Saturday, July 26, 2008

Steven Millhauser, "Little Kingdoms" (1993).

Sometimes when I develop a taste for a certain author, I decide to read his works over a long span of time, in the hope of making a good thing last. In the case of Steven Millhauser, circumstances have led me to make my way through a few titles in a relatively short period. While this has given me a clearer understanding of the continuity of his perspective, I think it may have also led to a subtle fatigue. I still feel that he is an interesting and talented writer, but I found myself continually checking to see how many pages were left in Little Kingdoms. However it's not the case that it contains inferior tales. Maybe Millhauser is simply better appreciated in the depths of winter. While his themes are accessible, his style is often fairly dense.

Regardless of whether or not Millhauser is appropriate beach reading, there is much to savor in Little Kingdoms. It contains three novellas of wildly divergent settings and approaches. The first is entitled "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne". The titular character is a young man from Cincinnati who steadily distinguishes himself as a newspaper cartoonist. He gets married and finds his way to Manhattan in the first decade of the 20th Century. While he continues to turn out editorial cartoons and Sunday funnies, he labors into the night working on an animated cartoon distinguished by tedious precision and unfettered fantasy. As he does so, his marriage slowly dissolves. Still he manages to create an art that is truly out-of-time.

"The Princess, the Dwarf and the Dungeon" occupies the middle portion of the Little Kingdoms. For this tale Millhauser abandons his typical turn-of-the-century urban milieu in favor of medieval towns and castles. It describes a tale of palace intrigue between a prince, a princess, and a visiting noble. When the sovereign finds himself suspicious of his beautiful wife's fidelity, he decides to engineer a test. He urges her to offer herself to the noble (who happens to be his longtime loyal friend) and report the results of the situation back to him. Obviously this is a no-win situation all around, and the reader sees the eventual outcome as inevitable. The dwarf of the title is particularly treacherous, and perhaps a slight to "little people everywhere".

The final installment is "Catalogue of the Exhibition", and perhaps the most fascinating from a structural standpoint. It is divided by descriptions of various paintings the main character (Edmund Moorash) completed during his lifetime. The notes on the content and style of these works are supplemented by the kind of historical context you might see in curatorial statements. They gradually unveil a story of two pairs of siblings that spend time together in a rural idyllic setting, and the ramifications of their intensely formed individual bonds. Ultimately the developing plot takes on a tragic quality, as we see Moorash increasingly affected by the relationship between his artwork and the events of his life.

I was particularly struck by some of the formal experimentation of Little Kingdoms. As noted above with "Catalogue of the Exhibition", Millhauser has chosen to employ some atypical means to relate his stories. While I found "The Princess, the Dwarf and the Dungeon" fairly trite in terms of the plot-line, I was mildly intrigued by Millhauser's choice to have an anonymous townie as the narrator. He uses this device to examine the nature of folktales in general, with mixed results. Obviously "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" hews most closely to the traditions of Millhauser's most celebrated works. While I found the other two included novellas to be a bit contrived, I still enjoyed the author's consistent mastery of the language and his amazing facility for description.

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