Tuesday, February 23, 2021

a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters - Steven Millhauser piles things up

Steven Millhauser won a Pulitzer for his novel Martin Dressler (1996) and somewhere around that time I read a review that must have impressed me, since I bought the novel and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998), $5.95 at the Chicago Powell’s, regular price $22.00.  What a bargain!  I read neither, and moved them both at least three times.  Never again!  Or, really, one last time.

Now I’ve read The Knife Thrower.  It’s a collection of fantasy stories.  Some are in the American vein of Bernard Malamud and John Cheever, like “Flying Carpets,” where, bored with their bicycles, the suburban youth spend the summer flying around on the new craze.  Others are more like Italo Calvino or Jorge Luis Borges, but transported into an American setting (usually) and idiom (always).  Where Borges describes, in “The Library of Babel,” his fantasy (or nightmare) of an infinite library, Millhauser, in “The Dream of the Consortium,” writes about an endless, perpetually changing department store:

We passed among dinner plates with pictures of blue windmills on them, footed glass dessert dishes filled with wax apricots, brightly colored 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… a sub-department that sold full-sized Ferris wheels, merry-go-rounds, and roller coasters…  precise wooden and plaster models of Victorian London, Nuremberg in the age of Dürer, and Manhattan in 1925… imperfect mannequins… full-sized replicas of entire ancient cities.  (156-7, those ellipses of mine cover a lot more stuff)

For a reader who read I don’t know how many times the chapter of Robinson Crusoe where Crusoe unloads the wrecked ship, and the chapter of Huckleberry Finn where Huck loots his father’s cabin before faking his death, is this ever my kind of thing.

Can a story have no characters?  Millhauser, like Borges, comes as close as possible.  The narrator, that general “we,” whether it explores the department store,  watches the performance of a famous knife thrower, or lives in a town built over a series of mysterious tunnels, is the guiding sensibility, a character, maybe the only character, by default.

I know some people say that settings can become characters, but I do not know what they mean.  Millhauser’s settings are settings, lovingly invented and described.

Millhauser loves theatrical excess, American and European, things that are too big or too small, whatever surprises.  Thus, in the department store, the circus wagons, roller coasters, and miniature cities, and also the “gloomy department of caves and tunnels” (153).  The Knife Thrower has, effectively, a climax, the forty-page “Paradise Park,” where a classic Coney Island amusement park pulls together the major themes from all the other stories.  Rides, games, spectacles, but also hidden levels, anti-rides, abstraction, alienation as amusement.

These stories can be a little bit like the kind of computer game where you explore a landscape, often obsessively, not caring exactly what is around the corner as long as it is something.  Any invention will do.

But they are also often – maybe too often? – arguments or allegories about imagination and creativity.  “The New Automaton Theater” is especially bald.  The great maker of miniature automatons is the ultimate realist (“Every perfectly rendered gesture seems designed only to draw us more deeply inward; we feel an uncanny intimacy with this restless creature, whose mysterious life we seem to know more deeply than our own,” 117) but has a crisis and becomes an Expressionist, maybe?  Some kind of Modernist:

But Graum’s new automatons suffer and struggle; no less than the old automatons do they appear to have souls.  But they do not have the souls of human beings; they have the souls of clockwork creatures, grown conscious of themselves.  (124)

This is obviously about fiction, right?  Everything changing in 1910, as Virginia Woolf says.

Expect Martin Dressler to appear here at some point.  Going backwards, the next book I should write up is Gustave Flaubert’s folly The Temptation of Saint Anthony, but I think I will follow the theme and look at another circus book: The Circus of Dr. Lao

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