sic] wanted to.” An unusual and beguiling debut performance.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 1-58243-023-3
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Counterpoint
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 1999