Monday, December 11, 2006

Steven Millhauser, "Martin Dressler" (1996).

The proprietor of a local alternative comics shop had been continously recommending that I read Steven Millhauser, so I finally picked up Martin Dressler (1996). I figured that this would be a proper introduction to the author's work, as it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. It concerns the son of European immigrants who own a cigar store in Manhattan in the 1890's, and his meteoric rise in the world of business.

Martin Dressler demonstrates an entrepreneurial spirit at a very young age, while helping his father in the shop. He soon takes a job as a bellboy at an old fashioned hotel, and works his way up to assistant to the general manager. Feeling compelled to further engage in the developing city, he opens up a string of lunchrooms, and follows with a chain of extravagant hotels. Along the way he befriends a trio of related women, one of which he marries, and another that he takes as a business partner.

Throughout much of this book I wondered whether it was simply a straightforward Horatio Alger-type story of a hardworking boy who finds great wealth. It's embrace of unfettered capitalism seemed to me to be a bit blunt. Seeming to parrot the pieties of the American Dream without question, it became a bit tedious. Dressler employs an early advertising agent and a fancilful architect to assist him in realizing his grand dreams. His instincts are surefire, and for the greatest part of the book Martin has his finger on the pulse of the great city's consumers. He is obviously destined for great wealth because of the quality of his ambition.

Perhaps just as obviously, Martin Dressler becomes a tale of hubris by the end. Martin follows his bliss to the point of completely losing touch with the spirit of the evolving city. He builds an all-inclusive entertainment complex within one building. No longer a mere hotel, it becomes a world unto itself. It includes sublevels with indoor parks and simulated vacation environments. There is an integrated theater district and an almost endless set of diversions. In fact it is so overwhelming in its diversity of entertainment that people seem to lose any understanding of its identity or function. We learn that Martin has pursued the "wrong dream".

While it's true that the entire story is allegorical, I can sympathize with readers who find that Millhauser's characterization lacks depth. Dressler's marriage and seemingly complex relationship with his sister-in-law are only vaguely explored, and serve only to superficially complement the main story arc. We never discover who Martin might be in relation to other people- be it his family, in-laws, associates, or friends. That's fine if this is meant to be pure mythological allegory, but not if it aspires to be truly great literature.

Regardless of whether or not this work deserved the Pulitzer Prize, I found Millhauser's descriptive prose fascinating. His ornate descriptions of the growth of the city and its charms on the cusp of of the twentieth century fleshed out the extremely linear plot. He demonstrates the fruits of a substantial amount of research concerning his chosen times and setting. As historical fiction, Martin Dressler is quite effective. But the details morph into a form of magical realism, especially in the accounts of the fantastic hotels that our hero creates. In this manner, Millhauser is able to draw a parallel between the evolution of his construction projects and Dressler's inner state. It's an interesting literary achievement.


Blogger Susan Constanse said...

I found Martin Dressler a fascinating read. One of the things that I noted was the unreal time.

2:22 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

What do you mean "unreal" time? I think I might have a sense of what you are referring to, but I'm not sure.

9:26 AM  
Blogger Susan Constanse said...

Well, in the descriptions of the activities that comprised each day, I was struck by how activities were assigned within the same timeperiod and it didn't add up. In fact, in some cases the time of the activities seemed to add up to more than 24 hours. does that make sense?

6:18 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yeah, that totally makes sense... althouh I never really noticed that.

6:15 PM  

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