a slightly shorter version of this essay appeared in Banana Wings 14, August 1999
This is a love story.
Like all love stories, it is hard to say where or why it began. Suffice it to say that something happened, a connection was made. In this instance the affair probably began in a book store. Why do we ever pick a book off the shelf? What prompts us to open, for the first time, an unknown work by an unknown author?
I knew the name, Steven Millhauser, or thought I did. Had I come across it once before, perhaps within the pages of F&SF? If so, I have not since been able to identify the particular story or issue (though there is something about his curious fantasies that would have been perfectly at home within that eclectic magazine). The Pulitzer Prize was possibly an attraction, though I have hardly made a point of picking up its prizewinners before. The blurry cover shot was intriguing, so was the subtitle: ‘The Tale of an American Dreamer,’ though there was an air of pretension about it also that might just as easily have put me off. And the blurb, which echoes in abbreviated form the opening paragraph of the book:
There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper’s son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune … Although Martin Dressler was a shopkeeper’s son, he too dreamed his dream, and at last he was lucky enough to do what few people even dare to imagine: he satisfied his heart’s desire. But this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin, in the end.
Maybe it was the prose, or the sense of fantastical aspiration followed by the fall of fate (all of which, I have since discovered, are typical of his work).
I don’t know what it was. In all likelihood, nobody does at such a moment. But I took Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser off the shelf, carried it to the desk, bought it and (this is the rare thing, given how many books languish unread on my shelves) I read it.
That was when I fell in love.
Phantatropes In the gift shops of the Barnum Museum we may buy old sepia postcards of mermaids and sea dragons, little flip-books that show flying carpets rising into the air, peep-show pens with miniature colored scenes from the halls of the Barnum Museum, mysterious rubber balls from Arabia that bounce once and remain suspended in the air, jars of dark blue liquid from which you can blow bubbles shaped like tigers, elephants, lions, polar bears, and giraffes, Chinese kaleidoscopes showing ceaselessly changing forms of dragons, enchanting pleniscopes and phantatropes, boxes of animate paint for drawing pictures that move, lacquered wooden balls from the Black Forest that, once set rolling, never come to a stop, bottles of colorless jellylike stuff that will assume the shape and color of any object it is set before, shiny red boxes that vanish in direct sunlight, Japanese paper airplanes that glide through houses and over gardens and rooftops, storybooks from Finland with tissue-paper-covered illustrations that change each time the paper is lifted, tin sets of specially treated watercolors for painting pictures on air. The toys and trinkets of the Barnum Museum amuse us and delight our children, but in our apartments and hallways, in air thick with the smells of boiling potatoes and furniture polish, the gifts quickly lose their charm, and soon lie neglected in dark corners of closets beside the eyeless Raggedy Ann doll and the dusty Cherokee headdress.
‘The Barnum Museum’2
A Game of Clue Look, here are four people playing Cluedo or, as Americans call it, Clue. We are looking down upon them: two brothers, their sister, the girlfriend of the elder brother. It is the birthday of the younger brother; he is excited by the gathering of the family for this occasion, and also aroused by the presence of the girlfriend. Outside the night has drawn on. Look closer: it is an old game; the board is now tatty, some of the pieces are missing. Closer still: Colonel Mustard has Miss Scarlet trapped in the library of the old house, he practically rapes her. Mr Green, formerly the Reverend Green, hovers uncertainly outside the library, wanting to burst in and confront his fears but hampered by terminal embarrassment. But it is an old board, and the fabric that once bound the two halves together has become worn and is giving in places; Professor Plum, taking the secret passage between the lounge and the conservatory, has found other passageways opening from it, a new world accessible through a break in the fabric of his reality.
This story is almost archetypal. The shifting levels of reality, the sense of worlds below worlds. The parallels drawn between these worlds that are never precise parallels. The resolution that somehow doesn’t resolve things at all…
Steven Millhauser Steven Millhauser was born in 1943, the same year as the hero of his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, which won the Prix Médicis, France’s most prestigious literary award for foreign novels. He has written three other novels, Portrait of a Romantic, From the Realm of Morpheus and Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. He has also written four collections of short stories, In the Penny Arcade, The Barnum Museum, Little Kingdoms and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, and a novella, Enchanted Night. His story, ‘The Illusionist’ (collected in The Barnum Museum as ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’), won the World Fantasy Award. He is a Professor of English at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Ice and Fire It was said that to descend into the world beneath the world was to learn the secrets of heaven and hell, to go mad, to speak in tongues, to understand the language of beasts, to rend the veil, to become immortal, to witness the destruction of the universe and the birth of a new order of being; and it was said that if you descended far enough, down past obsidian-black rivers, past caves where dwarves in leather jerkins swung pickaxes against walls veined with gold, down past the lairs of slumbering dragons whose tails were curled around iron treasureboxes, past regions of ice and fire, past legendary underworlds where the shadowy spirits of the dead set sail for islands of bliss and pain, down and down, past legend and dream, through realms of blackness so dark that it stained the soul black, you would come to a sudden, ravishing brightness.
History ‘Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams,’ Millhauser wrote in ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist,’ yet one way of looking at his stories is as an attempt to bring history in line with our dreams. History is always there in his stories. Martin Dressler opens with a lyrical yet detailed description of New York as it was at the turn of the century, ‘Balloon Flight, 1870’ describes a courier escaping by balloon from the besieged city of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, ‘The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne’ is set in the newspaper offices of Cincinnati and New York around the time of Prohibition. There is a strong sense of the past that runs through so many of Millhauser’s stories, always captured with a few simple strokes of the pen and an eye for the telling detail. A hot summer morning in the New York of 1881 could not be more vividly conveyed than when the nine-year-old Martin Dressler looked out from the window of his father’s shop and saw ‘the sunshot ripple of muscles in the shoulders of the horse and a lady with green feathers in her hat who had stopped to look at the window of the silk and ribbon shop. A gleaming wet clump of horsedung lay steaming in the sun.’
Yet, vividly and accurately as the past might be portrayed, always the period is made to seem as if it is part of a fairy tale. In Martin Dressler, even before we are presented with vignettes of turn-of-the-century New York, the novel opens as all good fables open: ‘There once lived a man named Martin Dressler.’6 In ‘Balloon Flight, 1870,’ although there is detailed knowledge of Parisian defences and the placement of Moltke’s besieging forces, still the balloon takes us, for a moment, out of time and place. The land spread below might be occupied by French or Prussian troops, but it is the land itself that becomes unknown: ‘We drift higher, above the unknown forest.’
Conversely, when Millhauser writes an overt fairy tale, as, for instance, in ‘The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad’ or ‘The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon,’ where he is careful to explain that the spiral stairs within a medieval castle turn to the right so that a sword might be more easily wielded by a right-handed defender than a right-handed attacker, it is made to seem as if the story is part of history.
The dividing line between history and dream is illusion.
Influences There is something entirely his own in the warp and weft of Millhauser’s prose, in the sudden flurry of invention that will create a wild list of unknown wonders, in the patient way in which even within the world of a story nothing is taken for granted and contradictory theories for events are raised and considered and sometimes never resolved. Yet, for all that makes him a unique talent, there is a wealth of influence that runs through his fiction. It is tempting to point to Millhauser’s career as an English teacher; certainly he has read widely and absorbed manners and approaches from all sorts of writers, particularly in the literature of the fantastic (and other sources also: the influence of Little Nemo in Slumberland is made clear in ‘The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne’). The dark and romantic imagination of nineteenth-century writers like Edgar Allan Poe is there in the love of underground places and exotic monstrosities in ‘Paradise Park’ or ‘The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon,’ for instance, while ‘Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846),’ which seems in many ways a catalogue of Millhauser’s influences, contains specific references to the work of Poe and also E.T.A. Hofmann and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Jorge Luis Borges is another clear influence, in part in the use of fictional authority within Millhauser’s work. The Borges of ‘The Lottery of Babylon’ is there in the slightly distanced yet all-embracing account of the communities of ‘The Sisterhood of Night’ or ‘Beneath the Cellars of Our Town’ while ‘The Circular Ruins’ finds its echo in ‘The Invention of Robert Herendeen.’ The Vladimir Nabokov of Pale Fire is there in the way events and places are examined from contradictory yet revealing stances in ‘The Dream of the Consortium’ or ‘The Barnum Museum,’ and Franz Kafka is there in the inexplicable and often threatening transformations of ‘Rain’ or ‘The Way Out.’
Sometimes, of course, the references are deliberately overt. In ‘Alice, Falling,’ Millhauser takes a prismatic look at Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, considering all she sees on her descent, returning again and again to her drifting off to sleep beside her sister on the riverbank, looking suddenly and sharply at the Reverend Dodgson taking Alice Liddell and her sisters on a picnic. In the end, one brief introductory episode from Alice in Wonderland is expanded to become a commentary upon the character of Alice within the book, upon the character of the real Alice, upon Lewis Carroll and the writing of the novel. Again, in ‘Klassik Komix #1,’ we are treated to a frame-by-frame description of a comic book which gradually reveals itself to be the story of T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ though from an oddly skewed perspective. (This story first appeared in the late 1980s, and so predates Martin Rowson’s similar transformation of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ into a noir-ish comic book.)
There are occasions, however, when Millhauser wears his influences too openly. ‘The Sepia Postcard’ does little that was not already there in its obvious precursor, ‘The Mezzotint’ by M.R. James. The eponymous postcard is found in a rundown book shop in the sort of out-of-season seaside resort which featured regularly in James’s stories, while the tale of ill-defined horror which is revealed in successive glimpses of the scenic view advances no further (and elicits less of a chill) than James’s original.
Legend It is precisely because of our ignorance that we see [the castle] across the river with such precision. We know the precise carvings on the capital of each stone pillar and the precise history of each soul: they are transparent to our understanding. On our side of the river, even the most familiar lanes bear surprises around well-known bends; we see only a certain distance into the hearts of our wives and friends, before darkness and uncertainty begin. Perhaps, after all, this is the lure of legend: not the dreamy twilight of the luxuriating fancy, in love with all that is misty and half-glimpsed, but the sharp clarity forbidden by our elusive lives.
‘The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon’
A Visit We are on a visit to see an old friend. In fact, Albert was our best friend, though he was always a little unconventional and we haven’t even been in touch for nine years. But now a brief, scribbled note has revealed that Albert has taken a wife, and invites us to visit. Albert lives in a remote town in upstate New York, and when we stop to ask directions we get a very strange reaction. Still, we reach him in the end. He hasn’t changed much, and we quickly re-establish our old easy relationship. Until Albert introduces us to Alice, his wife: ‘a large frog, perhaps two feet high, which sat with its throat resting on the table edge.’ Is this a joke? But we play along, until the obvious affection that exists between man and frog becomes a disturbing reflection upon the lack of affection within our own life.
An odd story, this, one that doesn’t really fit comfortably within the canon of Millhauser’s work. Yet that oblique and uncomfortable twist in the fabric of our reality is precisely what we come to expect from his stories.
Fathers and Sons There are a lot of father-son relationships within Millhauser’s fiction, and they all seem to follow more or less the same pattern. The son, at a very young age, becomes obsessed by the detail, the mechanics, of the father’s occupation, and in later life develops it beyond what the father might have managed but in a strangely different direction.
In ‘August Eschenburg,’ for example, the young August is captivated by the fine detail of his father’s work as a watchmaker. He quickly learns the mechanics of the business, but then applies it in an unexpected way, making a career for himself as the creator of incredibly detailed clockwork automata. In ‘The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne’ young Franklin’s abiding memories of his father are in the darkroom, helping to make pictures appear mysteriously out of white paper. He is quickly doing all the necessary mechanical work of moving the paper from one chemical bath to another, but the career it leads him into is first of all drawing newspaper cartoons and then making animated films. Even Martin Dressler follows this pattern. As a child, Martin helps his father in his cigar shop, and is soon making suggestions that improve the business, but this start leads him on to running and eventually owning his own hotel.
It is, perhaps, significant that all accounts of father-son relationships in Millhauser’s stories are written from the perspective of the son as hero of the story, unlike …
Chorus of night voices Come out, come out, wherever you are, you dreamers and drowners, you loafers and losers, you shadow-seekers and orphans of the sun. Come out, come out, you flops and fizzlers, you good-for-nothings and down-and-outers, day’s outcasts, dark’s little darlin’s. Come on, all you who are misbegotten and woebegone, all you with black thoughts and red fever-visions, come on, you small-town Ishmaels with your sad blue eyes, you plain Janes and hard-luck guys, come, you gripers and groaners, you goners and loners, you sadsacks and shlemiels, come on, come on, you pale romantics and pie-eyed Palookas, you has-beens and never-will-bes, you sun-mocked and day-doomed denizens of the dark: come out into the night.
Fathers and Daughters There are fewer father-daughter relationships in Millhauser’s work, but they are generally written from the point of view of the father (as in ‘The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne’). Stories in which the girl provides the viewpoint, as in ‘A Protest Against the Sun,’ are very much the exception.
Whatever the perspective, however, the nature of the relationship is always the same. Father dotes on daughter, daughter is unquestioningly loving and supportive towards father. There is a closeness in these relationships, a sense of sharing and complicity, far greater than in any other type of relationship in Millhauser’s work. The closest he comes to questioning this relationship is in the one story written from the point of view of the girl, ‘A Protest Against the Sun,’ in which a family on the beach on a hot day see a youth pass by, wrapped up as if for winter. The girl proclaims it a protest against the sun, which seems to upset the father: the first crack in the façade of their relationship.
Certainly the father-daughter relationship is much closer than that between husband and wife in which, typically, the husband displays little real understanding of the wife until she leaves him, as happens in ‘The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne’ and Martin Dressler among others.
Childhood Whatever their external relationships, however, childhood is a time of dark mystery. In his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, Millhauser tells the story of two eleven-year-old boys, Edwin and Jeffrey, trapped in an uneasy friendship because both are alienated from their fellows. But what, at first, seems an insight into the curious rituals and imaginations of children of that age becomes ever stranger and more threatening as the boys appear adult in all but age. Edwin is a child of enthusiasms, forever questing after novelty, and one newness he discovers is to write a novel (we are told it is a good one). Jeffrey is a follower, the faithful lieutenant forever adjusting his own desires to suit the mood of his fellow. But, curiously, it is Jeffrey who is the one with ambition, and it is in Edwin that he sees his own glory. For Jeffrey will write the biography of the great eleven-year-old author, and the biography will outshine the novel. Alas, life does not always conform to the needs of art, so the artist must sometimes shape life to his own pattern: there is a suggestion that the darkest mystery of this strange childhood is the convenient death of Jeffrey’s subject.
Millhauser’s second novel, Portrait of a Romantic, might be accounted a direct sequel to Edwin Mullhouse, if one of the two central characters in the earlier novel had not murdered the other, but the focus and narrative duty has shifted from the realist to the idealist. Arthur Grumm, our new protagonist, is in his early teens, and he is not a writer, but he shares the dreaminess and the romantic aspirations of Mullhouse (by contrast Grumm’s best friend, William Mainwaring, is a plodding realist who shares many characteristics with Jeffrey Cartwright, Mullhouse’s biographer and murderer). As in the earlier novel, Millhauser creates a detailed picture of childhood, with all the dreams and the boredom and the routines of that time in our lives. His genius is to equate adolescence with the Romantic era of Poe and his contemporaries, so that childhood in small-town America in the 1950s is tricked out with dark, mysterious chambers, thoughts of suicide, lingering illnesses. Once again, childhood is a death-haunted time.
The Snowmen The snowmen had grown more marvelous. Groups of snowy figures were everywhere. In one back yard I saw three ice skaters of snow, their heels lifted and their scarves of snow streaming out behind them. In another yard I saw, gripping their instruments deftly, the fiercely playing members of a string quartet. Individual figures had grown more audacious. On a backyard clothesline I saw a snowy tightrope walker with a long balancing stick of snow, and in another yard I saw a juggler holding two snowballs in one hand while, suspended in the air, directly above his upward-gazing face … But it was precisely a feature of that second day, when the art of the snowman appeared to reach a fullness, that one could no longer be certain to what extent the act of seeing had itself become infected by these fiery snow-dreams.
Automata In ‘August Eschenburg,’ Millhauser tells the story of his eponymous hero, who lived in Germany in the latter years of the last century. Eschenburg’s father is a watchmaker and young August learns his craft with great diligence, but after witnessing a magic show he becomes fascinated by the idea of clockwork figures. His first figures are used in the window of his father’s shop, attracting customers, but his work soon comes to the notice of Preisendanz, the owner of a massive store in Berlin, who lures August away to work for him. Here August creates a number of ever more complex figures, who patrol the windows of the store, acting out repetitive tableaux to intrigue the citizens of Berlin. But his success inevitably brings imitators, and a new store opens across from Preisendanz’s, with displays of automata that are cruder than August’s but sexier. August, like so many of the artists who frequent Millhauser’s stories, is driven by a quest for perfection, a desire to make his artificial figures ever-more humanlike, and it is not long before he is sacked to make way for his more commercially-minded usurper, Hausenstein. August is happy enough to return to the obscurity of his father’s shop where he can work on his figures free from the demands of the story. However, it is not long before Hausenstein shows up. Recognising genius, Hausenstein wants to set up a theatre displaying August’s figures. For a while the theatre is a success as August sets his clockwork figures moving in ever more subtle, more convincing, more lifelike tableaux. Again, success breeds imitators. A new theatre opens up in which the figures are far cruder than those August creates, but they are enacting pornographic scenes. August continues to attract the connoisseurs, but the majority of the custom goes elsewhere, and at last August discovers that Hausenstein is behind the other theatre also. Once more, August retreats into obscurity; the day of the automata, the day of the sensitive artist, is past.
Millhauser returned to this interest in automata in a later story, ‘The New Automaton Theatre.’ Here, although the setting has a distinctly Germanic feel to it, the story is far less precisely located in time and place. ‘Our city is justly proud of its automaton theatre,’ the story begins.
By this I do not mean simply that the difficult and exacting art of the automaton is carried by our masters to a pitch of brilliance unequalled elsewhere and unimagined by the masters of an earlier age. Rather I mean that by its very nature our automaton theatre is deserving of pride, for it is the source of our richest and most spiritual pleasure.
The masters of this city, like August Eschenburg, measure their skill against the ability to recreate humanity. In this society emerges Heinrich Graum, who might be the greatest master of all. Like August, he is the son of a watchmaker, and he is a talented student. Millhauser traces his career through his training, his early success, his acclaim as a master at the early age of twenty. ‘It was noted that Graum’s figures seemed more and more to be pushing at the limits of the human, as if he wished to express in his creatures not only the deepest secrets of the human soul but emotions that lay beyond the knowledge of men.’ In this he is typical of Millhauser’s heroes, pushing art ever more obsessively towards some sort of extreme achievement, some excess of knowledge, that is in the end fatal. Then Graum falls silent, for ten years; no more automata appear from his workshop. His return, the long-awaited performance of his Neues Zaubertheater, is stunningly controversial for rather than create figures that grow ever closer to their human model, his new creatures are clumsy, jerky, almost amateur. ‘In the classic automaton theatre we are asked to share the emotions of human beings, whom in reality we know to be miniature automatons. In the new automaton theatre we are asked to share the emotions of automatons themselves … The new art is not a gentle art; its beauties are of an almost unbearable intensity.’
For once the radical artist survives, for once a failure to compromise in the pursuit of a lonely and unique vision does not lead to ostracism, to madness, to death or oblivion, but at the cost of all that is familiar in the city of the automaton theatre.
In the Penny Arcade You are twelve years old and venture, for the first time alone, into the penny arcade. Once, when you visited the arcade with your parents, it was a place of mystery and excitement and daring; but you have not been back for some years, and older, alone, on the verge of adolescence, you see it differently. The wooden fortune teller is cracked and faded and no longer exudes a sort of terror. The cowboy, against whom you test your quick draw, is creaky and slow. Even the picture machine, in which once, with a sort of dread, you glimpsed a woman partially disrobed, now reveals a tame film of a circus act. ‘I felt caught in an atmosphere of decay and disappointment. I felt that if I could not find whatever it was I was looking for, my entire life would be harmed.’ Then, in a dark, roped-off area, you discover a cluster of machines covered in cloths, and it feels as if this is the real penny arcade with all the machines of your memory that have been banished from the fake arcade. In that moment a strange silence falls, one of those accidental hushes that will sometimes descend upon a crowd, but in that hush anything might happen. You find the cowboy, and now he is bright and quick, falling dramatically as your bullet pierces him. You sense secret signals passing between the fortune teller with her piercing blue eyes and the other creatures of the penny arcade. The circus film now runs on, and the bareback rider now performs a seemingly endless striptease. At last you understand the secret of the penny arcade.
I understood with the force of an inner blow that the creatures of the penny arcade had lost their freedom under the constricting gaze of all those who no longer believed in them … I recognized that I myself had become part of the conspiracy of dullness, and that only in a moment of lavish awareness, which had left me confused and exhausted, had I seen truly. They had not betrayed me: I had betrayed them. I saw that I was in danger of becoming ordinary, and I understood that from now on I would have to be vigilant.
It is a story which seems to sum up much of what Millhauser is about. The magic is there, not in another world but in the way we perceive this world. Failure to see the magic, failure to pursue the dream, is to lose the better part of our world.
Paragraphs A technique that Millhauser turns to again and again throughout his short fiction (the earliest appearance is in ‘Cathay’ in In the Penny Arcade, though it is used again in ‘A Game of Clue,’ ‘Klassik Komix #1,’ ‘The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon,’ ‘The Sisterhood of Night’ and elsewhere) is to divide the story into discrete paragraphs, each with its own heading. Occasionally (‘The Barnum Museum,’ ‘Beneath the Cellars of Our Town’) the paragraphs might be numbered rather than titled, and sometimes (‘The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad’ ‘Alice, Falling’) there is neither heading nor number. What all these stories have in common is that the separate sections do not advance the story in a linear fashion. Rather, they will move across time, space, levels of reality, perceptions, until they build a mosaic within which a story, or a number of stories, might be perceived. But the construction of the story, the decision as to which viewpoint is true, which story is real, is left to the reader.
In ‘The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon,’ for instance, we are told the fairy tale of the Prince who allows his jealousy to destroy his happy marriage, of the Princess who does not know how to lie and in her very truthfulness finds herself betraying a friend, of the innocent margrave imprisoned for years within the deep dungeon, who stages an epic escape aided by the Dwarf. Alongside this, we are told the story of the people who live in the little town across the river from the castle, people who know nothing of what really happens within the castle but who make up stories about it. We are also told about the fairy stories that have attached themselves to the castle, and how there are many different versions of the tales. We discover, as perspectives flicker from one tale to the next, that the Princess is always spoken of as having golden hair, but on the one occasion she was seen by the people of the town her hair was black. We learn that no one knows for sure how the story ended, or even if it has yet ended. We find that the different stories we are being told are set in different times, but it is not altogether certain whether the stories are set in the present, the past or even the future. And so we have a fairy story about the loss of innocence, whose own innocence is destroyed by what we discover about the nature of the fairy story.
At times this prismatic technique might be used to tell a story with one consistent viewpoint and through an established sequence of events from beginning to end, as for instance in ‘The Sisterhood of Night’; yet by breaking the story up in this way, Millhauser can raise doubts, can propose alternative interpretations. ‘The Sisterhood of Night’ tells of a small town rocked by the discovery that all the adolescent girls of the town sneak out of their homes at night to take part in secret rituals. What are these rituals? No one knows, but the narrator puts forward the different theories that have been propounded, the perversely sexual, the purely innocent; he records the contradictory testimony of those that have allegedly taken part in the ceremonies, and the arguments used to support or undermine these witnesses; he relates the debates that have raged through the town, the evidence that has been accumulated, the course of events known and supposed. In the end we trust the narrator (Millhauser is far more subtle than to use an unreliable narrator as a way of casting doubt on any of his stories) but we are not sure what we know about the Sisterhood of Night, or whether it was indeed anything more than a case of mass hysteria among some or all of the town’s population.
Circus Wagons We passed among dinner plates with pictures of blue windmills on them, footed glass dessert dishes filled with wax apricots, brightly coloured ten-cup coffeemakers with built-in digital clocks. We wandered past glittering arrays of laser printers and laptops, past brightly painted circus wagons, rolls of brown canvas and bales of hay, through mazes of pale green bathtubs, onyx sinks set in oak cabinets, pink water closets carved with cherubs. In the depths of the toy department, which covered most of the eleventh and twelfth floors, there was a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds and roller-coasters. Nearby we discovered an alcove of scale model cities, including precise wooden and plaster models of Victorian London, Nuremberg in the age of Dürer and Manhattan in 1925, each containing more than sixty thousand separate pieces and capable of being assembled in a frame the size of a sandbox. In the bargain basement on the second underground level there were alcoves and sub-departments selling imperfect mannequins, discarded display-window props, and selected marked-down items from the more popular plazas and restaurants: trompe-l’oeil vistas painted on cardboard, cobblestones made of fibreglass, papier-mâché bricks. New departments appeared to be springing up everywhere, as if to keep pace with our desires; and it was rumoured that somewhere on the fourteenth or fifteenth floor, in a small department with a desk and a catalogue, corporations with fabulous sums at their disposal could order full-sized replicas of entire ancient cities.
‘The Dream of the Consortium’
Museums, Shops and Hotels It is curious how much of an overlap Millhauser seems to find between museums, shops and hotels – and how often they seem to crop up in his stories. As early as Portrait of a Romantic, for instance, a museum is specifically compared to a department store. Occasionally, just occasionally, these are presented in a relatively straightforward way. Preisendanz’s department store in ‘August Eschenburg,’ for example, stocks none of that plethora of wonders that seems to be common in most of Millhauser’s stores. More often, however, each museum, shop or hotel seems to partake of some of the characteristics of the others. The monumental department store at the centre of ‘The Dream of the Consortium’ stocks far more than might ever be fitted into any rationally sized shop, and presents its goods as though they were wonders in a museum. Similarly there is a shop within ‘The Barnum Museum’ that sells items which would not be out of place among the weird exhibits of the museum itself.
In both of these instances the primary curiosity of the place is its size. The inside of the store or the museum contains far more than could possibly fit within the outside of the building. Here are cityscapes and monstrosities aplenty, listed with a casual invention so that an exhibit barely glimpsed in passing on a lightning tour of ‘The Barnum Museum’ might provide material enough for a full novel by many another writer.
The size and the profusion of the marvellous is given its finest expression in Martin Dressler. This is the story of a man whose ambition knows no bounds. From humble beginnings in his father’s cigar store, Martin goes to work at a nearby hotel, rapidly rising through the ranks until he becomes the manager. At the same time he takes the opportunity to buy the cigar store in the hotel lobby, running it in a way that makes it much more popular and profitable. Before long he is branching out, opening a chain of restaurants which, by skilful use of the new craft of advertising, he turns into the most popular venues in New York. So far this is little more than a story of the entrepreneurship that was such a feature of American life around the turn of the century, but Martin goes on to build his own hotel. Only this is more than an hotel: rooms, entire floors, are devised in extravagantly different period styles, there are shops within the hotel that sell far more than most department stores, there are experiences, theme parks, amusement rides buried within the bowls of the hotel. On one basement floor it is possible to lie on a sandy beach beside a sea with its own waves, on another you might at any time of the day or night take a moonlit stroll through genuine woodland. This is more than an hotel, it is our imagination at its most fervid and wild made concrete. And even this is not enough for Martin, who builds yet a greater hotel, specifically located in one of the newly fashionable streets of upper Manhattan though the contents of this extraordinary extravaganza would take as much space as the entirety of Manhattan Island were it to be made in reality. Here, descent into the lower basements of the hotel would be literally like descending into a realm of dwarves and monsters and devils. Of course, ambition brings Dressler down, but he has already shown that artists – and for Millhauser that category includes hoteliers and shopkeepers as well as painters and snowman-builders – must set out not simply to replicate life but to encompass the entire universe, to make real what our imaginations invent.
Transitions Where Millhauser’s first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, was built upon a non-realist premise (a serious and pedantic literary biography of an eleven-year-old novelist) its presentation was firmly realist (a very detailed and convincing portrait of childhood). His second novel, Portrait of a Romantic, still held at its core a detailed and realist portrait of adolesence, but by following the imaginings of his protagonist, Millhauser began to project into the outside world the subtle fantasies that would be the hallmark of his later writing. His third novel, and the last he would publish for some dozen years, From the Realm of Morpheus, is almost entirely fantastic in its content. Moreover, though it has a single narrative thread, the odyssey of our first-person narrator through the strange realm guided by the gross and larger-than-life figure of Morpheus, its structure took the form of a sequence of stories, some involving the narrator but many simply told to him. It is here, in this curious and not entirely successful work, that the impetus of Millhauser’s subsequent career can first be distinguished.
Behind the Blue Curtain You are, as so often in a Millhauser story, a child, and throughout the summer your imagination is encouraged by regular visits to the cinema. This is part of the enchantment of childhood. Then, one day, circumstances dictate that you should see the film alone; you are delivered to the cinema and will be collected afterwards, but the whole of that sacred time within the magical darkness is yours, and yours alone. But when the film is over you are struck by a strange lassitude, you cannot quite accept that it is over, you cannot bring yourself to drag yourself outside into the summer brightness where your father is waiting. You linger, not quite intentionally, in the rest room, and when the cinema is deserted you return to the soothing half-dark. There you discover a door hidden behind the curtain that shuts off the screen. You go through the door and there, at the end of a long corridor, you find them, all the characters from the screen, taking their ease, huge and in gaudy costumes. They are all there, knights and queens and pirates, and in one red room you encounter a dramatic actress pacing and muttering. She faints, a performance you are sure was done for effect, and you cannot resist the desire to touch, but when you lean forwards you find your hand meets no resistance. You overbalance, and for a disorienting moment you are actually inside the actress, then you pick yourself up and are surprised to find no parts of you littered casually about the room.
This is another of those stories which seems to capture, quietly and without too much dramatic effect, the strange hinterland between reality and the imagination. As we have seen with ‘In the Penny Arcade,’ it is belief that matters.
Eyelids The art of illuminating the eyelid is old and honorable, and no Court lady is without her miniaturist. These delicate and precise paintings, in black, white, red, green, and blue ink, are highly prized by our courtiers, and especially by lovers, who read in them profound and ambiguous messages. One can never be certain, when one sees a handsome courtier gazing passionately into the eyes of a beautiful lady, whether he is searching for the soul behind her eyes or whether he is striving to attain a glimpse of her elegant and dangerous eyelids. These paintings are never the same, and indeed are different for each eyelid, and one cannot know, gazing across the room at a beautiful lady with whom one has not yet become intimate, whether her lowered eyelids will reveal a tall willow with dripping branches; an arched bridge in snow; a pear blossom and hummingbird; a crane among cocks; rice leaves bending in the wind; a wall with open gate, through which can be seen a distant village on a hillside. When speaking, a Court lady will lower her eyelids many times, offering tantalizing glimpses of little scenes that seem to express the elusive mystery of her soul.
Echoes Just as there are echoes between stories like ‘August Eschenburg’ and ‘The New Automaton Theatre,’ so there are echoes also between ‘Paradise Park’ and Martin Dressler. Very close echoes, for Charles Sarabee shares Dressler’s biography: his father sold cigars in the shop of a small Manhattan hotel, ‘by the age of nine he had not only mastered the bewildering array of names, prices and cedar-wood box covers, but had begun to arrange cigars in eye-catching displays,’ at thirteen he went to work as a bellhop at the hotel and worked his way up to become assistant manager and later manager-owner, at which point he entered a partnership in a new downtown department store (again the department store and the hotel are identified). Here, while Dressler goes on to build bigger and bigger hotels, whose complexities share something of the character of a department store and an amusement park, Sarabee goes on to build bigger and bigger amusement parks. In fact, Sarabee is the proprietor of Paradise Park, the biggest, the most successful, and in the end the most controversial of all Coney Island amusement parks. Like Dressler, Sarabee’s fate is to seek ever greater size and innovation, and as with Dressler the greater the size the more it becomes equated with the fantastic, with the quest for a realm of imagination.
At first, Paradise Park is much as any other amusement park, except for a well-earned reputation for introducing a succession of completely new rides. Then, in preparation for the 1915 season (and like so many of Millhauser’s stories, this one is firmly rooted in a stated historical setting), a great cavern is found under the amusement park, and suddenly the nature of Sarabee’s enterprise changes. He builds an underground amusement park, but over successive seasons, as he digs ever deeper, the nature of the rides and of the other attractions on offer becomes progressively more sinister.
Even taking exaggeration into account, what are we to make of a Children’s Castle in which girls ten and eleven years old are said to prowl the corridors costumed as Turkish concubines, Parisian streetwalkers and famous courtesans and lure small boys and girls into hidden rooms? What are we to think of deep pleasure-pits into which visitors are encouraged to leap by howling, writhing devils, or of a Tunnel of Ecstasy, a House of Blood, a Voyage of Unearthly Delights?
There are even public suicides, which provoke howls of moral outrage but continue to attract visitors. (In other stories, such as ‘The Knife Thrower’, in which the entertainer of the title maintains his popularity by inflicting ever greater wounds upon the volunteers who stand against his target, Millhauser has suggested an insatiable popular appetite for the cruel, the outré and the crude.) In the end, Paradise Park is destroyed by fire (there are dark hints of arson), and we are left only with the memory of ambition, of daring, of imagination:
Sarabee, himself the inventor of a classic park, was driven by some dark necessity to push beyond all reasonable limits to more dangerous and disturbing inventions. He comes at the end of the era of the first great American amusement parks, which he carried to technological and imaginative limits unsurpassed in his time, and he set an example of restless invention that has remained unmatched in the history of popular pleasure.
Sarabee is, in other words, the archetypal Millhauser hero.
The Underworld It is crude to equate the underworld with Hell, or at least with the realm of the dead. Yet, despite the wonders invariably encountered there, as our hero discovers throughout In the Realm of Morpheus, there is something devilish about it as it recurs in Millhauser’s fiction. The deeper into the earth he goes, the more extreme become Sarabee’s amusements, while Dressler’s more exaggerated attractions are situated in cellars below cellars below cellars. In ‘A Game of Clue’ it is in the underground secret passage (and possibly in the worn binding between the two halves of the board) that Professor Plum finds entry to a curious other world. And in ‘Beneath the Cellars of Our Town’ a maze-like network of passageways that have wound beneath the town for at least the entirety of its recorded history enchant the inhabitants of the town so that they find themselves more and more drawn into its labyrinth and away from the world of light.
Libraries I turned now into the next winding aisle, where I saw several half-familiar names which I could not quite place. I had picked up a volume of poems by the vaguely familiar Jeffrey Aspern, and was reading one called ‘Venetian Impressions,’ when Morpheus handed me a slim volume by Tonio Kröger: bound in morocco and printed on fine paper, it bore the date 1899. I was still unable to grasp the nature of this section of the library, and my perplexity only grew when, happening to turn to the shelves across the aisle, I saw a great number of novels by David Copperfield … ‘Why, look thee, blinking lad, canst not see? Here hast thou the works of all those sweet scribblers, whom scribblers in thy realm have wantonly imagined.’ And now among writers whose names I did not recognize I began to find familiar and less familiar ones, as well as odd, elusive names that hovered between the half-familiar and the unknown; and among the many writers of that aisle were Enoch Soames, Gustav von Aschenbach, Seamus Earwicker, Pierre Glendinning, Arthur Pendennis, Hugh Verecker, Stephen Dedalus, Edwin Mullhouse, Sebastian Knight, Martin Eden, Pierre Delalande, Roman Bonavena, Edwin Reardon, Mark Ambient, and Bergotte.
From the Realm of Morpheus
Origins There are patterns, recurring themes, devices that run through Millhauser’s work in such profusion that it seems at times we are constantly reading the same story from another perspective. There are the stage magicians and other performers who appear in ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’ and ‘The Knife Thrower’ among others. There are the artists, such as the darkly romantic American artist, Edmund Moorash, whose life and death is recounted through the detailed description of his 26 surviving pictures in ‘Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846).’ There are the museums and shops and hotels which gather together fantastic and impossible curios. There are the stories, always tentatively offered, always qualified with other interpretations or alternative readings, which form the core of ‘Alice, Falling’ and ‘The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad’ and so many others. Yet in many ways the story which seems central to Millhauser’s work, which gathers together so many of his influences, is ‘The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne.’ This is far from being an early work (it was first published in his 1993 collection Little Kingdoms), nor, beyond a brief epiphany at the end, is it fantastic in the way so much of his work extends beyond the real, nor does it build within itself the catalogues of wonders that Millhauser seems to enjoy so much. Nevertheless, it seems to tell the story of the wellspring from which so much of his fiction emerges.
J. Franklin Payne is a typical Millhauser son. His earliest memories are of helping his father in the dark room; his fascination is not with the art of photography but with the mechanics of the various chemical baths by which the complex picture emerges from the paper. ‘Black was nothing, and white was nothing too, but in between – in between was the whole world.’ But Franklin does not go on to be a photographer; rather, he makes worlds emerge from a combination of black and white in a different way, as an artist. He leaves his rural home in Plains Farms, Ohio, to study at the Commercial Academy in Cincinnati, and it is in Cincinnati that he discovers his first inspiration: Klein’s Wonder Palace on Vine Street, one of the museums of curios that had flourished in America before the advent of the cinema. This is the sort of place that runs through Millhauser’s work as much as through Franklin’s, the sort of dimly-lit and dusty hall that houses Dee-Dee the Dog-Faced Boy and George Washington’s childhood axe. Before long, Franklin has taken over from the quick-sketch artist – he ‘was amused by quickness but didn’t much admire it,’ like so many perfectionist Millhauser artists – which leads in turn to working for the Wonder Palace, producing advertising posters. This in turn leads him to the art department of the Cincinnati Daily Crier, where he learns to draw editorial cartoons and then his very first comic strip, ‘Dime Museum Dreams,’ in which the sad, old-fashioned Wonder Palace becomes transformed into a place of phantasmagoric marvels. (Franklin Payne is clearly modelled on Winsor McCay, who worked as a poster artist at Cincinnati’s Vine Street Dime Museum and as an editorial cartoonist on the Cincinnati Commercial Tribune.)
At this time, also, Franklin meets and, inarticulately and hesitantly, woos Cora Vaughn who has little understanding of or appreciation for his art. Nevertheless they marry and have a daughter, Stella. When a syndicate purchases one of Franklin’s strips, Cora tells him, ‘I’m glad for you, Franklin, but you know I never understand these things,’ and the matter is never discussed again. When Franklin is offered a position on the New York World Citizen, Cora abandons her childhood home only with great reluctance, and is unhappy in New York until they move to a many-gabled old house in Mount Hebron, an hour north of the city. Franklin, on the other hand, is excited by the big city, and by the variety of strips he draws for the World Citizen. These, like so much of Millhauser’s fiction, are based upon precise observation from unusual angles, but with elements of fantasy intruding on the reality. (One of his strips, mentioned only in passing, is a very thinly disguised version of McCay’s greatest triumph, Little Nemo in Slumberland.) Franklin’s closest friend is fellow cartoonist Max Horn, and when Franklin introduces Max to Cora it is obvious that the two are attracted to each other, though Franklin himself remains blissfully unaware of this.
Meanwhile, Franklin has started to draw an animated cartoon, working painstakingly at night, drawing each of the thousands of cells by hand. Typically (for a Millhauser hero) Franklin’s satisfaction is in the craft and he disdains the new innovations in cartoon animation in which figures move against a separately drawn (and hence static) background. Max arranges for the finished work, Dime Museum Days, to be made into a film and distributed, and it is an immediate critical success. It takes some time, however, before Franklin returns to animated films, but as the seasons change, as Stella sits loyally beside him but Cora spends more and more time with Max, he again locks himself away in the attic at the top of his house to work on the 12,000 painstaking images that will make up Toys at Midnight. If Dime Museum Days is based on the sort of catalogue of wonders that feature in so many of Millhauser’s stories – ‘The Barnum Museum,’ ‘The Dream of the Consortium’ – Toys at Midnight features dolls that come to life (as in ‘The Invention of Robert Herendeen’), fanciful department stores (‘The Dream of the Consortium’), fanciful journeys underground (‘Beneath the Cellars of our Town’) and a host of other recognisable tropes. Max, who has by been fired from the World Citizen and has gone to work for the film distributor, again arranges for the film to be made and released, and again it is a smash hit. (There is a suggestion of growing renown when Franklin goes to one of Max’s parties and a guest says: ‘That J. Franklin Payne?’)
But now Cora has left him for Max, his employer has forbidden him to make more films, and only Stella, like a good Millhauser daughter, remains loyally by his side. Still, after a time he cannot resist embarking on one more film, Voyage to the Dark Side of the Moon, his most ambitious yet.
He sank back into his black-and-white world, his immobile world of inanimate drawings that had been granted the secret of motion, his death-world with its hidden gift of life. But that life was a deeply ambiguous life, a conjurer’s trick, a crafty illusion based on an accidental property of the retina, which retained an image for a fraction of a second after the image was no longer present. On this frail fact was erected the entire structure of the cinema, that colossal confidence game. The animated cartoon was a far more honest expression of the cinematic illusion than the so-called realistic film, because the cartoon reveled in its own illusory nature, exulted in the impossible – indeed it claimed the impossible as its own, exalted it as its own highest end, found in impossibility, in the negation of the actual, its profoundest reason for being. The animated cartoon was nothing but the poetry of the impossible.
Recast that as being about fiction rather than film and you have the clearest, most straightforward statement of everything Millhauser is doing with his stories. And Voyage to the Dark Side of the Moon presents that vividly by working only because of its own nature as a cartoon, using a succession of visual tricks such as characters erasing lines within the film. In this way Voyage to the Dark Side of the Moon debates within itself the very nature of film, just as Millhauser’s fiction debates within itself the nature of fiction. And when, finally, through heartache and hard labour, the film is complete and Franklin shows it privately to Stella, into the back of the room come the ghosts of all those, living and dead, who have shaped his life: Max and Cora and his editor and parents. Does Franklin die at this moment of epiphany? The story ends.
Da Capo All of which explains nothing.
It gives you a taste of some of the things I like about Steven Millhauser’s work, a glimpse of some of the ideas that excite me, the themes I have identified and followed, the intricate tracery of influences. But a love story? Perhaps that cannot be explained. Perhaps it is something to do with a prose style that delights me, a profligacy of invention that astounds me. All I know is that in any archaeology of Millhauser’s writing I have barely turned the surface, rich layers of intrigue lie buried yet. All I know is that his ideas, his invention, seem limitless and I shall not exhaust the pleasures they present to me. All I know is that I could read his stories forever and always find myself discovering them afresh.
This is a love story.
Like all love stories it is hard to say where it might end