David Grand's third novel, "Mount Terminus," is an epic about the birth of Hollywood. Or is it an epic about the birth of Southern California? Birth of identity? Class conflict? Art? A lot, anyhow.
Grand's novel is a big book with big ambitions, a raft piled high with details about religion, sex, water rights, projector technology and more. Given all that, its chief, modest pleasure is seeing it conclude without collapsing under its own weight.
We meet the novel's hero, Joseph Rosenbloom (nicknamed "Bloom"), as a boy heading west with his father to start a new life in the foothills of Los Angeles. Joseph is born into money — it's the early 20th century, and his father invented an essential part for newfangled projectors — but the mansion is suffused with grief. Joseph's mother has died, and dad has been harboring a secret. Grand's tone from the outset is moody, mythic, almost Gothic: At one moment (though such scenes occur often), father and son sit together and "in silence … listened to the intemperate mood of the world."
Such intonations aren't necessarily flaws. Grand is striving to evoke the kind of widescreen omniscient storytelling of Theodore Dreiser or Charles Dickens (whose "Little Dorrit" is briefly mentioned). The secret that dad's been hiding is Joseph's half-brother, Simon, a hard-charging, rising film mogul who wants to reshape the nearby land for studio lots. "It won't be long before the land all around us is changed forever," Simon tells his newfound sibling. A neon sign flashing the word "hubris" might as well be floating over his head.
But what promises to be a symphonic tale of art vs. commerce becomes a much more interior, sometimes stifling portrait of somber Joseph's emotional and artistic maturity. Eager to make movies since he was awestruck by George Melies' "A Trip to the Moon," Jacob apprentices under a mercurial director, sends himself into brief exiles and discovers love and its loss. Friends and colleagues impart lessons to the young director about the importance of broadening one's perspective, but Grand sticks to an Olympian remove. So when he writes lines such as, "Bloom began to recognize a Manichaean disquiet in Isabella's presence," it's hard to feel invested in the emotions at play.
The overall inert feeling of "Mount Terminus" is frustrating because Grand has researched early 20th-century L.A. and early filmmaking so well. And the moments when Joseph learns to push back against his dad, Simon, and his mentors give a tantalizing sense that the book may become the epic it means to be. Such moments come rarely, though; the problem with epics such as this one is that there's plenty to cut.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.