Martin Seay’s The Mirror Thief Is about Mirrors and Cities and Cities in Mirrors

In Seay’s masterpiece, the city becomes the novel’s subject

In the eighth volume of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, World’s End, there’s a brief story of a man who becomes trapped in the dreams of a city. World’s End features many of these brief tales: the book takes Chaucer’s device of having characters trapped in an inn, telling stories to one another to pass the time. The teller of this tale ends it by describing his meeting with Robert, the man who escaped the city’s dreams:

‘If the city was dreaming,’ he told me, ‘then the city is asleep. And I do not fear cities sleeping, stretched out unconscious around their rivers and estuaries, like cats in the moonlight. Sleeping cities are tame and harmless things.’

‘What I fear,’ he said, ‘is that one day the cities will waken. That one day the cities will rise.’

Martin Seay’s debut novel The Mirror Thief takes the city as its subject — the city as it exists on the ground and in the characters’ minds and memories; the city as it is reflected in other cities. The narrative is split among three disparate locations and time frames: Las Vegas in 2003, in the lead-up to George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq; Venice Beach, California in 1958, home to an enclave of Beat poets; and Venice itself, both at a distinct historical moment — the late 16th century, a time when the city held a monopoly on the mirror-making industry — and as it is reflected in the other two cities’ imitations. Seay’s characters’ movements echo one another as they move through these cities; their actions are dictated as much by the cities’ own logic as by their own will.

Seay’s characters’ movements echo one another as they move through these cities; their actions are dictated as much by the cities’ own logic as by their own will.

There are maybe two literary types best-suited to capturing the feel of a city in fiction: the flâneur and the private eye. Recent examples of the former include the narrators of Teju Cole’s Open City and Geoff Dyer’s Geoff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. The flâneur is by definition aimless; he experiences the city in passing and attempts to make sense of his impressions. With the private eye it’s the opposite: there’s something he’s looking for, and in his travels through the city he is intent on forcing it to yield that thing. What the types have in common is that, despite their efforts, their impressions of the city often fail to coalesce into a coherent image; often the city conspires to hide itself from view.

Seay’s characters are firmly in the private eye mold. The book begins with Curtis, a retired MP who’s been sent to Las Vegas on a dubious assignment. Damon, an old war buddy who now works at a casino in Atlantic City, has enlisted Curtis’s help in tracking down Stanley, a friend of Curtis’s father. Stanley owes money to Damon’s casino, or so Damon has told Curtis. Curtis is skeptical, but willing to go along — there’s a vague promise of a job at the casino in AC if he succeeds out in Vegas.

Canvassing the gambling floor of the Venetian Hotel; cruising the strip on the lookout for Stanley; handing out his phone number to dealers and bartenders; talking jazz with an Arab cabbie — Curtis makes for a hapless detective. It becomes clearer and clearer that Damon is using him, that he’s putting himself in danger by continuing to be involved, but Curtis seems to grow more comfortable as he realizes he’s losing control. Summoned to a meeting with a character named Argos, he’s relieved: “Curtis has nothing to gain by meeting with him. This thought is like a weight coming off, a light from a familiar doorway: nothing to gain.” Curtis is like a poker player who knows he doesn’t have the cards to win but stays in the hand anyway — he knows he’ll lose his chips, but it’s the only way to see what the other guy’s holding.

Midway through the Vegas chapters, Curtis runs across a book of poems that belonged to Stanley called The Mirror Thief. This sends the novel to Venice Beach, 1958. A teenage Stanley has come to town to track down the book’s author, Adrian Welles — he’s convinced there are secrets hidden in the book’s esoteric language, and he wants Welles’s help in unlocking them. The Venice Beach chapters have a period-piece vibe. The boardwalk is clogged with greasers and sailors on dates. The dialogue shifts between Stanley’s Philip Marlowe-as-juvenile-delinquent routine and the Beat crowd’s hepcat bullshit. But again and again a striking description will emerge from all the pastiche: “A pair of panhead Harleys is parked outside a liquor store on Breeze Avenue, their chrome-plated pipes and chassis so polished that they’re visible only by the deformed images they return of the night around them.”

A parody summoning equal parts Pound and Eliot

Welles’s book is its own pastiche in turn. A parody summoning equal parts Pound and Eliot, it’s meant to tell a fractured narrative of a certain Crivano, alchemist and magician, who intrigues against Venice’s ruling Council of Ten to steal the mirror-making secrets the city’s elders guard so closely. Mirroring Welles’s book, the third of the novel’s overlapping narratives centers on Crivano’s mission. Having begun with reflections of Venice — first in Vegas’s Venetian Hotel, then in Venice Beach — we now move to Venice itself, but even then the city proves elusive, as evidenced by Crivano’s impressions upon returning after a long absence:

The shapes and textures of this place have been so vivid to him during the twenty-odd years he’s been away that he tends to forget how few days he and the Lark actually spent here. His recollections have served as a kind of beacon in times of confusion and difficulty, a means of tracking his passage through the world. But now that he’s come back, he’s surprised to discover how much his mind altered during his absence: how much it augmented or elided or rearranged to suit the dictates of his imagination. He feels himself moving not through the city that has haunted him for so long, but through a city that is itself haunted by that city.

Venice’s true identity is as hard to pin down as Crivano’s, and in the Venice chapters comes the fullest elaboration of the book’s central theme: the mirror and what it reflects, true knowledge duplicated infinitely, lost in a never-ending mise-en-abyme.

Crivano’s conspiracy compels him throughout the city and brings him into contact with no end of richly invented characters: the handsome Portuguese converso alchemist Tristão de Nis; Narkis the circumspect Turk; the mirror-maker Verzelin, gone frothing mad from exposure to silver in the workshop. He listens to a fraud scholar who calls himself the Nolan discourse on the subject of “the Mirror”; duels in the street with a phantom wearing a plaguedoctor’s beaked mask. The book reaches its climax with the Council’s spies closing in on Crivano, and in fleeing them he is, as ever, subject to the city’s logic: “As usual the streets conspire to steer him elsewhere.”

For Seay’s characters, each on his own ill-fated quest, everything threatens to dissolve into illusion.

For Seay’s characters, each on his own ill-fated quest, everything threatens to dissolve into illusion. One potential way out is to embrace the mirror’s infinite doubling action, to embrace the thing simulated and forget the original. Curtis speaks with a casino boss who praises Las Vegas, temple of simulacra, describes its seductive appeal. “People call Las Vegas an oasis in the desert. No! It is the fucking desert. That’s the key to the whole trick . . . read up on your history, kid. You wanna make something disappear? You wanna make it invisible? Haul it out here. The desert is the national memory hole.” He sums it up: “Las Vegas is a machine for forgetting.”

And yet the characters’ heroism lies in their refusal to be satisfied with illusion — their determination to get behind the mirror. In this refusal lies the hope that the city, if only just the idea of it, endures. The struggle continues between illusion and forgetting on the one hand, knowledge on the other. Acting as Seay’s mouthpiece, Saad, Curtis’s jazz-loving cabbie, describes this struggle: “In this country, this is always possible,” he says, speaking of the Mormons’ flight to Utah, but continuing to touch on the novel’s central idea:

Enough! we say. We will go to the desert! We will make our own city. For ourselves, for our children. It will be a holy place, and just. We will know ourselves and our God by the shape it takes. So we build it. And people come, and more people. And then one day it is strange to us. No longer what we wanted. It has become, perhaps, the very thing we fled. So we go back to the desert, and we weep and pray that God or Fortune will flood the land, will bring the sea down upon the armies of Pharaoh, will erase our mistakes from the earth.

As strong as this desire for oblivion is, it can’t win out. “But though the waters may rise, nothing is ever erased, or ever can be. The city is everywhere.”