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Fictional history of French photographer delves into questions of truth in art

By Michael Sims

AUGUST 9, 1999:  In the late 1830s, a French physicist and artist named Louis Daguerre perfected the first practical means of recording a photographic image. Daguerreotypes were produced by coating a copper or brass plate with silver iodide, exposing it in a camera, developing the image with mercury vapor, and fixing it with a salt solution. For the first time, human beings didn't have to depend upon painters to depict their lives.

This grain of fact nestles like a pearl at the heart of Josh Russell's extravagantly inventive new novel, Yellow Jack. In Russell's account, however, Daguerre had an apprentice named Claude Marchand, who not only assisted in the invention but took his expertise (and some of the technology) with him when he fled the country. By page 19, Marchand is in New Orleans, where his story really begins. The title comes from a nickname for yellow fever, which terrorizes the region throughout the entire book.

Yellow Jack is Josh Russell's first novel. He was born in 1968 in Illinois and received his M.F.A. in 1993. For the last two years, he has been living in Nashville and teaching at MTSU. A few days before he moved from Middle Tennessee for an assistant professorship at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Russell discussed Yellow Jack over coffee at Fido in Hillsboro Village.

"I wrote it as a one-page stand-alone story--what is now, I think, the first three pages of the book--which encapsulated Claude Marchand's entire life. And then I wrote another little stand-alone that was, I think, rolled into a larger daguerreotype section. I sent them to a magazine called Epoch, which is published at Cornell, a literary magazine that I'd admired for years." The editor "innocently" asked if there was more, and over the next year Russell wrote a longer story, consisting of a Marchand photography catalog roughly as it appears interwoven throughout the book.

The fictional Marchand begins his career as a painter's apprentice: "I adored the way things could be left out in a painting, others made more vivid," the character says in Yellow Jack. But this remark could easily be Josh Russell talking about the virtues of fiction over history. We think of historians as hobbled by a detective's respect for clues. But every historian is an interpreter who makes choices, who extracts (or imagines) themes, who both consciously and unconsciously shapes a narrative out of fragments of a vanished world.

Yellow Jack is about what historians cannot retrieve--motivations, uncertainties, passions. It is about the unacknowledged pain and hopeless confusion of everyday life. Throughout, Russell questions the need for art, the reliability of photography, the role of historians. Claude Marchand sums up the problem: "We are a jumble of wants." Marchand himself certainly is. He's also a thoroughly unpleasant character--brutal, manipulative, obsessed. To spend 250 pages in his presence is to journey into an increasingly dark and disturbed mind.

Russell slyly comments on the indeterminacy of history by providing three interwoven narratives--Marchand's own first-person account, excerpts from the diary of his octoroon lover Millicent, and a series of exhibition notes written by an art historian for a catalog of Marchand's daguerreotypes. "My intention," Russell explains, "was to play with the way that history, especially art history, works. If it's art, we can forgive anything. Look at Pound, Hemingway, Picasso. The art history stuff provided me with a rough map--and also a map that I could contradict." Russell says that Millicent writing in her diary, strictly for herself, "is telling as near to the truth as anyone can tell. Claude's narrative I almost think of as a monologue--defending himself, trying to explain himself."

The exhibition notes, meanwhile, serve as foreshadowing. Without giving away the story, they spark in us the same frisson of anxiety we experience when reading a biography. Learning early on that mercury poisoning and opium addiction will steal Marchand's health and sanity, and that he will die at the age of 25, only adds to the poignancy of his narrative. Once you reach the end of the novel, a glance back at the art historian's notes will reveal how slyly Russell has foreshadowed much of Marchand's life--the novel ends roughly where the catalog begins. The historian's analysis could easily stand alone as a short story a la Jorge Luis Borges, but readers can be grateful that Russell gave in to the urge to flesh out the life of Claude Marchand.

Having an unreliable narrator was part of the fun, Russell says. "A third-person narrator," he adds, "would be able to render the truthful narrative in a way that I'm not particularly interested in. I wanted the question of who was telling the truth. I wanted the question of who even knew what the truth was. Would a man tell a different truth than a woman? Would a white character tell a different truth than a black character?"

Russell can trace the germ of Yellow Jack to a particular place and subject: "New Orleans and photography," he says flatly. "Just living in the city provided the settings. My apartment became one of the settings; where I worked became another." After receiving his M.F.A. in 1993, he got a job at a photography gallery in the French Quarter. It was here, Russell says, that he saw daguerreotypes for the first time. "I handled them and looked at them and read about them." And he began to imagine the stories that happened before and after each photograph was taken. Slowly, these imaginings grew into the brief story made of the art historian's notes, and finally into the novel.

Vladimir Nabokov said that in Madame Bovary Flaubert transformed what he conceived as "a sordid world inhabited by frauds and Philistines and mediocrities and brutes and wayward ladies" into a work of poetic fiction. Josh Russell has performed that sort of alchemy with Yellow Jack. He has distilled the New Orleans of the mid-1800s, the terrible fever of the title, and the savage lives of the characters into a novel of terrible beauty.

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