The tour-de-force opening sequence of “The American Sun and Wind Moving Picture Company’’ presents a New Jersey family in the winter of 1915 making a silent film with hand-cranked cameras on the edge of a frozen lake. Ben is the cameraman, his brother, Karl, the producer/director, their sister, Hannah, the female lead. Hannah’s husband, Simon, plays music (never to be heard by audiences) to evoke feelings in the actors as the scenes are filmed.
Their son, the androgynous, vatic Joey, plays supporting roles of either gender, narrates the novel we’re reading, and invents plotlines for the movies: “I could make a story out of anything back then — a nail, a glass, a shoe, a tree, a mirror, a button, a window, a wall — and for every story I made up and gave away, I also made up one that I told no one about — one I stored inside me, in the rooms where I kept my most precious memories and pictures.”
Already in the first chapter, the rapid weave of illusion and reality is intoxicating. Ben asks the leading question: “Is this one reel?” Joey responds, “It’s not real until you open the shutter, turn the handle, and let the light inside.” Imagining a story line, Joey goes into a trance: “I waited, and watched the ice and sky turn to a pale ivory color, like melted bones.” Episodes are enacted and filmed immediately as Joey imagines them, and they seem to burst whole out of his dream state.
Reality doesn’t always cooperate in the kindest way. The cruelty of a couple ice men (impromptu players in the story) to their horse causes an accident in which stuntman Izzie (another relative) appears to drown; the horse is “really” killed; and Hannah, thanks to a dunking in the frozen lake, loses her nose to frostbite, so that she never appears again without a veil. “Keep shooting,” producer Karl is wont to say. “We’ll cut it all up later.”
Jay Neugeboren has kept a steady stream of fiction coming since he published his first novel in 1966. Till recently he was probably best known for two novels published in the 1980s, “Before My Life Began’’ and “The Stolen Jew.’’ “Imagining Robert,’’ a memoir of his brother’s mental illness, was made into a PBS documentary in 2004. Since 2005 he has published three novels and two collections of stories. Neugeboren has always been something of an innovator, blending narratives so apparently disparate that their combination would seem impossible until he accomplished it. His feverish productivity in the 21st century has a whole new quality, a tidal wave of story ideas that flow so fast it seems almost impossible to write them all down.
His latest novel is divided into six chapters, each of which details the making of a movie, and each episode is rich with technical detail about the evolution of film from silence to sound between 1915 and 1930. The fictional film crew interacts with historical figures like D.W. Griffith, Lillian Gish, and Erich von Stroheim. One of the most impressing things Neugeboren does is recreate, through Joey’s kaleidoscopic consciousness, the mood and feeling of silent film.
Beyond all that, this novel is a meditation on storytelling and its implications for the construction of self — and a demonstration of what an imagination unbound can accomplish. Joey manipulates his whole being like Silly Putty.
When his married lover fakes the death of her children, Joey absconds with them and lives for a decade or more as a woman, convincing even the children that s/he is their mother.
Pursuit comes not from the outraged husband or even the lost, imprisoned lover but after a movie in which Joey (thanks to old-school filmic prestidigitation) has played both male and female leads: himself and his own lover. After the film is released, the nation becomes desperate to know who the mystery star might be. No wonder that Joey sometimes wonders, “[I]f I’m always being other people, even if they’re in stories I make up, then who am I?”
To our jaded eyes, the abrupt transitions of silent film seem herky-jerky; through the lens of this novel they again appear magical. Sure, these are baroque, post-Victorian plotlines (though their abrupt and startling violence sometimes surpasses Quentin Tarantino), but the author’s point is to prove just how much this consummate artistry can persuade us to accept. The swift and daring transitions in this narrative are like the punches of a welterweight, moving almost too fast for the eye to follow; they give this very short novel the impact of a work twice its length.
For Neugeboren, the book appears to be a sort of ars poetica, as “The Tempest’’ was thought to be for Shakespeare. “I’ll drown my book,” says Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s play, and here’s Joey at the end: “I found that I was opening doors and walking through the rooms inside my head, one after the other, and setting fire to each of them, and to all the objects and stories that were in them, until . . . everything inside me I had ever stored there was in flames . . . .”
In the case of any other author, this work might be taken as the capstone of a long and distinguished career, but Jay Neugeboren is tapping such a well of energy that he might not even be half-finished yet.
Madison Smartt Bell’s most recent book is “The Color of Night.’’ He teaches at Goucher College and can be reached at email@example.com.