Saturday, September 6, 2003


By Marianne Wiggins

Simon & Schuster $25, 383 pages


Every August, Fos (for Ray Foster) drove his old truck from Tennessee “across the Smokies to the brim of the Atlantic” to lie on the sands of the Outer Banks and watch the falling stars. Fos’ people “had been lightermen in and round the shoals and hoaxing sands of the Outer Banks — conveyances of cargo in scoop-hulled longboats called lighters in those waters;” thus “[t]idal salts ran in his blood.”

But Fos was less interested in fishing and more “in investigating the optical properties of water … .” His passion was in the “kinds of lights nature can produce … in what made things light up, made things radiate.”

On his trip of August 1921, Fos’ truck, emblazoned with the announcement “Phenomenology” (“It’s like doing magic tricks. Only what they are is natural science”), broke down outside a glassblower’s barn. When he saw, for the first time, the magic of a shimmering knob of molten glass, he was mesmerized. “Inside the sphere … [was] a tiny woman with a halo, in a dress the color of pearl, staring at him from inside the bubble, upside down.”

When he turned to look, there standing behind him was Opal, the glassblower’s daughter, with “skin so pale it seemed made in part of air, eyes the size of pigeons’ eggs, light green shot through with gold and pink and indigo and lustered like the nacre on the inside of a mussel shell. Her hair was like, well it was like lemonade … .” On the spot, they fell in love. They married and moved on. She had a way with automobile engines, as well as with numbers. Fos “liked to see her mind unscrew the lid off something.”

Marianne Wiggins’ seventh novel, “Evidence of Things Unseen,” is the story of Fos and Opal, who meet and join in a life-long love after Fos’ return from the front in World War I, damaged by the mustard gas which makes his eyes water. Theirs is a saga of quiet, rather than heroic, adventure as they face the challenges of the Depression, the coming of the TVA and the building of the atomic bomb in Tennessee in the years from World War I through World War II and beyond.

Miss Wiggins writes in prose as shimmering as Fos’ passion. She writes with poetic images but without losing sight of the reality of the country people she creates. She is as conversant with the variety of catfish in Southern rivers and how to cook the “cats,” as with the concept that “[f]ission ? in the nuclear family the power that binds it all together is multiplied a thousandfold when things begin to split apart. The more fissionable the substance is -? like a legendary breaking heart -? the greater the destructive force is when it explodes.”

The plot of “Evidence of Things Unseen” is straightforward, a love story of two people with opposite characters and talents who refuse to compromise except for each other. The subtext is subtle and complex, underlining the malevolent side of the glow of radium, x-rays and split atoms.

Fos’ theory about light “was that creatures who produce their own light don’t emit light randomly.” He studied fireflies and phosphorescence in the sea; he wanted to make ink from phosphorescent fish hearts; he had a combustible rock in a glass jar of water that emitted a green light and a home-made x-ray machine which he and Opal took to county fairs for people to marvel at the sight of the bones in their feet.

With his friend, Flash, whom he had met in the trenches when Fos served as “a sparker … an incendiary artist” and Flash as a photographer, Fos opened a photographic studio in Knoxville. Opal kept the books while Fos learned his new trade as a photographer from his friend. Flash came from one of Knoxville’s foremost and richest families, a fact he had kept secret from Fos. He was the black sheep of the family, unwilling to submit to their ways of thinking or living. He was a bon vivant, a lover of women and wine, carefree and irresponsible ? and then he fell in love with a 14-year-old girl, an event which had disastrous consequences.

Miss Wiggins moves her story quietly forward, bathed in the golden light of a Tennessee summer afternoon, lulling the reader into a cocoon of elegant, lyrical prose. Suddenly, in a burst of brilliance, there’s violence, so unexpected and unusual that the reader stops, goes back and re-reads the passage to make sure the pages say what he or she thought they said. Each chapter begins with a quote from “Moby Dick,” the book Flash took with him into the trenches and the first real novel which Opal read; Lightfoot, the Fosters’ foundling son, sees Ishmael as his alter-ego.

Flash goes to jail; Fos and Opal lose their business and move to a desolate farm in the Clinch River Valley, an inheritance from Opal’s mother, where they live in miserable poverty.

Enter the Tennessee Valley Authority, and Fos is hired to photograph the reclamation project. All goes well for a while, and then one day, the Fosters are informed that their farm too is due to be submerged for one of the many dams. Salvation comes in the form of an offer to become a photographer on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge. In Oak Ridge, they live subject to the United States government, listening at night to the sounds of the mystery trains coming in, but never seeming to go out. No one leaves Oak Ridge.

Opal and Fos show signs of radiation poisoning; Opal dies in pain and Fos chooses to abandon Lightfoot and die with her. The boy, aged nine, spends the next unhappy years in a Boys’ Home. (He goes believing “foster” homes are homes for children named Foster.) Grown, he finds Flash, released finally from prison. Flash persuades Lightfoot to drive to California to see the Pacific and the Nevada nuclear testing sites.

“Evidence of Things Unseen” is a beautiful tour de force ? a work filled with inventive, original ideas and characters. It is rich in research and detail both about the scientific aspects of the story and the history of the Tennessee Valley project, which “turned a godforsaken ornery bastard of a cursed and temperamental river prone to sudden drastic flooding into a calm and navigable chain of firthy lakes as picture-postcard perfect as an alpine idyll. It was like converting lightning into a string of pearls.”

But for the polemic which creeps into the Oak Ridge section and the somewhat contrived ending, “Evidence of Things Unseen” would be a masterpiece. It is, nevertheless, a wonderful work of light and art.

The novel ends, much as it began, with a new generation finding love on the shore of a great ocean: “If birth is fission, then the love we make is fusion; and to make an End is nothing more than to realize a Beginning. Because the end is where we start.”

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