Review: The Mercury Fountain, by Eliza Factor

The Mercury Fountain
by Eliza Factor
Akashic Books
February 28, 2012
312 pages
Owen Scraperton, the landowner patriarch near the center of Eliza Factor's novel The Mercury Fountain, had a dream. He dreamt of a utopia of his own construction - a land where men worked the ground for its mercury, and where families lived principled lives. He called his utopia Pristina. 

He outlawed alcohol, cards, and Catholicism. He built his little empire in the Texan desert at the turn of the twentieth century, and he started a family with his headstrong Mexican wife Dolores. When Factor's novel begins, Owen's life has been (apparently) perfect. By the time the novel ends, the toxicity of Owen's ideology (built upon principles that ignore both science and human nature) has doomed him and his utopia to failure.

But any allegory, such as this is, would be pale without a little personification. Chalk the downfall of Owen's system up to his deluded sense of right and wrong, and all you've got is a morality play. But pour the poison of Owen's unyielding ideals into the form of his forked-tongued daughter Victoria, and you've got the stuff that myths are made of. Factor has written Victoria as a goddess.

Dr. Badinoe observes regarding his friend Owen's mercury mine: "Poison is in everything and no thing is without poison, the dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy."That is to say, of course, moderation in all things. Victoria is not inherently evil, but her disposition coupled with her mutilation (a split tongue, the result of an injury sustained on a family trip to Washington D. C.) and her singular love of snakes make her appear so. It is her father's lessons that actually make her a kind of evil but, as with the mine, evil shall always return to the source. It is Owen's self-righteous and poorly-founded ideals that eventually poison Victoria against him, just as it is Owen's unwillingness to see the scientific truths about his mercury mine that leads to his physical demise.

Although Factor's writing has a modern feel to it, she does not appear to be targeting any current political issue or policy explicitly; rather she seems to be advocating a fluid sort of social consciousness, noting that any ideology that cannot bend and stretch can not guide nor govern either. In a world where hatred based on race, creed, gender, class and sexual orientation seems to be endemic, it's a lesson that most people could stand to learn.


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