Friday, October 30, 2009

Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser

My adaptation class recently read Millhauser's short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" and that prompted me to finally read this Pulitzer prize-winning novel. I'm a big fan of Millhauser's first novel Edwin Mullhouse and of his recent short story collection that I'm suddenly forgetting the name of, but I knew my feelings wouldn't be so strong for this novel which I had started in the past and never finished. Yet I admired it in the end.

Two interesting things: first, the novel has a subtitle (as does Edwin Mullhouse), in this case, "The Tale of an American Dreamer" and that does a lot to point the reader to an interpretation of the novel that goes beyond the character-plot stuff on the surface and second, it starts off as a very realistic piece of historical fiction but turns into a more speculative piece of alternative history. And the turn works partly because it's a Millhauser novel and so anybody who's read his work before is comfortable with his inventive imaginings and because the style from the start of the novel always feels a little unreal, fable-ish. Readers of "Eisenheim the Illusionist" will recognize a similar thing at play--he creates a very real sense of history through known facts and convincing detail, but simultaneously creates a sense of fantasy through style, metaphor, and a near absence of direct dialogue (so that the characters feel a little unreal). So when he wants to move away from history to his own alternative, it doesn't feel out of nowhere--the shift still feels of his world.

While what makes Millhauser unusual is his ability to invent really original stuff, I think what I admire most is his use of imagery. Whether describing something real or something imagined his ability to create an atmospheric photograph (it's often a frozen moment) is really top notch. It's what makes both the historical and the speculative storylines believable. And it's a good reminder that realism and fantasy require the same attention to detail to be effective.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dangerous Laughter!