New York City, 1896. A new century is about to dawn, and all sorts of newly invented machines are changing the rhythms of everyday life. The telephone, the telegraph, the typewriting machine (operated by a person called, naturally, a "typewriter"), and perhaps above all, the camera. Intrepid explorers were reporting back on wonders from the farthest reaches of the planet, bringing back bizarre animals mounted and stuffed, as well as tales of harrowing escapes. Robert Anthony Siegel chose a fascinating cultural moment in which to set his second novel, All Will Be Revealed. The book begins with an epigraph from Roland Barthes' Camera Lucida. Barthes noted that the early cameras were precision machines, "clocks for seeing." It's a perfect way to introduce the themes of this book: all the characters, in one way or another, are attempting to fix a moment in time, and stay in it, like a photograph, long after the moment has passed.
While there were great technological strides being made in the late 19th century, revolutions in medicine were slower in coming. That meant you had a whole generation of modern, forward-thinking people who were still on very intimate terms with death, in all its ugly glory. Is it any wonder that so many people sought out telephone- and telegraph-like methods in which to contact the dead? Now, it seems bizarre to us that many thousands of prominent people came to believe in ectoplasm-producing, table-rapping spirit mediums and spirit photography. If you've ever seen any of these so-called spirit photographs, they look laughably fakey in the era of Photoshop. Famously, Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, went on record defending two young girls who claimed to have taken pictures of fairies in their backyard. (An aside: if you want to read a truly terrific novel on the subject of Arthur Conan Doyle and the Spiritualist movement, run out and get a copy of Julian Barnes' Arthur and George, today.) But consider how magical it must have seemed to see a person's exact face develop on a photographic plate, or receive a message from the other side of the world only minutes after it was sent. Being able to talk to a dead relative via Ouija board seems no less plausible, in that context. And there were plenty of mediums willing to pull out all the stops -- spirits materializing in the flesh, spirit writing, channeling -- to wring cash out of the rich, grieving and credulous.
The chief protagonist of All Will Be Revealed is Augustus Auerbach, a reclusive, wheelchair-bound millionaire. Auerbach is magnate of a pornography empire, and made his fortune by mining the endless possibilities of the stereo card -- two photos side by side that become a simple three-dimensional image when seen through a viewer. The cards are sold, at astronomically high prices, in plain brown wrappers mailed to thousands of men who all call themselves John Smith. Now this is something I'd never stopped to consider before: that the invention of commercially available dirty photographs must have sparked a revolution in worldwide masturbatory habits on a scale that makes the internet look like no big thing. It's mind-boggling, really.
Auerbach runs his business obsessively. He stays up all night dictating letters to his full-time "typewriter." He poses the models and takes the photographs. He keeps one step ahead of Kleinfeldt, his biggest competitor. He gives crucial monthly payoffs to various civic groups, which make it possible for him to run his business without being raided by cops or denounced from the pulpit. In one funny early scene, Auerbach is forced to play host to a bacchanal for a group called the Clean Living League. A newspaper editor is "parading around in petticoats," and also, he sees "the Reverend Voorhees standing on the table, spraying Judge Montcrief from above with a bottle of champagne..." But something is missing from Auerbach's life: any hint of real human connection. As you might imagine, things will not stay that way for long.
Auerbach's favorite model, a young woman named Jane Larue, is nine months pregnant. After a remarkable (and lucrative) series of photos, Jane goes into labor. Auerbach is present at the birth. Witnessing it, and witnessing Jane Larue's subsequent transformation from porn model to loving mother begins to shake up his highly ordered, unemotional world. Looking at the newborn boy -- which Jane named Augie, after him -- "Auerbach had stared in horrified fascination, trying to reconcile the smallness of its fingers and the delicacy of its ears with the ferocity of its sucking. That odd combination of rapacity and fragility -- he recognized it immediately, intuitively: humanness."
But then, as often happened, the baby dies. Jane Larue is shattered. In her desperate grief, she begins visiting Verena Swann, world-famous spirit medium and widow of the late, renowned polar explorer Theodore Swann. Eventually, Jane convinces Auerbach to attend a séance with her. He is skeptical: "He most especially did not want a crudely doctored photo of himself with ghosts in white togas superimposed on the background". But he goes, and what happens to him there changes everything, forever. Verena Swann, in her trance, makes contact with the spirit of Auerbach's dead mother, an actress who was killed in a ridiculous stage accident when Augustus was a child. The shock of his mother's death somehow made his legs stop growing, which left him wheelchair-bound. He is deperate to speak to his mother again. All this deeply human and highly embarrassing information comes pouring out in the séance. Against his better judgment, Auerbach is hooked.
Unfortunately for Augustus, Verena Swann is a fraud. Or, at least, she thinks she is. Much of her spirit-medium work consists of conjuring up the spirits of dead babies for their crying mothers ("weepers," as Verena dismissively calls them.), and making ghosts appear bodily, when the price is right (the ghost being her assistant Maisie in a white sheet). Her great success has been entirely orchestrated by her controlling brother-in-law Leopold, who has spent a lifetime trying to get out of the shadow of his dead explorer brother. And yet: there are moments when Verena's gift might be real. As Augustus and Verena become more and more drawn to each other, Leopold's cravenness and jealousy turn toxic. Things get a little silly toward the end, when Augustus is compelled to rescue Verena from the clutches of a mad scientist in Brooklyn, who has locked her in a Panopticon (yes, an actual, literal Panopticon) at Leopold's behest. Several twists, turns, and deus ex machinae later, (spoiler alert!!) the bad guys get punished and the good guys live happily ever after.
Siegel has synthesized a lot of fun historical tidbits into a serviceable, entertaining, and rather short novel. It's almost better as an idea, unfortunately, than as this actual, finished book. I kept despairing that a great plotter like T.C. Boyle or Michael Chabon hadn't taken this same material and whipped it into a five-hundred-page breathless romp, hurtling the reader from the chill of the arctic wastes to the glass-walled, sunny pornography studio to the smoky dark of the séance room, all set against the teeming, dirty streets of Old New York. But Siegel doesn't really do this. His prose is straightforward, realistic, simple, spare. That's good for a lot of books -- but not for this one. I kept wishing he would go into more detail, that he would expand the various and sundry minor characters into full-fledged humans, or would just employ more big, operatic, lyrical flourishes to match the operatic story. Then I had a great idea: Siegel should get Alan Moore, the legendary British graphic novelist, to create an All Will Be Revealed comic book. Siegel covers territory that's sort of similar to some of Moore's other works, like From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Drawings would fill the gaps in Siegel's too-quiet prose: we would finally get to experience Augustus Auerbach's endlessly huge mansion, or the bodies of the young, lithe models being directed into sexual positions before the camera, or the manly and doomed Theodore Swann struggling across the polar ice. Unless that happens, I can't help feeling that All was only Partially Revealed.