Among the many invented optical devices crucial to David Grand’s novel, Mount Terminus, the invertiscope is the most fascinating, an essential commentary on the way people apprehend the world around them. For this novel is about the creation of worlds—constructed places, fabricated realities of art and film, realms of mystery, tangles of memory, and spheres of imagination.
Experiencing the invertiscope teaches the central character, Joseph Rosenblum (referred to as Bloom throughout), that what the human eye takes in is inadequate, limited in perspective and missing the fullness of possibilities. Invented by Isabella, Bloom’s first love, the device is shaped like the shaft of a periscope, with a number of angled mirrors that can be manipulated by pulleys. The result is a greatly expanded field of vision that is transformative rather than merely ocular. For Bloom it is like stepping out of his own skin, released “from his containment to become an invisible interloper looking down on his own life.” He learns “that perception isn’t absolute, that the mind and body are capable of adapting to new associations.”
Bloom’s perceptual adaptations make Mount Terminus a unique bildungsroman. Like other protagonists of that form, Bloom does endure a series of trying experiences to achieve moral and psychological development. He is, however, enveloped by fabulous circumstances, a world alive with allusions to history, myth, fairy tales, and Biblical stories, yet unique in itself. The novel contains good and evil twins, long separated siblings, lush gardens and wastelands, helpers and villains, monsters and visions of beauty, and ultimately a paradisiacal island. Like Bloom envisioning with new perceptions and associations, David Grand transforms familiar tropes into a unique reality, distinct settings and gatherings of human dramas made richer through their echoes of ancient stories melded into the landscape of California and the history of Los Angeles and the film industry. As if seeing through an invertiscope, Grand manipulates the pulleys, but does it seamlessly, without exposing his creative hands at work.
The opposite faces of the Mount Terminus’s reality are revealed by the panorama Bloom views the first time his father, Jacob, brings him up the heights to their villa, the father’s retreat, an estate high above and apart from the world below:
For as far as he could see, there was emptiness. No homes. No people. No vestiges of civilization past or present. When they reached a series of escalating plateaus stepping up to the mountain’s peak, they stopped at a blackened gate, beyond which was land so bright with color, in these barren wastes it seemed implausible it should exist.
A place of such color could be an Edenic refuge from the wasteland. But the setting is already corrupted by prior events that undermine its possibilities as a refuge. Once father and son pass through the gate and arrive at the villa, Bloom is taken for a walk about the grounds, where he experiences “an empty field,” “a sickly odor,” “land aswirl in dust,” “a deep ravine,” “violet sediment on the horizon.”
Although Bloom, once removed to the mountain, never leaves during his boyhood and youth and into the cusp of adulthood, his life is enveloped by the past and present of the world outside, first as ominous unknowns he is driven to explore and later as an accumulation of bewildering and disturbing information. His isolation and innocence make him especially vulnerable to threats beyond his comprehension.
Throughout, Bloom is bewildered by people and their motives. In the spirit of the invertiscope, seeing himself and his experiences as if looking down at them, he needs a perspective that permits him to give substance and meaning to his own life.
Mystery upon mystery envelopes Bloom—what happened to his mother; his father’s bleak silence; his mother’s enigmatic drawings; the recurrence of the men in black coats; a series of puzzling notes slipped to him by the mute housekeeper, Roya; her guidance though dark passages to Manuel Salazar’s secret chamber; a document in Spanish; and, throughout, the shocks of additional revelations.
Bloom craves a means of vision that will allow him to make sense of this bombardment. It is the movie camera, a technological parallel to the invertiscope, that becomes the means through which Bloom eventually replicates and grasps events that have distressed him, as another way of looking down at his own life. Bloom’s father’s, Jacob’s, fortune came from his invention of a device, the Rosenbloom Loop, capable of projecting continuous reels of film and producing larger than life images. Movies, that modern form of mythmaking, are inseparable from the myths of Bloom’s existence and his inevitable outlet to give those myths tangible form.
Death, Forlorn, the small book his father carried with him everywhere, and which Jacob asks Bloom to illustrate, becomes the source of the son’s first real film achievement. The orphaned Bloom then emulates his father by continually carrying the book in his own pocket. To truly achieve his film, his directorial mentor, Gottlieb, demands that Bloom understand what it means to be deeply in love, “the visceral upheaval only a tormented heart can provide.” Yet, at this stage of his life, Bloom has never known such love, the kind of love that has ruined his parents’ lives. He must experience this suffering before he can create.
When Death, Forlorn is completed, Isabella, his companion in filmmaking, disappears, leaving a note that explains little — yet another mystery. In his grief, he decides to create one final picture for Isabella: The Death of Paradise, the tormented tale of Miranda, a former resident of Mount Terminus; her brutal husband, Don Fernando Miguel Estrella; her sensual maid, Adora; and her secret lover, Manuel Salazar, Fernando’s cousin. It’s a tale of love, abuse, self-poisoning, imprisonment, defilement, and vicious murders, much more sensational and violent than the events that ruined Bloom’s parents, yet still essential to the grim heritage of Mount Terminus. A peep hole figures prominently in Salazar’s ability to observe so much from his hidden chamber, just as a camera lens functions as an observant eye to capture action on film, and as the invertiscope reveals unknowns.
As Salazar’s story is exposed, Bloom learns of source of his home’s name. Banished to the California territory by the king of Spain, Fernando called his estate Mount Terminus because he considered the site of his exile “the end of the world,” the role it later takes on for Jacob, the role it threatens for Bloom.
Late in the novel, when a dam breaks and a wall of water “devour[s] all of what stood fixed on the landscape,” Bloom, trapped in his car, expects Death’s approach, but he experiences only a mist like “the kiss of life.” In what he believed would be his last moments, he imagines a future on an island he had visited, remembering “how blissful and at peace he had been there.” Such an island may be the mirrored obverse of Mount Terminus, demonstrating the lesson of the invertiscope, “that the mind and body are capable of adapting to new associations.”
Beyond its many pleasures of story and invention, David Grand’s Mount Terminus can be considered a master class in how to create a unique novelistic world. Grand achieves a flawless integration of mythic sources with the actual landscape of Southern California and the history of the movie industry, but most of all with a rich complexity of human lives. Grand’s recreations transfigure myths, landscapes, and histories into an original reality unlike any other.
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Walter Cummins‘ seventh short story collection, TELLING STORIES: OLD AND NEW, was published in 2015 by Del Sol Press.
Mount Terminus by David Grand is available now from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux (New York, NY: 2014).