Though the prose style varies from story to story, each narrative possesses a photographic verisimilitude thanks to Bailey’s commitment to precise detail. He impresses with his breadth of knowledge and ability to realize his narratives through well-wrought images. “Widdershins,” about a woman interrogated by police for not promptly reporting her husband’s suicide, is perhaps the collection’s most finely crafted story and the best example of its author’s skillful use of evocative detail.
What troubles the smooth and pleasant enjoyment of the collection’s beautiful descriptions is Bailey’s use of second-person narration. With only one exception – “At the Fort,” which shares its historical setting and some themes with Bailey’s novel The Expedition – all the stories in the collection use this narrative mode at some point, each including at least a few addresses to a unknown person identified by the pronoun “you.” Often the “you” is announced in a story’s opening line – the story “Noah’s Child Abandoned” begins “You were the kind of person who sized people up quickly,” and “Delivery” opens with “Your smell is sweat” – but other times what appears to be a straight-forward first-person narrative will be interrupted suddenly by an unexpected “you,” which requires an awkward readjustment of perspective. In almost all the stories the narration is difficult to get used to; I found myself re-reading the first page or two of each story several times trying to get a handle on the point of view.
The recurring narrative mode does give the stories the added emotional charge of intimate communication, but at a significant cost to the reader. Bailey’s reasons for employing this difficult technique throughout his short story collection are not totally clear, but perhaps he is using it to comment on the photographer’s appropriation of the photographic subject. In the second person, narrators make protagonists of those being addressed, asserting control over their stories in way that approximates a photographer’s appropriation of his subject’s image.
Optique is also an exploration of the relationship between death and photography. Like Roland Barthes, Bailey understands the intricate ties among pictures, the past, memory, and death. Suicide, accidents, murder, old age, and war expose these ties in the collection, which moves from a present full of memory cards to a time a century and a half ago when people were first becoming acquainted with daguerreotypes. In “Extinction” the narrator exclaims “We have entered a time of lasts. Last to see a certain bird alive. Last to speak a disappearing language. I am the last darkroom assistant. Processing machinery will replace me. Electronic image-making will eliminate the darkroom itself.”
In his complex and evocative stories Bailey attempts to document in prose the evolution of photography. In so doing, he reveals the strength of our enduring emotional attachment to the medium in all its forms. mRb