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The Photographer in Search of Death by Michael Mirolla

Reviewed by Ian Thomas Shaw

Toronto writer Michael Mirolla has long been noted for his skill in bending language around a stream of unconsciousness. And in his latest short story collection, The Photographer in Search of Death, he does just that. The ten-story ensemble takes the reader through different canvases of Mirolla's mind. On each, he daubs rich colours of plot, characters and voice, sometimes light-hearted, more often macabre but uniformly intriguing.

There are three stories that I particularly enjoyed: “The Box,” “Asgard's Light” and “The Saviour.” These stories in their distinct ways demonstrate the versatility and originality of the author's writing.

In the first, Mirolla weaves mythological elements into the cold world of science. At a cut-throat scientific research facility, Dr. Anne Pedersen, a mid-career woman scientist, finds herself unceremoniously bumped by her male colleagues from a major research project that she has started. The subject of the research is a mysterious box that levitates ten centimetres above the ground with no visible source of energy. When probed, it gives off a wailing sound. Her male colleagues soon find themselves in a quandary and ask Anne to return to the team. Despite the earlier slight, she agrees. Together they investigate how the research centre's janitor mysteriously appeared inside the seamless object, only to disappear several hours later. Their discoveries lead them to the magical world of First Nations' cosmology and the promise of renewal and regeneration.

In “Asgard's Light,” the longest story in the collection, the narrator stumbles through his menial existence as a machine tender of an automatic box-maker. Still, for a time, the narrator appears to harbour some ambition to reach through his art a higher station in life. Hence the allusion to Asgard, the land of the Norse gods. His quest for artistic acclaim is stymied when the police charge him with the murder of a young artist whose talents he has clearly envied. Despite the considerable material evidence, the court finds the man only guilty of killing himself by realizing and renouncing his own talent as an artist. Later, the narrator interacts with Mr. Loki, an allusion to the Norse god of mischief, but again fails to rise above his own mundanity. When offered love on a beach from his alluring partner, he instead remains fixated on the building of a massive one room sand castle. Working out all the metaphors in Asgard's Light is not an easy task, and it behooves the reader to go through the narrative at least twice before trying to connect the dots. In the end, the narrator never reaches his metaphorical Asgard and must content himself to live instead in its fading light while tending to his box-maker.

The third story, “The Saviour,” harbours a refined darkness. It speaks to the obsession of a woman for her male neighbour. Her desire to bring the man into her life drives her to burn down his house so she can offer him shelter. After “saving” the man, she then embarks on removing all sources of temptation for him, including the local convenience store and its owner. In the final stages of her possession of the man, she demonstrates her power to extinguish his life on a whim. Mirolla's masters the building of suspense in the story by telling it exclusively through the woman's twisted mind.

While The Photographer in Search of Death does not rise to the level of some of Mirolla's other work, particularly his seminal novel, Berlin, the stories, which were written over almost fifty years, are a tribute to the rich continuity in the author's writing. Michael Mirolla is an exceptionally talented writer, and many aspiring writers could learn much from his ability to fuse the magical with the real.

The Photographer in Search of Death is published by Exile Editions.

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