Saturday, August 18, 2007

Steven Millhauser, "In the Penny Arcade" (1986)

I have to admit being just a bit skeptical about book recommendations. Because of my ongoing project, I have refined my tastes to the point that I already know the type of stuff I want to be reading in the upcoming year. So generally I'm not interested in disrupting that continuity. Occasionally someone makes a compelling enough case to convince me that a particular author is worth paying attention to. Even so there are several layers of resistance that such a suggestion has to pass through before I honor it.

One of my sources that I generally trust is Bill over at Copacetic. He has guided me through the world of alt-comix during the last several years. Because I usually enjoy the things he sends my way, he gets the benefit of the doubt. I could create an quick list of cartoonists that I only know about because of Bill. But this post isn't about comics- it's about an author. On more than a few occasions, Bill has seen me browsing through the relatively small but impressive collection of literature that he stocks in his little store. And he's tried to turn me on to one of his all-time favorite authors, Steven Millhauser. It may be solely because of the imprint under which he is published (Pheonix of Orion Books Ltd), but his books were never quite intriguing enough to catch my interest. I admit this exposes a particularly American superficiality, but I am definitely vulnerable to marketing demographics. The packaging of Millhauser's works is plainly stolid. That may reflect the fact that the publisher is British. I'm not 100% certain.

When I was finally ready to take the Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler (1996) home, I prepared myself for an intensely dry read. That wasn't at all what I discovered. The award-winning book traces the rags-to-riches ascendancy of the title character. Dressler works his way up from cigar store stock-boy to hotel mogul in a couple hundred pages. Along the way his visionary dreams of creating an interior world within the confines of a quickly developing NYC proceed at a break-neck pace. There is a side-plot in which Dressler courts a pair of sisters, but I found that arc a bit contrived. What Millhauser succeeds best at is in evoking grand images through a series of very descriptive lists. He's obviously obsessed by systems theory, and this fetish is enough to sustain the discriminating reader's interest.

After I was done with his magnum opus, I wasn't sure if I needed to return to Millhauser in any expedient fashion. But then I found a couple more of his works in the remainder section of an independent bookstore in Shepherdstown, WV. I recently finished In the Penny Arcade (1986), a collection of short stories. The first entry is called "August Eschenberg", and the character for which it is named is very similar to Martin Dressler. Eschenberg is a man of extraordinary vision and imagination, and he inevitably struggles with social forces that tend to bring visionaries down to the mediocrity of the masses. American attentions are fickle, and tend to focus on the grandiose and sexy aspects of their various entertainments. A true thing of beauty will only engage the consumer mindset until it is no longer novel. Eschenberg's clockwork art becomes a victim of its own co-option, meeting a similar fate as Dressler's hotels. After concluding this story I thought I had a firm grasp on Millhauser's thematic range.

But I was pleasantly surprised at the emotionally resonant tales that followed. It turns out that Millhauser is perfectly capable of documenting the inner lives of his characters, even when they are confined to a more human scale. Stories like In the Penny Arcade, A Day in the Country, and The Sledding Party demonstrate that Millhauser is no stranger to the wonders of the heart. While his sometimes Dickensian prose belies the magical realism tucked away at its center, Millhauser's fictions here contain a deeper strain of understanding for the subtleties of memory and loss. I found both a deeper and wider facility in this writing that I had not expected after my initial reading of Millhauser. And that means I will be returning again soon.

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