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Steven Millhauser.


Since his debut in 1972, Steven Millhauser has published novels, short story collections, and novella collections to widespread critical acclaim and, until recently, little popular attention. When he earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressier: The Tale of an American Dreamer, many reviewers predicted a rise in his readership. A survey of Millhauser criticism shows a marked increase following this, though not nearly adequate to what he deserves. No book-length work on Millhauser or his craft, general or academic, exists in English. The French, however, have notably embraced Millhauser, producing two books on his work: an introductory overview of his oeuvre and a collection of essays presented at a 2004 conference at the University of Lille, which honored the addition of his story collection The Knife Thrower and Other Stories to the French national teacher examination program, which certifies secondary-school teachers in specialized areas--in this case, lettres anglais (literature in English). Besides a healthy amount of book reviews spanning his writing career, there are only five author interviews, approximately a dozen academic articles, a few book chapters, and two doctoral dissertations published in English that deal wholly or partly with Millhauser's fiction.

Part of the responsibility for the lack of notice lies with Millhauser himself, who generally refuses to publicize himself, a consequence of his strong belief that an author's work should speak for itself: "Unless a writer is a trained aesthetician, his opinion concerning the nature of fiction is of no more interest than his opinion concerning the nature of the economy" (qtd. in Schuessler 57). In an article entitled "Two Mandarin Stylists," J. D. O'Hara divides contemporary American fiction into two categories--Mandarin and Vernacular (complex and simple), placing Millhauser definitively in the first camp. O'Hara blames Millhauser's limited audience on poor readers: "readers nowadays tend to prefer Vernacular writers. This may be traced to the famous decline in American literacy, as a result of which linguistic and intellectual complexity baffles them. It may stem from our earnest moral confusion of simplicity with truth ..." (250). That Millhauser has gained more readers in France certainly justifies O'Hara's claim. But American resistance to Millhauser is not entirely due to a lazy readership: his fiction also works against realism and minimalism, our most recent cultural and literary trends.

His tales, whether in the form of stories, novellas, or novels, manipulate reality, stretching it until it seeps into another realm--otherworldly, fantastic, and strange. They begin innocently enough in a recognizable setting, often the northeastern United States, usually Connecticut or New York, places where the author grew up or currently resides. Yet Millhauser's uncanny talent for meticulous description, rending from his individual and our collective memories the details of quotidian life, slowly, subtly transforms reality into dream. He favors places that defamiliarize and destabilize: museums, arcades, hotels, amusement parks, skyscrapers. Many of these settings house both the gigantic and the miniature, and size is an obsession of Millhauser's, because a shift in scale necessarily alters our perception of everyday things, granting them a magical quality that normally goes unnoticed:
   discrepancy of size is a form of distortion, and all forms of
   distortion shock us into attention: the inattentive and jaded
   eye, passing through a world without interest, helplessly
   perceives that something in a bland panorama is not as it should
   be. The eye is irritated into attention. It is compelled to perform
   an act of recognition. (Millhauser, "Fascination" 33)

Within these transgressive spaces, Millhauser displays his lists, catalogs of syntactical and allusive genius, "in which the dynamics of expectation/formation and surprise are carefully modulated" (Sheridan 12); in other words, a pattern, though initially detected, always unravels--"the sunny tall grass" and "milkweed pods and pink thistles" become "the far sound of a hand mower, like distant scissors" (The Knife Thrower 81). These enumerations also work toward betraying reality, because though they may seem exhaustive, they underscore the limitations of language: "The art of the list is that although it sustains and systematizes the world's mortal hoard, it confesses, without succumbing to, its own insufficiencies" (Saltzman, "Archives"). Lists imply a beyond, for there are always forgotten items, unstated and hovering in the margins. Millhauser's narrators also serve to break the illusion of realism. Their voices mimic a great spectrum of literary styles, undermining any initial certitude regarding our geographical and historical location. With narrators recalling writers as diverse as Byron, Nabokov, Swift, and Chaucer, Millhauser's milieus become contaminated by anachronism. Additionally, these narrators are often disaffected, despairing, and dissolving. Readers cannot always place them in relation to the narrative, most notably when they are first-person plural narrators, as in many of the stories in The Knife Thrower, a ghostly royal "we" who use distance to grant themselves false innocence.

Millhauser is a storyteller of the Arabian Nights variety, weaving tale after tale in order to keep himself alive, for the role of the artist is to survive his art. We see this preoccupation with creation throughout his work: from automaton-makers to painters, magicians to biographers, his characters use art to try to survive life. But therein lies the danger, for at times their art subsumes their reality, paradoxically destroying them. The artist's dilemma is analogous to Millhauser's, for both begin in reality and end somewhere less definable. The shift from real to dream, tangible to intangible, is barely perceptible--Millhauser's eerily crafted objects at once resemble reality and transcend it. His penchant for dreamlike spaces, relentless attention to minutiae, reliance on literary allusion, and use of unreliable and archaic narrators all work against facile generic classification, though it is clear that he shuns realism. And this, no doubt, contributes to his limited American audience:
   This predilection for the fabulous and self-delightedly artificial
   stands in sharp contrast to the lion's share of American stories
   and novels published in the last ten to fifteen years, for current
   fiction is almost always at pains to present itself as naturalistic
   in subject matter and plainspoken in technique, and it will almost
   never admit to an originating impulse deriving from literature
   itself. But it would be difficult to name a writer more exotic,
   fey, perversely playful, allusive, literary, structurally
   elaborate, and philosophically speculative than Millhauser. (Fowler,
   "Miniaturist" 5)

--A. R.


Because Steven Millhauser places such an emphasis on form, providing biographical information seems a sort of betrayal. In an interview with Marc Chenetier conducted in 2003, Millhauser stated: "By training and temperament I believe that the text is primary, that the reader must not bring to the text anything that isn't actually there." And yet the temptation to associate details from Millhauser's personal life with the motifs of his fiction lurks, especially given the relationship between his childhood in Connecticut and the quotidian details of his twelve-year-old narrator Jeffrey Cartwright in the novel Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954: "Not to wax biographical ... but surely Mullhouse is Millhauser's childhood self" (Postlethwaite 69). Even Millhauser cannot deny this relationship: "Everything I had to say about Stratford is in my first novel, though in a fractured, meticulously distorted way" (qtd. in Interview, Bomb). If the information that follows betrays the author, so be it. Betrayal, after all, is one of Millhauser's favorite themes, perhaps best explored in the novellas "Revenge" and "An Adventure of Don Juan."

"Shy Author Likes to Live and Work in Obscurity," the title of Dinitia Smith's 1997 article for the New York Times, justly reflects both the assessment of Millhauser's interviewers and the few critical essays published on Millhauser over his career. The sources fortunate enough to have corresponded with, spoken to, or actually seen him have established a number of facts. Steven Millhauser was born Steven Lewis Millhauser on 3 August 1943 in New York, though he grew up in Connecticut, where his father worked as an English professor at the University of Bridgeport. His mother is peculiarly absent from sources such as Dictionary of Literary Biography, though Millhauser himself has testified to her existence on at least two occasions, identifying her as a first-grade teacher (Interview, Bomb) and as a reader: "It's good to know that my ninety-year-old mother isn't my only reader" (Millhauser, "Re: Hello").

Many sources point out that Millhauser earned a B.A. from Columbia University in 1965, though few specify his major. Most peculiar is the treatment of his mysterious academic career, which is consistently minimized in statements such as "did graduate work at Brown University for three years" ("Steven Millhouser," DLB); or "A three-year period as a graduate student at Brown University followed" (Smith). The jacket of his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, tells us that "he entered the graduate school of Brown University, from which he is currently on leave." We know little of the period between his departure from graduate school and the publication in 1972 of Edwin Mullhouse. After two additional novels and one story collection, Millhauser began a professorial career as a visiting associate professor at Williams College from 1986 to 1988, then as an associate professor and later professor at Skidmore College from 1988 to the present. His wife, Cathy, we learn only from Smith, "creates crossword puzzles." Since the late 1980s, Millhauser has lived in Saratoga Springs in upstate New York (Schuessler 56), a fact that might account for his "east-coast regionalism" (Kasper 89).

According to Jeffrey Cartwright, the narrator/biographer of Edwin Mullhouse, the biographer's job consists of order and inclusion: "Calmly and methodically, in one fell swoop, in a way impossible for the harried novelist who is always trying to do a hundred things at once, he can simply say what he has to say, ticking off each item with his right hand on the successively raised fingers of his left" (54). In this regard, the short biography of Steven Millhauser is now complete. But Jeffrey Cartwright consistently and progressively shatters biographical objectivity by intruding into the story he tells, eventually changing the course of his subject's life by ending it, for his subject must be dead in order for his biography to attain closure: "The three-part division of his life had already established itself in my mind" (281). Undoubtedly, Steven Millhauser must periodically impose himself onto his fiction, as he himself admits: "many details of setting are based on my memory of particular streets and houses and rooms--and because memory itself is a form of history, these stories too may be said to have an historical basis" ("An Interview"). From this point forward, we will focus on Millhauser's work, keeping in mind that his ghostly presence may in fact be haunting it.

--A. R.


Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972)

Steven Millhauser's first novel, published in 1972 by Knopf, won France's Prix Medicis Etranger and earned the author "rave reviews" (Schuessler 57); it did not, however, catapult Millhauser into the literary consciousness of America. Like much of Millhauser's work, Edwin Mullhouse is difficult to categorize, which may help to account for its popular and scholarly marginalization. The novel is a mock biography of Edwin Mullhouse, the narrator's childhood friend and author of Cartoons, a novel completed just before his eleventh birthday. Jeffrey Cartwright meticulously documents Edwin's life and times, organizing the biography into three major sections: "THE EARLY YEARS (Aug. 1, 1943-Aug. 1, 1949)," "THE MIDDLE YEARS (Aug. 2, 1949-Aug. 1, 1952)," and "THE LATE YEARS (Aug. 2, 1952-Aug. 1, 1954)." But Jeffrey increasingly becomes the center of his own story, a tendency that questions the claim of biographical objectivity and, by extension, the relationship between fact and fiction: "Jeffrey Cartwright is a classic unreliable narrator who constantly intrudes into his autobiography by calling attention to himself, his own wondrous memory, and his devotion to biography" (Adams 208).

Edwin Mullhouse is most often labeled a parody of literary biography (Smith; "Steven Millhauser," DLB; "Steven Millhauser," CLC; Boyd 35; Simson 74). Jeffrey's ironic voice and elevated language justify this interpretation, for he seems bent on lampooning "biography's conventions ... in revisionist fashion" (Herreiro-Olaizola 78). In fact, his egoism and quirkiness grant him comparison to high literary stock: "Jeffrey is a Nabokovian child" (Rev. of Edwin Mullhouse 30); "Created out of literary DNA cloned from Nabokov's nutty, charming, sinister narrators" (Fowler, "Postmodern Promise" 78); "Not since Vladimir Nabokov set Dr. Charles Kinbote loose to wreak havoc on poet John Shade's heroic couplets in Pale Fire has there been a more deliciously loony literary critic than Jeffrey Cartwright" (Postlethwaite 68). At least one critic disagrees with the Nabokovian analogy, finding Edwin Mullhouse more akin to Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn, as Told by a Friend (Rieckmann 62). Regardless of Jeffery's literary ancestry, his role as biographer is suspect. There is no doubt that Jeffrey cannot be trusted; he looms in the shadows like a cancer in remission: "Fortunately it has been my policy in this work to huddle modestly in the background except when my presence is absolutely necessary for the illumination of some facet of Edwin's life" (236). But Jeffrey interferes again and again until he finally drives Edwin to suicide; when Edwin loses his nerve, Jeffrey pulls the trigger for him, so that Edwin will have died at the height of his literary career, making his novel the "immortal masterpiece" required by the biographer (260). A less than subtle hint underscores Jeffrey's part in Edwin's death, as he admits in his preface that he did "all the dirty work."

The comparison to Nabokov is strengthened by the book's "Introductory Note," penned by Walter Logan White, one of Jeffrey's former classmates--now a professor who resurrects the biography, "proclaiming [it] to be a modern classic" (viii); and the "Preface to the First Edition," signed J. C., a condescending rant written in elevated language: "Let me say at once that in this instance there are none to thank besides myself" (xi). Millhauser piles on layer after layer of voices: the stilted formalism of nineteenth-century literary biography, the sly unreliability of a postmodern narrator, the inflated rhetoric of academic criticism. In Beyond Suspicion, Marc Chenetier discusses how the novel's allusive multiplicity rescues it from "mere cuteness": "It is these other voices, as much as the remarkable, uncompromising representation of an overly mythologized universe, that save the world of childhood from the cliches of popular culture, from the mush of preconceptions, and from the stereotypes of psychology and sociology" (247). The verbal tiers also contribute to the novel's comedy, for "much of the humor consists of the literary method as it contrasts with the trivial or mundane situation being described" (Pearson 146). With utmost seriousness, Jeffrey recounts Edwin's first years, his drooling and pointing, and his senseless exclamations, such as his early memorization of Dickens: "It wuzza besta time, it wuzza wussa time, it wuzza age a whiz, it wuzza age a foo!" (37). Moments like these should negate the idea that Edwin Mullhouse is an earnest study of the romantic splendors and unspoiled innocence of childhood.

However, it cannot be denied that the novel is, in some measure, an acute study of childhood. Accomplished through exceptional detail, this evocation of the formative years tempts many reviewers into categorizing Edwin Mullhouse as realism, a false comfort at best, for Millhauser uses quotidian reality to achieve the fantastic. Millhauser's details are not only incredibly specific, but also overwhelmingly abundant. Jeffrey describes the minutiae of Edwin's room, from its wallpaper--"The matte wallpaper, pebbled to the touch, contained a series of six vertical maroon lines crossed by a repeated series of four horizontal maroon lines on a silver-gray background"--to its wall map--"a map of the United States in full color, showing fish and steamships in the dark blue oceans, a palm tree in Florida, a skyscraper in New York, an ear of corn in Iowa, an Indian in Arizona, a log in Oregon, and nothing in Connecticut" (69). Every contour and accoutrement of their first-grade classroom is accounted for; every book Edwin ever read; every girl Edwin ever loved.

Millhauser's cataloging in Edwin Mullhouse has led some reviewers to facile conclusions, such as calling the novel "a heartfelt evocation of childhood" (Simson 74). In his 1996 article in Critique, "Steven Millhauser, Miniaturist," Douglas Fowler addresses this misconception, outlining how Millhauser's powers of description ultimately reveal something deeper: "Just as with Nabokov, a story that seems at first merely a parody turns out to culminate in serious philosophic speculation--with Millhauser, literary parody is often the cradle of his inspiration." But where is Edwin Mullhouse's philosophical dialogue? The answer lies in Jeffrey's theory of "scrupulous distortion," by which he explains the appeal of Cartoons: "For by the method of scrupulous distortion, Edwin draws attention to things that have been rendered invisible to us by overmuch familiarity. ... We are shocked by distortion into the sudden perception of the forgotten strangeness of things" (265-66).

If we expand Jeffrey's analysis of Edwin's novel into a metafictional instruction for how to read Millhauser's novel, then we realize that everyday objects, once refracted by an author's perception, become magical. Jeffrey's scrupulous distortion is not unlike Victor Shklovsky's "technique of defamiliarization," wherein "Art removes objects from the automatism of perception" (219); or Julio Cortazar's "Instruction Manual," which asks that the "indifferent vigor of a daily reflex" be replaced by renewed focus (3). Millhauser himself takes up these very critical ideas in an interview with Marc Chenetier where he desires for his readers "to grow more and more estranged from the familiar" in order to "see things usually obscured by habit." Edwin Mullhouse should not be confused with the simple tale of an American childhood. Millhauser's elaborate details exist to alter the reader's reality; the microscopic focus that they demand lends the objects an unfamiliar strangeness.

Portrait of a Romantic (1977)

Through the use of a first-person narrator suffering from depression, boredom, and intelligence, Portrait of a Romantic continues Millhauser's fascination with heightened states of consciousness. Arthur Grumm, the twenty-nine-year-old voice of the novel, reflects on his life between the ages of twelve to fifteen--a time in which he cheated death while his best friend (much like Edwin Mullhouse) succumbed to it. Once again, the temptation exists to equate Grumm with Millhauser, perpetuating the fallacy that fiction is thinly veiled memoir. More astute critics recognize the layering of voices that works to separate the author from his subject and Grumm from himself: Millhauser "avoids the vulgarities of sincerity in part by distancing himself from the voices of his fiction" (O'Hara, "Mandarin" 252). This is accomplished through dialogic allusion, recalling authors as disparate as Joyce and Poe, not to mention a prowling Nabokov. Another mistake critics make is to classify the novel as an American bildungsroman, meant to "tell you some grim truths about adulthood" (O'Hara, "Portrait" 1679). While the similarities between Portrait of a Romantic and a coming-of-age novel cannot be entirely discounted--Arthur faces "problems not unconnected to those experienced by Salinger's Holden Caulfield and Glass children"--Portrait of a Romantic effectively eliminates the viability of this comparison through its multiplicity of voices: "But the irony here is more integrated to the voice, the sarcasm and self-criticism make themselves heard beneath Arthur Grumm's 'romantic' sighs" (Chinetier, Suspicion 247). As in Edwin Mullhouse, Millhauser manipulates the stratified voices to effect parody.

Arthur Grumm the narrator is not Arthur Grumm the character, for the narrator re-creates himself as a protagonist, thereby giving "a fictitious account" of his own life (Smith). In large part, Arthur accomplishes this refashioning through the use of an exaggerated, writerly voice that is immediately apparent in the novel's opening paragraph: "Mother of myself, myself I sing: lord of loners, duke of dreams, king of the clowns. Youth and death I sing, sunbeams and moonbeams, laws and breakers of laws. I, Arthur Grumm, lover and killer" (1). His voice serves two purposes: it parodies romanticism and underscores his unreliability. The "cloak of romanticism" ("Steven Millhauser," DLB) conceals--attempts to conceal--his culpability in the death of his best friend, William Mainwaring, with whom he makes a suicide pact. For pages, Arthur reminisces in paratactic images while William holds a gun in preparation:
   And then, the first time I saw you, it was in the bus, you were
   sitting in back, I couldn't see you too well, but then, when I was
   standing on the sidewalk ... then we became friends, mother always
   said you were a well-behaved boy, remember the time we, and that
   summer, the bush-house, we had some good times together, you were
   always my best, and I'll never, but you were always, you never ...
   and you were always so reserved, William, you never ... of course
   I'm not expressing myself well, I realize that.... (309-10)

Arthur's words serve only to call attention to the words he refuses to speak, which would prevent William's death.

Some critics have found this voice problematic in its self-indulgence: "His [Arthur's] clear fictive attraction to the saturated longueurs of E. A. Poe ... is always derailed by Millhauser's impulse to parody the ennui without curtailing the techniques that produce it" (Kinzie 124). Other readers, however, find that Arthur's voice works in concert with Millhauser's, "recurrently reminding the reader to keep a safe distance" (O'Hara, "Mandarin" 252). We must remember that the narrative action and the narrative voice serve to illuminate the conflict between fact and fiction. As with Edwin Mullhouse, in which the subject must die for the biography to gain life, Portrait of a Romantic "crystallizes the sinister usurpation of life by art" (Fowler, "Postmodern" 79).

Millhauser further stresses this dichotomy through his use of the theme of the double. Arthur instantly recognizes William as his likeness: "I first saw my double in the seventh grade" (24). The two boys are henceforth continually conflated, notably through the motif of the shadow, which consequently foreshadows William's death, for the protagonist must kill his shadow, who threatens to overtake him. The night wanderings of Arthur and William exploit this theme. When Arthur first sees William return to his house, the garage door fragments him: "... I caught a last glimpse of him standing in the garage, disappearing from top to bottom as the big white door came down" (59). Later Arthur will sneak into and William will sneak out of that garage door, allowing Millhauser to cut and splice the boys and their shadows: "When I came to the glowing blue-white garage door at the side of the house, my shadow leaped up and towered over me" (74). Millhauser further complicates this theme by a "doubling-of-the double," (Kinzie 119) as Arthur meets his triple, Phillip Schoolcraft, a morose boy addicted to Russian roulette. Of course, William hates Phillip, for Phillip then serves as William's double, who threatens his existence (for some time, Arthur stops being friends with William in order to befriend Phillip). Throughout the novel, Millhauser repeats sentences verbatim, further emphasizing the theme of the double.

Perhaps the best evocation of Millhauser's penchant for doubling and repetition occurs in the section of the novel dealing with Eleanor, Arthur's love interest, a sickly girl who lives in her room at the top of two flights of stairs, amid a collection of dolls, which all serve as her doubles: "Imagine Emmeline Grangerford in a set by Poe as described by Robbe-Grillet, and you have Eleanor at home" (Stade 13). Eleanor emphasizes Millhauser's debt to the nineteenth-century uncanny, as all that is familiar soon turns strange. Her awesome collection of dolls, costumes, and toys creates a "confusion between the animate and inanimate" (Millhauser, "Questions"). Eleanor's house is also doubled by a secret room with a gabled dollhouse that she calls "The Childhood Museum," which is further doubled by another secret room that leads to a maze of passageways and rooms full of abandoned clothes and toys. All of this doubling serves to confuse the reader, so that every original that becomes doubled--Eleanor by dolls, her house by the dollhouse, her childhood self by her future adult self (who is lurking just beyond her present adolescence)--eventually seems a shadow. Millhauser uses toys particularly to evoke the uncanny:
   Every child knows that the bear is stuffed, the dollhouse fake; at
   the same time, the bear is completely alive, the dollhouse more real
   than the actual house, since both are animated in every particle of
   their being by the force of the child's imagination. A further
   development of the uncanny occurs when the child grows up--the old
   toys, dusty and dead, still give off a tremor of the life that once
   flowed through them. ("Questions")

In the section of the novel featuring Eleanor, Millhauser manipulates her toys as an expert puppeteer, using them to voice the most salient properties of all that we consider uncanny.

From the moment of her appearance, Eleanor is ghostly, always disappearing. She even seems to have phantom limbs: "And different parts of her would seem to go their own way, as if she failed to watch over all of them at the same time" (150). In his dealings with Eleanor, Arthur becomes her double, so that he becomes perpetually tired and ill, as if her mysterious sickness were contagious. This allows Eleanor to get better, and she must finally cast him away in order to remain healthy. Arthur then reunites with William, again his shadow, who must die in order for Arthur to survive.

On the surface, Portrait of a Romantic continues Millhauser's treatment of childhood into an examination of adolescence. More importantly, his second novel continues his fascination with layering allusion and voice, so that the two novels enter into dialogue with each other. This drives his own body of work into its own deconstruction. What George Stade of the New York Times Book Review says about Portrait of a Romantic is equally true about Millhauser's twin first novels: "Once you reread the book the particulars begin to look different. The foreshadowings become luminous with afterglow" (30).

From the Realm of Morpheus (1986)

Steven Millhauser's third novel, From the Realm of Morpheus, was rejected by Knopf because "the manuscript was over 1,000 pages long and Mr. Millhauser refused to cut it" (Smith). Millhauser now admits that "In its original form, the book was a long error"--an error that lured him toward "shorter forms," which avoided his "disenchantment with the aggression of length" ("Questions"). Once Millhauser shortened the novel, Morrow published it in 1986, the same year as his short story collection, In the Penny Arcade. To date, the novel has received little attention from reviewers and critics alike; in fact, not one full-length analysis of From the Realm of Morpheus has been published. The lack of scholarship seems odd, for the novel is a veritable collage of literary allusions and styles; Millhauser explains that "The novel itself is highly allusive because its presiding spirit is the god of dreams, who in my view is the source of all imaginative creation; the novel, among other things, is supposed to be a kind of summa of the imagination" ("Questions"). At the onset of the novel, Carl Hausman, a bored young man of unspecified age, follows a baseball into the underworld where he meets Morpheus, god of dreams, who serves as his guide. The underworld, for all its oddities, exists as a double and reflection of the real world (Porte 10); here again we witness Millhauser's hovering between two realms, his characteristic conflation of dream and reality. During the course of their wanderings, which serve as a narrative frame, Carl meets various denizens of the deep, so that his journey gets interrupted again and again by the interpolated tales that--"like Aeneas, like Dante"--he faithfully records (Dirda, "Journey").

Carl Hausman proves to be an exceedingly calm voyager, always able to provide the most exacting details even while unsure of the nature of his surroundings and whether he will ever return to the upper world. Take the very moment of his fall: "I had proceeded in this manner for about fifteen paces when the wall unexpectedly gave way to empty space and I nearly fell; for a moment I had the sensation of hovering at the edge of the abyss" (19). As his tour of the underworld progresses, Carl becomes more and more infected with the speech and manner of his guide Morpheus, whose voice cannot easily be classified though it's been called "pseudo-Falstaffian Elizabethan lingo" (Crowley). Morpheus sees himself as a logophile: "Lover of words and lecher of words, licking my tongue into the dark crannies of syllables, lapping up secret juices, rooting with my swine-snout in the warm moist furrows, guzzling and snorting, licking my chops" (42). The overt sexual wordplay reveals the second vital element of his character: Morpheus is a Don Juan, a rake, a "charming rogue" (38). Two of the interpolated stories are Morpheus's, "The Tale of Morpheus and Volumnia," recounting his cuckolding by a virtuous maiden and the evils of marriage, and "The Tale of Morpheus and Vivayne," describing his sexual conquest of one mermaid and his spurning by another. These stories give Morpheus the chance to indulge in self-pity--exclaiming "'S death" and "'S blood"--and the opportunity to discuss his views on the female gender: "for though a woman be upright, yet at last she will lie down on her back, and wooing, wed, or wild, what matter" (197). In her review for the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani views this as a character flaw: "And Morpheus ... is really little but a boring male chauvinist who likes to carry on at length about the physical attributes of women and the horrors of domesticity" (2). Of course, this type of assessment ignores the self-referential playfulness intended by Millhauser. Morpheus's chauvinism is ironic, for in fact he makes a poor Don Juan--in one scene he repeatedly capitulates to the desires of his capricious and unfaithful wife, and in another he safeguards the giantess Ekli's feelings by admonishing Carl, who has been ambiguous about his own romantic intentions for her. The stories-within-the-story soon challenge the initial characterizations of Morpheus and Carl.

The narrative conceit of From the Realm of Morpheus has been compared to that of "the Arabian Nights or the Canterbury Tales" (Dirda, "Journey"). And it is within these fanciful stories that Millhauser displays his literary ancestry and adaptability. The first tale, perhaps the best, is "The Tale of Ignotus," a melancholy artist who comes alive out of his portrait. Labeled "a tale worthy of E. T. A. Hoffman" (Dirda, "Journey") and "like something thought up by E. T. A. Hoffman" (Crowley 2), this story explores the relationship between art and life. In typical Millhauser style, the theme of doubling appears, as there is an artist who paints an artist, the Ignotus of the title, who looks real and then becomes real; in fact, he can shift among two to three dimensions at will. Unfortunately, Ignotus's ability to come to life is discovered, and he is blackmailed, forced by a mediocre magician to perform the trick of exiting from and reentering the painting on stage. Of course, from the moment of his conception, the artist is doomed, for the artist who created the artist infused him with his own soul-sighing. When Carl first sees the painting, he comments: "I was thinking that the very idea of suffering has about it a touch of boastfulness--of irritating self-display--of emotion a little too pleased with itself--not to mention an air of special pleading" (58). What makes this story so remarkable is Millhauser's ironic treatment of the theme, for Ignotus is "a stock character whose romantic agony it is to recognize himself as such" (Crowley). Recalling Byron, Wilde, and Merimee, "The Tale of Ignotus" shows that artifice can ultimately reveal hidden meaning.

The remainder of the tales showcases a who's who of world literature. "The Library of Morpheus" is rather Borgesian, housing the endings of famous unfinished masterpieces, the writings of fictional characters, and all the books lost from all lost civilizations. There are flying books, books whose characters interact with each other, books to be eaten, and books that devour you. When Carl takes a bite from DICKENS, it tastes "like roast lamb, peas, and mashed potatoes with gravy" (134). In "Mirror Tales," we recognize more of Borges, as well as the story of Snow White. The title giants of "The Tale of Heklo and Ekli" come from fairy tales. Carl and Morpheus get swallowed by a whale in "The Tale of the City in the Sea," alluding to the Bible, but this chapter merges into the story of the lost civilization of Atlantis, where the palace artists reconstruct the entire kingdom in miniature; this seems a direct reference to Borges's short fiction "Parable of the Palace," in which the actual Chinese palace disappears once the poet has finished reconstructing it in all its detail (44-45). In the last story, "The Tale of a Voyage to the Moon," the cities of the moon put one in mind of Calvino's Invisible Cities: "On the plain itself I saw several upside-down cities. These cities appeared to rest on the tops of their tallest trees, whose roots passed into a thick upper layer of white soil" (359). There are references to classical and medieval texts, Renaissance and Restoration drama, Pope and Swift: "Mr. Millhauser is parodying a whole body of literature one would have thought it impossible to re-create" (Crowley).

From the Realm of Morpheus is a dialogue with the Western canon. Carl and Morpheus may take readers on a tour of the underworld, but what they show us is words--a history of the manipulation of words. There are those reviewers who find the novel's intertextual drive tedious: "The danger, which Mr. Millhauser skirts throughout and does not entirely escape, is of being taken over by one's own skill at pastiche, enjoying for its own sake the re-creation of bypassed modes, and thus creating what is in effect one more book of a kind that few care to read any longer, even in the original versions" (Crowley). However, others attribute the book's "clever invention" to its wealth of allusions (Dooley 216). In his article "Replicas," Steven Millhauser explains the nature of the replica: "To begin with, the replica is a haunted object. It is always accompanied by the thought of a second object, the original, to which it ceaselessly refers" (51). Because a replica recalls an original, it always implies a relationship between something familiar and its ghostly double. From the Realm of Morpheus can be seen as a replica wherein we see the magician's sleight of hand behind his meticulously detailed act--this revelation of duplicity elevates it to a creation in its own right.

Martin Dressier: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996)

When Steven Millhauser received a note from his department chair informing him to call a reporter "re: Pulitzer," he informed his students that "a grotesque error had been committed" (Smith). But Martin Dressier: The Tale of an American Dreamer did earn the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, an honor that increased Millhauser's cultural collateral: "Millhauser is now beginning to receive public attention commensurate with the critical acclaim his short stories and two previous novels ... have already garnered" (Saltzman, "Wilderness" 591). Published in 1996 by Crown, the novel recounts the rise (and fall) of Martin Dressier, an American entrepreneur in New York during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. If that sounds like a rather mundane description for a Millhauser fiction, it's because it neglects to mention what business Martin Dressler is in, and how Steven Millhauser tells his story. By concentrating on the skeleton of its plot, critics and readers often simplify an otherwise complex novel. The narrative voice, an almost reportorial third person, also complicates the novel's reception by creating the illusion of realism. Martin Dressler's chameleon-like multiplicity allows for various levels of reading and interpretation, so that its genre is always in question.

When we first meet Martin, he is working at his father's tobacco store, inventing window displays to lure customers inside, in tune at a young age to the marketing of desire. His industrious and polite character quickly secures him a job as a hotel clerk, where his love affair with "great, elaborate structure" begins (24). Martin uses his business savvy, which is largely based on deciphering people's subconscious wants, to open a cigar stand in the hotel lobby, then to start a chain of restaurants, but he tires of every venture as soon as it succeeds, eventually finding his niche as a hotelier. The complex "architectural erudition" (Mangaliman) grants the novel a new life; it is the vehicle for the fantastic, as Martin's hotels become more and more elaborate, labyrinthine, and dreamlike, providing an ideal opportunity for Millhauser to exhibit his cataloging skills. Martin's vision culminates in the Grand Cosmo, a "constantly shifting Borgesian structure" that seeks to replace the real world by encapsulating it (Bradfield 23). Running parallel to Martin's architectural construction is his romantic development, which begins with his seduction by an older hotel guest, continues with his visits to a brothel, and ends with his relationship with the Vernon women, a trio composed of a mother and two contrasting daughters, one of whom he marries. Like his hotels, with their contradictory impulses toward the technological and the nostalgic, the practical and the fanciful, the real and the unreal, his twin "wives"--one fair, one dark; one ethereal, one tangible; one sickly, one healthy--satisfy his drive for duality.

Despite Millhauser's own contention that the novel's "profoundest impulse" is its "push toward the fantastic, the impossible," many reviewers distill the novel into realism (Barrineau 36). Martin Dressler has been called a "historical novel" (McQuade 1343), as well as "Dreiserian realism" (Barrineau 36). The comparisons to Horatio Alger are too numerous to count, and one reviewer sees Martin as a fully developed character and product of his era: Millhauser "introduces the scenery and feeling of the times and provides a psychological portrait of an American dreamer named Martin Dressier" (Irvine 123). However, Martin's emotions are told to us in broad sweeps--"An excitement came over him" (2), "he felt that an understanding had been reached: they liked each other" (76), "But he was pleased" (209)--leading another reviewer to conclude that "The characters are intentionally rather shadowy" (Rifkind A12). There are at least as many alternative readings likening the novel to "a fairy tale" (Birkerts 145), "an urban fable" (Sheppard), and "a fable" and "subgenre of fairy tale" (Burroway). One look at Martin Dressler's opening supports the latter view: "There once lived a man named Martin Dressier, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good fortune" (1). One reason some critics classify the novel as realism is the voice, whose "third-person narrator retains a cool distance from his protagonist" (Charles). The narrator's detachment conceals the subtle shift into Millhauser's version of the fantastic, which is always a hovering, a wavering between the realms of substance and dream, a liminal state that one critic has likened to a Calder mobile (Roudeau 13-14). In one scene early in the novel, Martin spies actors in the Vanderlyn Hotel:
   In the elevator, which suddenly began to fall, so that Martin
   stumbled back against a bench, Charley explained that a troupe of
   actors and actresses had rented a row of rooms on the fifth floor.
   They liked to rehearse at strange hours, sometimes they didn't come
   in till four in the morning, you saw all kinds of queer things in
   this line of work, and as Martin stepped out into the hot sunlight
   of the street he recalled with sudden vividness a curious detail:
   through one of the half-open doors he had seen the corner of a bed
   with a pair of crossed feet on it, one of which was naked and white
   and one of which wore a shiny black button-up shoe. (12)

This scene encapsulates several of the novel's obsessions: performativity, voyeurism, and bodily fragmentation (as with Portrait). When asked about these themes, Millhauser explains how they work against realism:
   If I rely on such themes elsewhere [in other books], it must be
   because a writer is always, like Martin, a kind of demiurge,
   creating worlds that are separate from the writer's self, while
   also using that self to nourish those worlds--hence performance,
   spying, the self-destruction at the heart of creation.

   Realism, which I reject and revere, assumes a solidity of identity,
   a fixity of external appearances, that is actively undermined by
   the themes you mention. (Millhauser, "Questions")

Many of these themes are developed through Martin's hotels, which exist to contaminate reality with slippage--a subtle confrontation of the reality of fictional space.

In Martin Dressier, Millhauser uses architecture to fulfill the fantastic. His hotels grow larger and larger, both up toward the sky and down into the underground, as they increasingly showcase the ornamental and the strange. The hotels become all-inclusive, broadening into atypical spaces recalling museums, department stores, and amusement parks:
   It was noted that among the public rooms of the first two floors
   ... was a scattering of peculiar rooms that seemed to be there to
   amuse or instruct. Thus there was a circular theater in which a
   panorama of the entire Manhattan shoreline continually unwound; a
   room containing a wigwam, a wax squaw gathering sticks, a young
   brave hacking a rock with a sharpened stone tool, and a seated
   chief smoking a long pipe, set against a painted background
   depicting a riverbank; and a hall called the Pageant of Industry
   and Invention, which contained working scale models of an Otis
   elevator, a steam train on an Elevated track, a Broadway cable car,
   and a steam crane lifting an I-beam, as well as full-scale models
   of a steam turbine, an internal combustion engine, and an electric
   generator with a drive pulley. (207-08)

The progression of the hotels into odd self-contained worlds allows Millhauser to showcase his talent for description, often in the form of lists. Here again this technique leads to the problem of generic confusion: for every reader who sees this as realistic period detail, there is at least another who views it as fantastic imagism. But matter should not be confused with substance; naming objects does not make them tangible. We must remember that these objects are composed of words, which are no more substantive than the imagination from which they emerge: "Despite their apparent commitment to the real, lists are also well-suited to the atmosphere of dreams" (Saltzman, "Archives").

The focus on architecture is taken up often in reviews and critical articles, which most often interpret it metaphorically. In "Performing the Spectacle of Technology at the Beginning of the American Century: Steven Millhauser's Martin Dressier," Udo J. Hebel argues that the novel's architecture corresponds to the American drive toward technological innovation and its performativity during the turn of the century: Martin Dressler "fictionalizes the historic moment when the spread of modern technology merged with the collective impulse to theatricalize American culture as an 'imperial spectacle'" (192). Hebel makes a good case, following America's skyscraper fever and world's fair construction boom, though the focus on technology is too narrow, wholly ignoring the fantastic elements of Martin's hotels: for example, how does one explain the existence of an entire "Victorian resort hotel" within a hotel (260)? Critic Arthur Saltzman takes Hebers argument one step further, attributing the construction in the novel to an American impulse toward the sublime in which "size may be championed as a validation of American birthright and destiny" ("Wilderness" 590). Many reviews approximate this idea by treating the hotels as metaphors for the American Dream, thereby reading Martin Dressler as allegory. In such interpretations, there is a lesson to be learned in Martin's drive for the bigger and better--"What does the book say about the American dream?" (Cusac). Perhaps "that the glitter and glory don't finally matter that much" (Birkerts 148). An allegorical reading is reductive: "To call Martin Dressler a cautionary tale about the lures of American capitalism would be to misunderstand the book's intentions" (Rifkind A12).

One good look at the Grand Cosmo reveals a dissolving realism, for while it houses "a very efficient laundry service," it also features "the Palace of Wonders, in which were displayed a two-headed calf, a caged griffin, a mermaid in a dark pool, the Human Anvil, a school of trained goldfish fastened by fine wires to toy boats in order to enact naval battles" (261-62). Martin's last hotel fails because it tries to contain the entire world, replacing reality with the illusion of reality. But illusion only enchants when it serves as an antidote to reality. In the Grand Cosmo, all reality appears as illusion, so that "which world is real and which simulacrum ceases to matter" (McLaughlin 186)--"the artificial and the real have exchanged places" (Burroway). This conflation of reality and dream deceives some readers, so that they are blind to the novel's more uncanny elements. What sets Millhauser's novel "apart from the formula it complements ... is the incursion of the supernatural, the fantastic, and the fabulous into the conventional success story, with its solid foundation upon real-world capital and a burgeoning portfolio" (Saltzman, "Wilderness" 593). In reading Martin Dressier, we cannot note the efficient laundry service at the cost of ignoring the caged griffin.--A. R.

Short Stories

In Steven Millhauser's "The Dream of the Consortium," the first-person plural narrator describes not only the reopened department store of the title but, arguably, the reader's experience of Millhauser's short fiction collections:
   We who have grown up with the old department stores know that one
   of their secret pleasures is the sudden, violent transitions
   between departments, the startling juxtapositions, as in the kind
   of museum where a room full of old fire engines opens into a hall
   lined with glass cases containing owls, herons, and sandpipers. In
   the new department store we saw the art of juxtaposition raised to
   bold and unexpected heights.... (The Knife Thrower 129)

Patrons are intrigued by the striking conjunction of rolltop desks and leggy mannequins, refrigerators and women's underwear: "Such transitions and confusions seemed to invite us to lose our way ... and we who wanted nothing better than to lose our way plunged deeper into the winding aisles, grateful for anything that increased our sense of the store's abundance, that satisfied our secret longing for an endless multiplication of departments" (130-31). This sense of abundance is explored by Arthur Saltzman, who refers to Millhauser as "one of contemporary fiction's most assiduous list makers" (This Mad "Instead" 50). The paradoxical quality of lists--"conspicuous interfaces where art and life, system and surge, the magical and mundane coalesce"--extends, Saltzman argues, to the varied settings of "Millhauser's arcades, museums, malls, exhibition halls, galleries, chambered bookshops and mansions, and other esoteric collectives of insidious geometry and infinite regress" (50).

In the Penny Arcade, The Barnum Museum, The Knife Thrower and Other Stories--each offers the reader an eclectic series of displays and spectacles. If, as Saltzman points out, Millhauser's settings are analogous to the structure and limits of the list, so are Millhauser's collections themselves, which work through evocative juxtaposition to present different permutations of related themes.

In the Penny Arcade (1986)

Readers familiar with the narrative play of Edwin Mullhouse or the epic scale of Martin Dressler might be surprised by the contents of In the Penny Arcade, Millhauser's first story collection, originally published by Knopf in 1986. Included between the fictional life story of automaton-maker August Eschenburg and the surreal aftermath of a winter storm in "Snowmen," three stories display a striking realist style. "A Protest Against the Sun" recounts a young girl's day at the beach with her parents. In "The Sledding Party," Catherine hears her longtime friend Peter declare his love, an overture that infuriates and paralyzes her. The rural retreat taken by Judith in "A Day in the Country" ends with her confronting a profound unhappiness. These stories prompted Bruce Allen, reviewing the collection in the Saturday Review, to describe Millhauser as a writer "interested in people overpowered by their intelligence and their emotional resources" and "a sensitive analyst of late-adolescent angst and self-consciousness" (74). Meanwhile, Thomas Lavoie cited Joyce and Updike in describing how the title story "shows us a young boy discovering adolescence" (104).

Millhauser himself sees the eclecticism of his debut collection as an intentional experiment: "I had written several stories in a certain style, to which I felt I was saying farewell, and I chose to isolate them, to surround them with stories of a different type, in order to throw their existence into question" ("Questions"). In this sense, the realistic pieces in Penny Arcade represent a significant turning point for Millhauser's evolving style:
   It was a kind of homage to a certain kind of fiction I knew I
   wasn't going to write. Having said that, I can't help noticing that
   I returned to it, in a way, quite recently in [the novella]
   "Revenge." In general I see myself moving further and further away
   from psychological realism--a technique I profoundly admire, but
   one that seems to me exhausted. ("Questions")

Of course, any surprise felt at Millhauser's experiments with realism says more about the limits of critical labels than about the distinct features of the author's work. If we are induced to marvel at the creations of August Eschenburg or the increasingly elaborate snow sculptures built by the characters in "Snowmen," it is due to their realistic texture on the page. David Leavitt observes of the collection's concluding story, "Millhauser's Vermeerian gift for the tableau-vivant rendering of detail is given full reign [sic] in the odd and beautiful 'Cathay,' less a story than a catalog of wonders from a mysterious kingdom dedicated to the creation of complex miniatures--to precision and order" (118). This paradoxical poetics, mingling precision and mystery, is arguably central to Millhauser's fiction, even in those works that display more realistic tendencies. As she ruminates on Peter's confession in "The Sledding Party," Catherine slides into reverie during a parodic performance of "Blueberry Hill":
   [The singer's] cheek glistened, and Catherine was shocked: she
   thought he was crying. But she saw that he was sweating in the
   close, warm air. All at once she saw a bright green hill, covered
   with tall trees, ripe blueberry bushes, and winding paths. Sunlight
   streamed in through the leaves and fell in shafts onto the lovely
   paths; and all was still and peaceful in the blue summer air. It
   was as if the world were waiting for something, waiting and waiting
   with held breath for something that was bound to happen, but not
   yet, not yet. Suddenly, Catherine felt like bursting into tears.

Catherine's precisely rendered vision--itself inspired by the intense observation of an otherwise ordinary situation--sharpens her experience of the sledding party while failing to reveal what "something" she ostensibly awaits. Light can produce shadow as well as illumination; Millhauser demonstrates this paradox in his meticulously descriptive sentences. As Marc Chenetier has observed, "through the simple sharing of a sustained exercise of concentration, the writings of Steven Millhauser alter one's vision. Is there a better definition, a better use, a higher responsibility for fiction?" (La precision 88).

At the same time, Penny Arcade is by no means lacking in fantastic elements. Eschenburg is a master of intricate mechanisms, fashioning, among other figures, "two fashionable clockwork women strolling along [and] a miniature couturier, who at the bidding of the women took up a pair of little scissors, cut material from a bolt of cloth, and proceeded to make before their eyes a dress ..." (24). Millhauser's Cathay is ruled by an emperor with "a passion for hourglasses; aside from his private collection there are innumerable hourglasses throughout the vast reaches of the Imperial Palace, including the gardens and parks, so that the Turner of Hourglasses and his many assistants are continually busy" (150). "A magical, fairy-tale-like quality infuses these short stories," noted a reviewer for Booklist, adding that "the juxtaposition of fantasy and reality is beautifully rendered" (658). K. N. Richwine called the collection "a fair cross-section of the contemporary fabulist tradition" (1679).

The collection's eclecticism is significant not only in terms of the variety of styles presented, but also in terms of the themes shared by the assembled fictions. The realistic stories that make up the book's second section all portray plausible yet traumatic breaks with reality--from a disturbance on the beach in "Protest," to the love confession in "Sledding Party," to Judith's negative epiphany in "Country." The breaks represented in these pieces are anticipated by the first section, the novella-length "August Eschenburg," which combines elements of the bildungsroman and the fantastic to narrate Eschenburg's development from idealistic artist to resigned iconoclast. The world of the titular character is weighed down by the pragmatism of Hausenstein, whose crudely sexualized automatons eventually supplant Eschenburg's, despite the latter having achieved "a realism surpassing the old art of waxwork, for his fanatically imitative figures seemed to live and breathe" (41). Nevertheless, just as Eschenburg aspires to higher standards in his art, the story itself occasionally breaks with the everyday world of commerce and the fickle public, demonstrating what art for its own sake can accomplish, however fleetingly. As part of the opening night performance at Das Zaubertheater, a performance space for automaton shows funded by Hausenstein, August includes Undine, a tale involving a water sprite and a knight: "Hausenstein had been concerned lest this well-worn darling of the romantic age should prove an embarrassment, but the enchanted landscape was extremely effective, and the Undine automaton had an expressivity of gesture that was unsurpassed" (45). The mingling of the realistic and fantastic in "Eschenburg" prepares readers for the intrusion of the fantastic into the realism of the volume's second section.

Similarly, juxtaposition works later in the collection to elaborate further on the tension between individual insight and the desires of the crowd. The narrator of "In the Penny Arcade," close to entering adolescence, visits an amusement park arcade, only to find that its current decrepit state pales next to his memories of the place. The fortune-teller encased in glass is cracked and dusty: "I remembered how I had once been afraid of looking into her eyes, unwilling to be caught in that deep, mystical gaze. Feeling betrayed and uneasy, I abandoned her and went off in search of richer adventures" (137). He finds such adventure, but only when he separates himself from the jaded crowd around him: "It appeared that one of those accidental hushes had fallen over things, as sometimes happens in a crowd. ... In that hush, anything might happen. All my senses had burst wide open" (141). Soon, "The creatures of the penny arcade were waking from their wooden torpor" (141). The mechanical cowboy stares the narrator down "in the full splendor of his malevolence"; the woman in a peepshow "smiled at herself in the mirror, as if acknowledging that at last she had entered into her real existence" (142). The arcade's creatures regain their capacity to fascinate when freed of "the shrewd, oppressive eyes of countless visitors who looked at them without seeing their fertile inner nature" (144). But if the title story seems to criticize the masses exploited by the likes of Hausenstein, the collection's next and final story approaches the same problem from the other side. The emperor of Cathay has limitless resources to indulge all of his fancies. Yet the freedom to create is just another form of oppression; it is speculated, for example, that the emperor, sated with the perfection of the women in his court, seeks out the unattractive in order to "lead his soul away from the torpor of the familiar into a dark realm of strangeness and wonder" (157). The juxtaposition of different entertainments within the collection allows Millhauser to explore his subjects with thematic as well as stylistic variety.

If critics recognized Millhauser's dual artistic tendencies, they were not always convinced that they worked together in Penny Arcade. Michiko Kakutani noted that "Mr. Millhauser writes with assurance and skill, equally at ease with a variety of literary genres, equally adept at recording the chatty non sequiturs of teen-agers and the dense, metaphysical musings of a 19th-century con man" ("Perceptions" 12). Yet "There is a sameness to Mr. Millhauser's characters ... and their emotional afflictions of nostalgia, irritation and extreme joy also begin to feel overly familiar" ("Perceptions" 12).

Other critics tended to interpret the stories as parables. Robert Dunn saw Eschenburg's loss of popularity to more sensational automaton-makers as "an overly obvious depiction of artistic debasement..." (9). But Maureen Howard, writing for the Yale Review, saw the story's parabolic qualities as a strength: "the artistic pressures upon August are recognizably those of today, and the story's theatrical recall of Mann's Germany, done in eerie, mesmerizing detail, is an inspired way to suggest that we take a look at what we are up to in the so-called arts" (257-58).

Since the publication of his first collection, Millhauser's short fiction has been increasingly scrutinized on its own narrative and linguistic terms--particularly in France. Such close reading has revealed a number of insights often overlooked by the genre and thematic expectations of earlier reviewers. Ullmo compares the structure of "Cathay" to haiku (The Knife-Thrower 99) while David Sheridan explores the story in terms of its structure as a list. "Like the list in Borges' 'The Aleph,'" Sheridan observes, "this list proceeds by controlled variation, both formal and thematic features" (14). Each descriptive vignette works by juxtaposition to evoke the marvelous (13), concluding in the narration of an imperial contest of magicians. Sheridan's thematic reading of the ending is rooted in close scrutiny of structure: "What makes a satisfying aesthetic experience? What makes a thing marvelous? Closure is achieved because the work seems to provide an ultimate or definitive answer to these questions, which, loosely paraphrased, is 'an intermingling of artifice and nature, of imagination and reality'" (15).

If some critics found an uneasy balance between the real and the fantastic in Millhauser's short fiction debut, his subsequent collections would attempt to eliminate this problem, not by choosing one style over another but, rather, by interrogating the boundary taken for granted between them.

The Barnum Museum (1990)

The Barnum Museum, originally published by Poseidon in 1990, is a more unified collection, both aesthetically and thematically. Arguably, the most realistic piece featured is "The Invention of Robert Herendeen," the unreliable first-person account of the eponymous genius's greatest creation: "I decided to invent a human being by means of the full and rigorous application of my powers of imagination" (189). Olivia soon lives up to the "perilous gift" that fashions her (183); her creation is followed by the appearance of Orville, a rival for Olivia's attention and her grotesque counterpart in Robert's increasingly fraught reality. At one point, relates the narrator, Orville "began to roll up a leg of his narrow jeans. At the top of his running shoe began a white sock and at the top of the sock I saw or seemed to see nothing--emptiness--nothing at all. 'Stop that!' I said angrily" (201).

Robert, at least for part of the story, has a clear sense of the real and imagined. Other characters on exhibit are less sure. "Behind the Blue Curtain" begins as an everyday trip to the movies, but the real show begins after the movie is over, as the narrator journeys into a realm of living cinematic characters, where "a jungle girl dressed in a leopardskin loincloth and a vineleaf halter [stood] with her hands on her hips and her head flung back haughtily as two gray-haired gentlemen in white dinner jackets bent forward to peer through monocles at a jewel in her navel" (66). The carnival atmosphere takes an unsettling and erotic turn as the narrator reaches for a woman's corset: "My hand fell through the whiteness of that cloth. My sinking hand struck the velvety hard rug--I felt myself losing my balance--suddenly I was falling through her, plunging through her corset, her breasts, her bones, her blood. For a fearful instant I was inside her" (69). The narrator survives this strange encounter and manages to return to his impatiently waiting father. But the return to the everyday is given a disturbing nuance as the narrator recognizes himself as an actor in the world beyond the movie theater: "Through the brilliant glass doors I saw my father frowning at his watch. His look of stern surprise, when he saw me burst through the door into the late-afternoon sun, struck me as wildly funny, and I forgot to chasten my features into repentance as I seized his warm hand" (71).

In "Rain," the dissolution of the protagonist, Mr. Porter, is similarly associated with going to the movies, but the dissolution itself is far more extreme. The story begins with Porter trying to wait out a rainstorm under a theater marquee. Tired of waiting, he walks into the downpour: "By the third step he felt as if he had stepped into a bathroom shower" (157). His discomfort only grows as he finds himself in the wrong car with "the odd sensation that the world was unraveling, rushing out of control, as when, in his childhood, descending a dark stairway, he had reached out his foot for that last, phantom stair even as the floor, one step too soon, leaped up to meet him" (157). This futility is only magnified as Porter abandons his stalled car and yields to the dissolution foreshadowed by his earlier entrance into the storm: "Everything was washing away. His cheeks were running, his eyeglasses were spilling down in bright crystal drops, flesh-colored streams fell from his shining fingertips, he was dissolving in the rain" (161).

Critics have tended to focus on the fantastic elements of the story. Douglas Balz describes it as a story "in which the elements conspire to make the world dissolve." Mark Bautz calls "Rain" "a surrealistic account of a man caught in a thunderstorm." The sense that Porter is literally dissolving is reinforced by the last sentence, which refers to "an empty parking lot" where "a bright puddle gleamed"--presumably what's left of Porter (161). This reading, however, overlooks much of the concluding paragraph and, indeed, much of the story itself, in which Porter's is the focal point of view; the story's clammy texture would not be as palpable without his perspective on the experience: "Everything was coming undone. Black drops fell from his watchband onto his hands, blue drops fell from his shirtsleeves onto his arms. Have I wasted my life? The telephone booth was far, far away" (161). Seen in this way, the conclusion of "Rain" can be read as a radical act of imagination. Porter is unfulfilled by his role as a spectator, whether in a movie theater or in life itself, where one of the few characters he interacts with besides his cat is "a large woman who seemed to have sprung from one of the colorful Coming Attractions" (156). Porter's dissolution collapses the boundaries of spectatorship; his annihilation, no less unsettling for its unreality, hints at a potential escape from dullness and inertia: "a bright puddle gleamed, but then the rain washed it away" (161).

If Millhauser's second collection challenged readers to see beyond the limits of ordinary experience, it also appropriated the act of reading as a model for accomplishing such discernment. Just as Penny Arcade uses juxtaposed narratives to explore art, audience, and the nature of the real and the wondrous, Barnum Museum uses juxtaposition to explore similar themes, including the uses and abuses of reading. In "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad," Millhauser crafts a complex meditation on the art of storytelling by juxtaposing several aspects of Sinbad's creation and reception, including Sinbad's reflection on his voyages, the history of the text of The Arabian Nights, and the imagined experience of a boy reading Sinbad's story in southern Connecticut. Millhauser's multilayered version figures reading as a kind of voyage, where a boy in Connecticut can be with Sinbad "in the black cave, in the Valley of Diamonds, and at the same time he feels his arm pressing against the fuzzy blue blanket and smells the smoking hot dogs and the river" (139). "The Eighth Voyage" is followed by "Klassik Komix #1," in which the reader's experience of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" takes the mass-produced form of a comic book. Eliot's original imagery--e.g., "I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas" (5)--loses its suppleness as metaphor; images are rendered literally and become literally grotesque: "In the yellow sand a creature part crustacean and part man is lying on his stomach.... His face is that of a crab or lobster" (Barnum Museum 141).

The play of reality and fantasy consumes an entire city in the title story. Like "Cathay," "The Barnum Museum" is a story told in vignettes, this time listing different exhibits that entertain and fascinate visitors. These include a Hall of Mermaids, a caged griffin, a flying carpet, and a Chamber of False Things housing "museum guards made of wax, trompe l'oeil doorways, displays of false mustaches and false beards" and other fabrications (80). This is not the cultural institution studied by Tony Bennett, "located at the centre of cities where they stood as embodiments, both material and symbolic, of a power to 'show and tell' which, in being deployed in a newly constituted open and public space, sought rhetorically to incorporate the people within the processes of the state" (87). In contrast, Millhauser's fictional museum, also "located in the heart of our city" (Barnum Museum 73), is a disorienting experience for visitors tantalized by its vertiginous and constantly multiplying rooms. The disapproval it provokes within the community hints at the danger belied by its fanciful exhibits:
   The enemies of the Barnum Museum say that its exhibits are
   fraudulent; that its deceptions harm our children, who are turned
   away from the realm of the natural to a false realm of the
   monstrous and fantastic; that certain displays are provocative,
   erotic, and immoral; that this temple of so-called wonders draws us
   out of the sun, tempts us away from healthy pursuits, and renders
   us dissatisfied with our daily lives.... (75)

To add to the confusion, these objections themselves could be "supported and indeed invented by the directors of the museum, who understand that controversy increases attendance" (75-76). The story works much like a miniature version of the collection's juxtapositions as a whole; instead of the unitary character and plot development of conventional narrative, Millhauser entices the reader with an accumulation of striking exhibits. The ambiguous voice--which evokes a community's response to the museum--wavers from personal to impersonal, mesmerized to bored, as it navigates the eclectic collections. But the fickle voice is by no means aimless; "Barnum Museum" concludes with a meditation on aesthetic experience similar to that implied by David Sheridan's reading of "Cathay." If the audience is left unsatisfied at the end, it is at least aware of desiring something beyond the mundane, something that can never be grasped but is nevertheless pleasurable: "is it possible that the secret of the museum lies precisely here, in its knowledge that we can never be satisfied? And still the hurdy-gurdy plays, the jugglers' bright balls turn in the air, somewhere the griffin stirs in his sleep. Welcome to the Barnum Museum! For us it's enough, for us it is almost enough" (91).

Millhauser's second collection was an important text for critics in assessing his oeuvre as a whole and its place within contemporary American fiction. In the conflicting registers of a legendary Sinbad embarking on another voyage and the same Sinbad "brought down" to mundane reality, Mary Kinzie discerns "a clue to the mode of parody in which Millhauser--excels--the spoof of contemporary realistic narration in fiction. He incorporates into his metafictional sublime parodic imitations of what has come to be called fictional minimalism" (115). For Kinzie, Millhauser is not striving for realism, but "in these new stories [he] has accomplished a remarkable compression of the realistic with the fantastic ..." (116). Douglas Fowler writes that The Barnum Museum "contains ten stories that are an attempt to make what we hold to be plausibilities yield up their forgotten core of strangeness" (146). Fowler's concluding remarks in his essay from Critique offer some context both for Millhauser's previous work and his next collection of stories:
   His is not a narrative of the linear, mimetic, naturalistic mode,
   but a stereoscopic fiction, and the reader must be prepared to
   question along with the author the solidity of the proscenium arch
   and the smug assumptions of a centuries-old covenant that had
   presumed to have settled once and for all the relationship between
   an artist's most urgent concerns and the reader or audience invited
   to observe those concerns--a reader or audience that in
   Millhauser's presence finds itself called upon to study the
   spectacle set before it through a confusing array of prisms and
   even read a part or two from the typescript unceremoniously thrust
   into his or her hands. (147-48)

The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (1998)

Millhauser's most recent volume of short fiction, The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, was originally published by Crown in 1998. The pieces collected here are in some ways more grounded than in previous collections. While stories like "Snowmen" and "The Barnum Museum" could take place anywhere, several selections in The Knife Thrower feature recognizable times and places. In "Balloon Flight, 1870," the narrator takes to the air in order to escape the advance of Prussian troops on Paris. "Paradise Park" tracks the fortunes of Charles Sarabee, an American amusement park impresario, around the time of the First World War. In "Kaspar Hauser Speaks," Kaspar addresses the residents of Nuremberg, Germany, where he arrived in 1828 (Ward), a feral child "half idiot and half animal" (201). The real Kaspar Hauser was eventually murdered in 1833 (Ward).

For Patrick McGrath, "Balloon Flight" "marks out new territory for Millhauser." Where flight has previously been an image of liberating escape, in the latter story, "the ascent into higher regions is connected to ideas of sterility and death." The higher the narrator rises with his companion, the more desolate and disorienting the experience: "We have died, Vallard and I, we have entered the shadowless realm, region of erasures and absences, kingdom of dissolution" (The Knife Thrower 156). McGrath's observations can be usefully applied to all of the collection's historical fictions. This volume significantly expands the range of its characters' experiences. But this is by no means an instance of a writer simply trading one muse for another. Millhauser invokes history to submit it to the same scrutiny as any curiosity. His approach has not changed, but its scale has. So France at war is a site of dissolution, just as the Barnum Museum is. In "Balloon Flight," according to Nathalie Cochoy, "the line ahead buckles and the nauseating azure [of the sky] splits consciousness like an axe blow.... The straining eye sees these landmark lines vanish into nothingness. Signifying contours are effaced ... leaving the substance and sense of language to slip into indifference" (471).

Anne Ullmo, in her 2003 study of The Knife Thrower, sees similar effects in Millhauser's re-creation of nineteenth-century Germany and the United States in the early twentieth century. Kaspar Hauser's fictional monologue, Ullmo writes, "thus recalls the problematic of the nature-culture antithesis stirred by the discovery of child savages in the forests of Europe during an epoch when questions of the innate and the acquired were being posed ..." (The Knife-Thrower 56). Sarabee in "Paradise Park" is "yet another instance of that peculiarly American phenomenon, the self-made man" (The Knife Thrower 167). But his story, as told by Millhauser, renders Sarabee's life mundane instead of mythical. As his ambitions grow, so does a sense of disappointment, barely forestalled by anticipation of the next big thing. Ullmo observes how language is used to create this effect: "But curiously opposed to the vocabulary of excess and superlative originality is a repetitive syntax that paradoxically leads the reader toward regions of ennui; an ennui that transforms rapidly into astonishment before the writer's capacity to establish a subtle game between desire and its deferred fulfillment" (The Knife-Thrower 27).

But the theme of desire and fulfillment continues to interest Millhauser on a more intimate scale as well. In "A Visit," the narrator visits a friend from college, only to discover that his friend's new wife, Alice, is a giant frog. While recognizing its absurdity, his friend's interspecies romance also leaves him strangely wistful. "[A] s I sensed that hidden harmony, clear as the ringing of a distant bell," muses the narrator, "it came over me that what I lacked, in my life, was exactly that harmony" (34).

"The Sisterhood of Night" begins as one kind of mystery and ends as another. The young girls in a nondescript town are suspected of orgiastic rituals, part of an alleged cult of silence. As McGrath observes, one of the only conclusions reached about the truth of these allegations is that the unknown lurks even in those we are closest to: "What shall we do with our daughters? In the night we wake uneasily and tiptoe to their doors, pausing with our hands outstretched, unable to advance or retreat. We think of the long years of childhood, the party frocks and lollipops, the shimmer of trembling bubbles in summer air. We dream of better times" (The Knife Thrower 52).

In the title story, an audience witnesses the disturbing act of the knife thrower Hensch. Hensch is skilled at provoking the voyeuristic appetite of his audience. He strips his assistant by pinning her clothes to a wooden partition as she still wears them: "She began to wriggle both shoulders, as if to free herself from the tickling knives, and only as the loose gown came rippling down did we realize that the knives had cut the shoulder straps. Hensch had us now, he had us" (9). Nevertheless, the use of the plural first-person voice explores how the audience itself is complicit in Hensch's increasingly dangerous stunts. Audience members eventually become part of the spectacle, coming up to be artfully cut by "the master" (13). The show concludes with a girl named Laura receiving "the final mark, the mark that can be received only once ..." (15-16). Hensch's target falls, prompting the audience to fidget in but never relinquish its role as passive witness: "As we left the theater we agreed that it had been a skillful performance, though we couldn't help feeling that the knife thrower had gone too far" (17).

"Kasper Hauser Speaks" contrasts with the title story in the way it works against the audience's inertia. Here, the spectacle talks back to his audience. Kasper's gratitude at being rescued from savagery is not without an undertone of regret, even hostility. Like the narrator of "Penny Arcade," Kaspar struggles with the diminishment of his senses, which, in the latter case, have been sharpened during his mysterious captivity. Before he is "able to distinguish apple, pear, and plum trees from each other by the violent smell of their leaves. ... The touch of a hand affected me like a blow" (The Knife Thrower 206-07). Now he finds "the unpleasant acuteness of my sensations weakened, until at present they are nearly normal ..." (207). His progress is marked by ambivalence: "Sometimes I feel that I am slowly erasing myself, in order for someone else to appear, the one I long for, who will not resemble me" (210). This erasure implicates his audience, whose passivity here is turned against itself; witnessing Kaspar's progress, it is confronted with the malleable margin demarcating the supposedly civilized. This ambiguity is reflected in Kaspar's closing statement, which straddles the line between contrast and comparison: "Thank you for listening to me today, and if in the course of my remarks I have said anything to offend you, please forgive poor Kaspar Hauser, who would not harm the meanest insect that crawls in dung--far less you, ladies and gentlemen of Nuremberg" (210).

The adoption of The Knife Thrower as part of the French national secondary-school teachers' certification exam for literature in English gave critics in that country the occasion to delve further into the collection's style and structure. The study guide Steven Millhauser, une ecriture sur le fil (A Writer on the Edge) appeared in 2004. Edited by Anne Ullmo, the volume features contributions by Cecile Roudeau, Francoise Sammarcelli, Bruno Monfort, Jean-Yves Pellegrin, and Marc Chenetier.

Roudeau compares Millhauser's fictions to the sculpture of Alexander Calder. Like a Calder mobile, whose free-floating parts are held together by the force of gravity, the constituent elements in Millhauser achieve a fragile equilibrium through the tension of opposing forces (13-14, 16). In "Balloon Flight, 1870," for example, the first-person narrator is suspended between earth and sky, between the integrity of his individual and national identity and complete dissolution as he journeys farther away from earth (17, 19). This quality of suspension is even evident on the sentence level; the opening of "The Knife Thrower" explains and obscures the strange appeal of Hensch's death-defying act (21-22), while language becomes increasingly meaningless in "Balloon Flight" (32-33). The latter story's disoriented narrator muses, "There in that blackness, all's without meaning; whether I strive or sleep; yawn or bleed; accomplish my mission or drift to the moon" (The Knife Thrower 149). Observes Roudeau: "The short stories of Millhauser, unsteady architectures of words, suspended between earth and sky, are thus, in their structure, in the manner of Calder's mobiles, compositions of unstable equilibrium and of movements that, in their very beginnings, are already vexed" (20). At the same time, instability is not the only hallmark of the author's short fiction: "If the stories of Millhauser are mobiles, the writer.., has known, sentence after sentence, how to challenge language--as before him Calder had challenged wood, steel or iron wire, and daring outrageousness, bending the line, how to make his writing the place where meaning arabesques" (20).

Sammarcelli, in her essay "Les voix sans origins chez Steven Millhauser" ("Voices without Origin in the Work of Steven Millhauser"), argues that the stories in The Knife Thrower evoke the fantastic through the use of impersonal narration, passive voice, and a rhetoric of rumor. These result in speculative, prevaricating narratives of futile nostalgia (such as "Sisterhood"), undermined authority, and confused reality (40-41, 43). An effect of timeless and generalized uncertainty is created in "Beneath the Cellars of Our Town," in which a community's residents ruminate on the mysterious subterranean passages that exert such a powerful influence on life aboveground. This effect is accomplished through the use of the iterative voice (43-44), in which repeated events are represented as singular, ongoing circumstances, e.g., "As small children, we are brought down to the passageways by our parents, who hold us tightly by the hand and point at the dim-shining globed lamps, the soaring walls, the sharply turning paths" (The Knife Thrower 213). Even when Millhauser does not employ these strategies, he accomplishes similar effects. "Paradise Park" may consist of distinct episodes in the creation of the ultimate theme park, but the story is nevertheless disorienting in the way it makes the particular banal through repetition (Sammarcelli 44). And in the decidedly personal narrative "Kasper Hauser Speaks," the narrator taunts us with Borgesian play: if this human curiosity is created by his audience, the audience itself must partake of his strangeness (50). Rather than immersing the reader in the banal, Millhauser creates "an escape, in all senses of the term, and an effect of eeriness, the proliferation of unidentified voices favoring hesitation--and, as one knows, hesitation is connected with the fantastic ..." (39).

The use of historical and antiquated motifs in The Knife Thrower is by no means incidental, contends Monfort in "Steven Milhauser [sic], une esthetique du perime?" ("An Aesthetic of the Outdated?"). Millhauser's fairground attractions are analogous to the act of reading fiction, in which the audience can experience dramas free of risk. As in the title story, where audience members are ostensibly provoked and protected by the knife thrower's skill, "The contract of fiction consists, then, of two elements: one 'really' throws but 'falsely' risks since it is all well and good to simulate risk against which one is protected" (59). But this fictional contract carries a risk of its own--Graum's automatons take on an unsettling reality at the conclusion of "The New Automaton Theatre"; actors hired to merely simulate riffraff eventually threaten visitors to "Paradise Park" (61, 67-68). The inside and outside of fiction are also blurred by ambiguous narrators whose knowledge of reported events resemble the reader's, and by the use of eclectic lists that bring together attractions from disparate times and places (64-65, 70-71). Observes Monfort: "fiction is susceptible to pulling back from a fictional universe that no longer necessarily obeys the rules of 'as if,' where the game might eventually cease to be a game, in which case, that which begins as a game ends or threatens to end as reality" (59).

In "Entre desir et desastre: l'ecart dans The Knife Thrower de Steven Millhauser" ("Between Desire and Disaster: The Gap in Steven Millhauser's The Knife Thrower"), Pellegrin discerns a fundamental dialectic in the fiction akin to that described by Pascal Quignard: the negation of the real which, paradoxically, returns us to the real. The story of Harter, a womanizer, in "The Way Out," for example, illustrates the former negation; the protagonist's romantic disappointment is told using a distanced narrative voice, the omission of information from both Harter and the reader, and flashback, a device that in effect begins the story after it has already ended (82-83). The second part of the dialectic is seen in "Beneath the Cellars of Our Town," in which descent to the town's mysterious tunnels serves as a prelude to eventual ascent (Pellegrin 87-88).

In a brief afterword to the collection, Marc Chenetier discusses the value of studying Millhauser's fiction, a body of work that resists theorizing: "hasn't it been explained to us at length and persistently that pleasure is heightened by knowing the magician's 'tricks,' that what is lost in naivety, one gains, paradoxically, in wonder?" (96).--P. P.


"Is it possible not to be drawn to the novella? Everything about it is immensely seductive," said Steven Millhauser in a 2003 interview with Jim Shepard (par. 1). Millhauser was, of course, speaking as a writer. His readers do not necessarily agree. As has been amply established elsewhere in this overview, the reception of Millhauser's work novels, novellas, and short stories--has been mixed in this country, but popular critics seem especially confused by the novellas. The reasons for this are dispiritingly predictable; however, considering them may establish why the novellas are a form important both to Millhauser personally and to serious readers of his work.

A 1993 Library Journal review of Little Kingdoms characterized novellas in general as "often arous[ing] the suspicion that they're something that failed to be longer or shorter.... [O]ne more often expects something polite, whimsical, and pleasant in the novella format." Despite this reviewer's conviction that Millhauser's work in this novella triptych consists of "odds and ends," he deigned to acknowledge that the book contains "just enough fine writing ... for the money" (Geary 157-58). Another Library Journal review, published in 1999, did not stoop to such naked commodification; instead it confusedly called Enchanted Night a "novel," despite the fact that its subtitle is A Novella. The reviewer then complained that it is a "wisp of a story" (Leiding 134), though again acknowledging the presence of beautiful writing. We cannot know whether the reviewer complained because she felt the book was an inadequate example of a novel or because she disliked novellas as such. In any case, neither of these reviews tells us anything about the books except that they contain good writing, when, in fact, it is the novellas' structural dynamics--individually and as an oeuvre--that set them apart.

The novella remains virtually invisible in the United States in commercial terms, despite some notable exceptions. More attention has been paid in the academy, but conversations there still tend to turn on generic definition, on which there is no consensus (J. H. E. Paine, in his 1979 study Theory and Criticism of the Novella, titles one of his chapters "Forms of the Novella: The Hazards of Category"). In fact, Millhauser--wisely, for a writer making formal innovations--accepts length as the only legitimate definition of the novella. Its "shortness encourages ... the close-up view, the revelatory detail, the single significant moment" while at the same time "invit[ing] the possibility of certain elaborations and complexities forbidden by a very short form ..." (qtd in Interview, Bomb). In other words, the novella allows both the descriptive richness and the structural complexity for which Millhauser's work has become celebrated.

"The close-up view" is an apt term for Millhauser to use about his own work, for he has established a novella oeuvre that explores, in particular, the complex relation between sight and space, on the one hand, and memory and the temporal on the other. The triad, especially the romantic/sexual triad, is present in thematic and structural terms throughout Millhauser's work. However, as a somewhat indeterminate form--one that yearns for both length and compression, one that is neither novel nor short story--the novella is perhaps itself an instantiation of a "third way" (and thus the essential third point, or third angle, of the novel-novella-short story triangle). In any case, Millhauser's novellas constitute a rich field for exploring how the relationship between space and time is treated in his fiction.

Millhauser has published two novella triptychs (Little Kingdoms [1993] and The King in the Tree [2003]), and one freestanding novella, Enchanted Night (1999). According to his own criterion--length--the short stories "August Eschenburg" (In the Penny Arcade), and "A Game of Clue" (The Barnum Museum) also may be said to fit the definition, and they will be discussed here as well.

Little Kingdoms (1993)

Michael Dirda, in a favorable review of Little Kingdoms in the Washington Post Book World, says of Millhauser that "no one alive, except perhaps James Salter or John Crowley, can write more beautiful prose" (par. 1). Other reviews make similar observations: an anonymous New Yorker reviewer says Millhauser "records the imaginative life with the luminous strokes of a landscapist and the draftsmanship of a mapmaker" (99). Irving Malin called it "one of the truly amazing books written by an American writer in the last three decades" (212). According to Dirda, the "common reservation[s]" about Millhauser's work--"Aren't his tales ... just a little precious and ethereal ...? And isn't Millhauser himself somewhat obsessed with childhood and its sense of wonder? "--are not particularly valid. He perceives that the "fanatical particularization" of Millhauser's tales is his "great strength" because of the narrative potency of Millhauser's descriptive approach:
   He can imbue his descriptive details with the evocative power and
   excitement of runaway narrative. "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the
   Dungeon," in this new collection, delivers repeated shivers of
   erotic menace and violation--yet almost nothing sexual really
   happens. But then it doesn't have to....

Dirda's remark also points to the erotic charge present in most of Millhauser's work (and belies the assumption that Millhauser is "obsessed with childhood and its wonder," insofar as this obsession is assumed not to include the erotic).

Dirda perceives what some American reviewers and critics either seem to overlook or fail to acknowledge--that the novellas "subtly question each other about imagination and power" (par. 11, emphasis added). In fact, all of Millhauser's work does so. As Marc Chenetier points out in his 2003 study Steven Millhauser: La precision de l'impossible (The Precision of the Impossible), the consistency found across what at first may seem to be a heterogeneous oeuvre arises from its "obsessions, the throbbing recurrence of a handful of topics and questions beyond the apparent variety of subjects and situations" (10). Primary among these obsessions is the imagination, but not, as has been often assumed, as opposed to the "real." In fact, it is the zone in which, as Millhauser himself has said, "the familiar begins to turn strange. Where things cease to be themselves, where they begin to turn into something else, which has no name ..." (Interview, Bomb).

Though sometimes relegated to footnotes, numerous mentions are made of "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" in Arthur Saltzman's 2001 article "A Wilderness of Size," about Millhauser's 1996 novel Martin Dressier. Saltzman refers to the character Payne to elucidate his contention that, like both characters and the architectures they inhabit in Millhauser's fiction, the Vanderlyn Hotel is, as Saltzman puts it, "in the thick of things yet marvelously apart" (597). Payne, too, as he works in his study in a turret, is "separated from the life of the house but [felt] that he drew secret strength from the floors below" (Little Kingdoms qtd. in Saltzman 597n4). The theme of spatial configuration and its effect on temporal aspects of fiction--in other words, that of how boundaries in time intersect with boundaries in space--is one that will also be explored in Millhauser's second novella triptych, which may be read, in many ways, as an extension and companion to the first.

As the New Yorker reviewer put it, "[Millhauser's] 'little kingdoms' include the imaginative realms that his characters inhabit" (99). According to Saltzman, "for Millhauser, borders between fact and fiction, reality and dream are unreliable (even undesirable) retaining walls for personality" (603n10). He refers to the central conceit for J. Franklin Payne's newspaper comic "Figaro's Follies," in which the monkey Figaro, in each strip, devises a new way to violate the strip's panel frames: in one case, each frame contains a door that allows him to walk into a new panel "with a different shape: the first panel led into a circle, the circle led to a tall, thin tube, the tube opened onto a stairway, the stairway led to a small box, and a door in the box opened to a hot-air balloon with a basket, in which the monkey stood with a spyglass trained on the reader" (38). Whether these boundaries are always undesirable is arguable; the hot-air balloon appears in Millhauser's later short story "Balloon Flight, 1870," but in this case it is, rather than an escape vehicle, a "yellow monster" (151) that carries the protagonist into the overwhelming vacancy of the sky: "Here at the world's end, give me the sight and touch of things: shape of a hand, curve of a chin, weight of a stone, the heft of earthly things. Edges! Edges!" (156). Indeed, Payne himself sometimes distrusts his own boundary-breaking (in his guise as a little monkey):
   when he had entered the world of four black lines, which he broke
   apart and reassembled any way he liked, so that his impish monkey
   seemed the very expression of his longing to break free of some
   inner constraint, then he felt a craving for the lines and shadows
   of the actual world, as if the imaginary world threatened to carry
   him off in a hot-air balloon on a voyage from which he might never
   return. (39)

This oscillation between the oppressive world of the concrete and the vertigo of utter freedom--this mistrust of settling too easily into one world or another, of reifying the method by which one perceives--creates both thematic tension and narrative momentum in much of Millhauser's fiction. Chenetier examines this phenomenon in mostly structural terms. He compares Millhauser's fictional technique to a Mobius strip: "the reader, who follows the sentence like a finger follows the back of the strip, finds herself without rupture or jolt on the back of the world described, having passed imperceptibly to the other side without realizing that torsion allowed the passage" (La precision 62). The key to this torsion, which is the dynamo powering the reader's adventuring between worlds, is the accumulation of meticulously exact description: "Quantitative accumulation 'naturally' produces the qualitative jump necessary for the passage from the world of the possible to that of the impossible" (La precision 62). Chenetier uses as an example one of the many remarkable descriptive scenes in "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne":
   Somewhere beyond the rain-haze he and Stella and Max and Cora were
   walking in checkered sunlight on a green, wooded path, but when he
   arrived home he had to drag his feet through piles of red and yellow
   leaves; the wind howled as he climbed the stairs to his study; from
   the high windows he could see the ice skaters on the river, turning
   round and round, faster and faster, until they were a whirling
   blur--and emerging from their spin they sat back lazily in
   sun-flooded rowboats, their straw hats casting blue shadows over
   their eyes. (73)

This momentum will eventually carry the narrative into the story's ultimate scene, in which past and present are, somewhat transcendentally, somewhat agonizingly, conflated into the screening of Payne's masterwork of animation; the Virginia Quarterly Review characterizes this withdrawal as "moving and pathetic" (Rev. of Little Kingdoms 24). The agony is that of dreadful loneliness and creative abundance occurring in exact simultaneity. The novella is erotic, as are the other two novellas, not in the explicitly sexual sense but in the sense that everything lures, "seduces" the reader to wander more deeply into the forest of the narrative and the worlds that bloom there in the undergrowth, and at the same time makes more explicit that this territory is dangerous and capable of betrayal.

Seduction and betrayals also figure strongly in "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," as does Millhauser's exploration of the gaze. The novella is divided into short sections; the longest is about five and a half pages long, and most are less than a page. Each section is titled, with a heading run into the text in capital letters; these titles are short and reflect sometimes one aspect of the section, sometimes another (the first three are "The Dungeon," "The Castle," and "Tales of the Princess"). All reinforce the slight remove the reader feels, as does the use of the first-person plural pronoun (to which Millhauser has said he is "increasingly drawn" ["An Interiew]). They also reinforce the sense of the voyeuristic: everyone, in this novella, watches everyone else, or wishes to (with the exception of the Princess, who is endlessly watched). The townspeople cannot observe the interior of the castle directly, but they speculate at length about past and present courtly doings; the Prince enlists the dwarf Scarbo to spy on his wife, the Princess, whom he has ordered to offer nightly temptations to his former friend the margrave. Only the dungeon rats (being sightless) are indifferent.

Most contemporary reviews of Little Kingdoms singled out this novella as a beautifully written exploration of the themes of jealousy and revenge, one that plows up the soil of the fairy-tale format to reveal the charnel ground below it. The Virginia Quarterly Review compared it both to the "aloof play of Borges" and to the "elliptical rage of Browning's 'My Last Duchess'" (Rev. of Little Kingdoms 25); Daniel Green referred to it as an "outright fairy-tale," but one whose "inhabitants are as subject to uncertainty and disappointment as any character in the more abject fictional universe depicted by the minimalists" (par. 4). Green also compared the novella to Robert Coover's Pricksongs and Descants, noting, however, that Millhauser's work "does not so much deconstruct the fairy tale's explanatory power as explore it" (par. 9). Irving Malin said simply that it "contains elements of a fairy tale, [but] the narrative calls into question the meaning of continuity, process, movements of life" (212). Frederic Tuten noted in The New York Times Book Review that the novella explores the theme of authenticity and replication: "embedded in this story is the narrator's meditation on the art of his [indeterminately medieval] time, paintings so lifelike as to cause a dog to lick the portrait of his master" (9:1). The novella is also concerned with betrayal, not only in the sexual sense but because, being duplicitous, lies themselves function as a replica of the truth. This theme will also be explored in the later novella "The King in the Tree," which extends many of the themes in "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon." Of course, an examination of duplicity must also include (as most of Millhauser's work does) an examination of transgression.

In his chapter "The Management of Desire," Chenetier identifies desire or lack as a general motive force in Millhauser's fiction:
   a Millhauser work is born from malaise, of a feeling of lack. It
   nourishes itself and expands, trying to fill this lack. It moves
   toward a paroxysm which might promise a new way of knowing, then,
   exhausted by [its own] excess, muted by the inexpressable, butting
   against the insoluble, it gives way to a new attempt to conquer the
   imaginary space, whereupon ... it destroys itself by dissolving the
   forms it had so meticulously arranged to reach that point. (La
   precision 89)

This trajectory accurately describes "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," in terms of both the townspeople and, especially, the jealous Prince, whose restlessness consists of a fundamental and perverse desire to suffer by unjustly accusing his wife, the Princess, of trysts with his closest (and this in the chivalric sense) friend, the margrave. He proceeds to do so, and just at the point of crisis (when, if he would allow the "paroxysm" to take place, he might enter some new "way of knowing"), he destroys his own perceptual framework by dissolving the "forms"--the arrangements, that is, he has commanded regarding the Princess and the margrave--that he himself established. In other words, the Prince cannot allow any situation to come to fruition on its own. Closure is never achieved. The Princess is imprisoned in the tower for all time, but does not die (and achieve closure in that sense); the margrave chips away at his tunnel leading away from the dungeon, without ever gaining his freedom (though--who knows?--someday he may).

In any case, this has the effect of turning the dynamic of desire back upon the voyeuristic townspeople; never content with the state they have achieved, they oscillate ceaselessly between restlessness and quiescence in "an aesthetic and epistimological variety of Penelopism (La precision 89): "We do not know what it is, this thing we lack. We only know that on certain summer afternoons, when the too-blue sky stretches on and on, or in warm twilights when the blackbird cries from the hill, restlessness comes over us, a dissatisfaction.... Then we turn to the castle ..." (138). Thus the collective restlessness underscores the townspeople's isolation from the unreachable and unreadable castle, just as the Prince has allowed his restless imagination to isolate him from the margrave and the Princess, who are imprisoned in both space and time.

The tragic stasis of the novella's end is recycled into romantic myth, as the first-person plural narrator describes how the tales of the Princess, the dwarf, and the dungeon evolve: "secondary versions" known as "cellar tales," "which have not been able to survive in the full light of day, continue to carry on a hidden life, and give rise to growths of a dubious and fantastic kind" (165-66). These mutations, these mushroom tales, offer alternate endings to the legend: the Princess and the dwarf bear a child; the margrave grows black wings and "one day ... appears in the sky above the river as a black angel of death" (166). These variations are not given weight by the narrator, who has his own impulse toward closure. The penultimate section, titled "A Day Will Come," describes the eventual apocalyptic return of the margrave, who will wreak vengeance on the castle and the town. Yet it is no more clear that the narrator knows this will occur than that the Prince knew his wife had been unfaithful. This lack of certainty enables the community to deploy the story of the Princess, the Prince, and the margrave (as well as the dwarf and the dungeon) in the ways they find useful as a group. As Millhauser said regarding the first-person plural point of view, "what interests me [about the 'we'] is the way moral indecisiveness or questioning may be given more weight or significance by attaching itself to a multiple being" (qtd. in "An Interview"). In many ways, the narrative "we" here functions as an exploration of this "indecisiveness or questioning." Appropriately, there is no decision or answer. The novella's last phrase itself allows the dynamic oscillation of meaning to continue: in the town, "sunlight and shadow fall equally" (173).

Irving Howe's afterword for an early publication (in Salmagundi) of "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)" observes the difficulties of using a "vertical" form such as a catalog (which is "a series of discrete items discussing particular paintings and only secondarily providing information and insights about the artist ... and those near him" [112]) in a fictional narrative. Like the first-person plural narrator in "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," this form puts us at a remove from the melodramatic action. Howe says that, despite initial frustrations as he attempted to locate a connection between the catalog form and the dramatic narrative, he concludes that "[Millhauser] deliberately chose to keep his actions at a certain, an optimal, distance because what interested him, I now think, is a cultural situation in which talented but troubled people become so introverted, so deeply in the depth of obsessions, that the capacity for spontaneous life begins to dwindle radically" (114). In other words, the characters in Moorash's paintings and in his life have reached the same crisis, or stasis, point as the personages in the preceding two novellas. Again, betrayal and desire, and their relationship to the creative (and created) world, figure strongly, but this time the theme of romantic excess and the violent potential of art are explored more overtly.

Millhauser, in correspondence with Howe, confirmed that Edmund Moorash is "entirely an invention," as are the contemporaneous Phantasmacist (which the catalog's narrator dryly calls "a minor and short-lived school" [181]) and Diabolist movements. Moorash, whom Millhauser has said he wanted to be "an American equivalent of Turner" (qtd. in Howe 113), lives, like Wordsworth, with his sister (Elizabeth) in a remote lakeshore cottage (in this case, in upstate New York). Another brother-sister couple, William and Sophia Pinney, build a cottage on the opposite shore; much entanglement ensues, and eventually blood is spilled. With drama this vivid, narrative distance may be helpful. However, like Howe, critics have been uncertain of the form's efficacy and bothered by the narrative's tone. The Virginia Quarterly Review, which calls the novella a "less successful tale [than "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne"] of the psychic cost of artistic integrity" (24), also characterizes its prose as "all too convincingly academic" (it also dislikes its "rigidly symmetric" structure [24-25]). It seems clear that narrative distance, and the novella's structure, have much to do with critics' willingness to accept other aspects of the novella, including the thematic. The catalogue form manages to keep the reader at a triple remove from the action (through the assumption of the presence of an artificial setting--a museum exhibit; through awareness of the catalogue's author's own academic interest in Moorash and his circle; and through the funneling of much of the core narrative's emotional content through the paintings themselves, with the counterpoint of extracts from Moorash's sister Elizabeth's journal). This triple remove acts both to evoke the narrative suspension and oscillation typical of all three of these novellas and to make us aware (through the catalogue-author's slightly prurient academic gaze) of our own voyeurism, and the mercilessness and clumsiness of the public gaze upon the private lives of artists.

The narrator of "Catalogue" is far less self-aware than the "we" of "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," and this has the effect of making the narration more transparent--despite its structure as catalog notes--and the characters more vivid. Too, the novella's principle characters are not in the indeterminately distant, mythical past, as the middle novella's characters may be; they are only a century outside living memory, and dates scattered throughout the catalog effectively pin them down in time. (As Dirda points out, "A careful reader will have noted early on that all the main characters die in the same year" ["Worlds"].) This has the effect of allowing the reader to become absorbed in the action in a way that feels less mediated, despite the novella's unconventional form, while the formal structure still acts to frame the melodrama and allow the reader to experience it in a more nuanced way. In other words, the structure opens the action to interpretations more dynamic than the simple symbology at which the academic narrator hints.

A recurring theme in the novella is art's violent potential: early in the catalogue (in the description of painting no. 8), the narrator quotes the journal of Elizabeth Moorash, the artist's sister: "a painting strikes you all at once, with its full force, instead of dispersing its effects, [Edmund says]. A painting strikes a blow. William [Pinney], smiling: Is art then so dangerous? E: Painting is devil's work--let the beholder beware!" (191). Indeed, this is, ultimately, the effect of Moorash's last painting, a self-portrait, though it is in physical terms the victim of rage as well as its cause. In his chapter "Portrait of an Artist among Artists," Chenetier points out that the novella's core narrative, that of Moorash, is set in a century known both for its fascination with movement and its desire to push static visual techniques and technologies--painting and photography--toward movement (impressionism and experimental animation, respectively), as was explicated by Hausenstein, August Eschenburg's rival and underwriter (see In the Penny Arcade 39; Chenetier, La precision 53). Chenetier locates corresponding structural tensions in "Catalogue," in terms of the way this story's "montage of journal extracts, letters, historic citations, descriptions ... has the double effect of superimposing 'the life and the book,' [of] inviting the made and the represented to melt under the reader's gaze" (54). This layered narrative technique is also thematically supported by descriptions of Moorash's painting, which utilizes impasto and other layering techniques to destabilize distance and contour. Narrative is also made ambiguous; despite the catalog-writer's attempts to limn for us the personalities of Moorash and the other principal characters, even Moorash's portraiture, according to Chenetier, explores representation and motion and stasis: "the personages represented figure one moment in their mutual relationship" (55, emphasis added).

Moorash's aesthetic, "dominated by the dissolution of contours, evanescent or mixed forms, fusions, distortions, and oneiric dispersions, [and] the confusions of levels of representations and tonalities" (Chenetier 55), both drives the narrative dynamic and suspends it. The fiction, like Moorash's self-portrait (as our catalog-writer points out in the last entry, no. 26), "seems to hover in a limbo between art and biography, between the realm of imperishable beauty and the realm of decay" (239). The spilling of blood and the breaching of boundaries in this novella bespeak a dynamic of transgression and yearning.

A survey of these novellas and their reception should not overlook the marked lack of response to Millhauser's very gentle but acute sense of parody (and of humor) within them. Though much has been made of the formal parody of Edwin Mullhouse, the cultural parody of Portrait of a Romantic, and the linguistic parody of From the Realm of Morpheus, which uses many Elizabethan locutions, these responses concern themselves more with superficial "marks" of parody than the ways in which it is part of the basic dynamic of Millhauser's work. Parody and humor are, after all, another sort of duplication, this time involving exaggeration: repetition and variation, miniaturization and gigantism all can, and sometimes do, function humorously in these works. But always, with Millhauser, the exaggeration is so subtle that as soon as it shows itself to be such it has begun to melt into something new (most of the time, a sympathetic appreciation of even his least sympathetic characters' impulse toward redemptive adventuring). As are all aspects of his work, it is beautifully modulated, and never announces itself so loudly that it outshouts the central "adventure" of the tale. Yet it is inescapable.

Enchanted Night (1999)

In his 2003 interview with Marc Chenetier, Steven Millhauser said, in the course of an exchange about the relative "darkness" or "light" of his books, that "art is connected in my mind--in my body--with a sense of enhancement, of radical pleasure, of affirmation, of revelry. Darkness is the element against which this deeper force asserts itself. It may even be that this force deliberately seeks out darkness, in order to assert itself more radically" (par. 12). Enchanted Night, a 130-page novella, the only one of Millhauser's to be published separately, seems either to be embraced or dismissed by popular critics for its relative "lightness." (L. S. Klepp, writing for Entertainment Weekly, called Millhauser "a poet not of punitive ironies but of gentle imaginative consolations" [61].) Published in 1999, six years after Little Kingdoms (and following Martin Dressler and its Pulitzer Prize, and correspondingly greater critical notice for Millhauser's work), it is a thematic departure from the first triptych. For those who had become accustomed to the quasi-Gothic hauntedness of Millhauser's fiction, Enchanted Night may have seemed far less complex.

Yet the novella seems to have resulted from a relatively challenging experiment: an effort to find a form that would allow the use of "many different voices" ("An Interview"); also, "the conception of the work was musical--a theme and variations on a summer night." In some ways, like music, the novella functions as a sort of stop-time: Millhauser says, referring to book's epigraph by Ben Jonson ("Lay thy bow of pearl apart / And thy crystal-shining quiver. / Give unto the flying hart / Space to breathe, how short soever," from "A Pangyre," written in 1603) that "in Enchanted Night, I gave the flying hart--the restless heart--a little space to breathe. Day will come soon enough."

The musical (or lyrical) aspects of the novella have been noted by a number of critics. Alan Cheuse, in a National Public Radio broadcast, said, "There are a hundred pages of lyrical prose in this novella, but their meaning escaped me until I ... read them aloud. Millhauser's modernistic summer night sonata is as much a treat for the ear as it is for the eye." The Virginia Quarterly Review called it "part fairy tale, part tone poem" (64); Donna Seaman noted its "light and playful poetic prose" (233). Tobin Harshaw's review in the New York Times highlights one of two supernatural occurrences: the presence of mysterious flute music that, though "Perhaps it is only birdsong, there in the dark trees" (15), nonetheless will draw the children from their beds before the night has finished. Millhauser has said that the novella is, "in a sense, an elaboration of" his earlier short story "Clair de Lune" (qtd. in Chenetier, "An Interview"), with which it shares a similar setting; however, Enchanted Night has a far more self-consciously musical structure, with its choruses and recurring motifs. "Songs" are assigned to the different actors, from a teenage boy to the field insects.

The music of the language, too, is exquisitely modulated. In the scene in which the teenage boy Danny is ravished in his sleep by the moon-goddess, the text heightens the surprisingly explicit physicality of the moment with constructions--"Heart-stirred she rests, the goddess sharp-wounded" (98)--that adopt the syntax of Old English alliterative verse, with its oral form and its celebration of the embodied world. Later the lyricism shifts to a style more fluid and impressionistic: "Dark and sweet, dark and sweet, the night-notes draw the children deeper into the woods, past tree trunks fat as elephant legs, under branches that run like ink against the blue night sky ..." (114). Indeed, Claude Debussy's aesthetic haunts this novella, more even than it does Millhauser's story "Clair de Lune." Impressionist languor is evoked through the lyricizing of Millhauser's precise descriptions, which also has the effect of slowing the reading. This languor and the poetics by which it is achieved appeal more to some critics than to others (Harshaw believed the languor "handcuff Is]" Millhauser [15]; Ben Marcus, in his Village Voice review, disliked the "overblown bursts of lyricism" that "coat ... the characters in a thick, nostalgic sheen" [90]). Once again, traditionally realist expectations are unselfconsciously applied to Millhauser's work, with the predictable result that these expectations are disappointed.

Finally, though the novella may, as Brian Evenson said in his review, "lack the impact of Millhauser's best stories and novels," it seems "a perfect book with which to ease someone into the work of this most important American writer." As Evenson says, "it stands in relation to Millhauser's more ambitious work in the same fashion that ... Saramago's The Tale of the Unknown Island stands in relation to his: the author's characteristic impulses, concerns, and gestures are there but gauzily transfigured as fairy tale" (181).

The King in the Tree (2003)

This, the most recent of Millhauser's books, has garnered the mixed reception of his other novellas. It consists of the title novella, a reworking and extension of the Tristan and Isolde myth; "An Adventure of Don Juan," in which Don Juan is subject to a reversal of his customary conquest-without-emotional-attachment; and "Revenge," a monologue written in a contemporary setting in the voice of a widow who subtly and powerfully lures her late husband's lover into the darkest of psychological traps.

The romantic triangle is, in these novellas, explored in terms of design--in terms of how the perpetually shifting dyads forming and re-forming in the three-way connection operate to create narrative dynamic and destabilize everyone's, including the reader's, notions of what can be known. "Revenge," at base, explores epistemology--and consequently replication and the "real." "Revenge" also seems to have garnered the strongest critical responses, and the most mixed. It has been called, variously, "a gothic masterpiece" (Miller 7); "the weakest of the three novellas" (Rev. of The King in the Tree 85); a "hand-wringing masterpiece" (Freeman EE.03); "a powerful tale of shattered identity" (Paddock); "a cluster bomb hidden in the folds of a monologue" (Annan 25); and the "best" of the collection (Troy Patterson, Entertainment Weekly). Many critics who have difficulty with the novella find the tone off-putting; Marvin J. LaHood, in a review for World Literature Today, called the voice of the widow, "at its worst," one of "shrill despair and vituperativeness" (95). LaHood frames his comment in terms of plausibility (he maintains that it is not clear that the dead husband's mistress would tolerate such vituperation). Even reviewers who were generally impressed by the novella noted, and even seemed a bit frightened by, its tone.

The novella was published too recently to have generated a great deal of study, but what serious attention has been paid (that is, beyond reviews) tends to examine how it may explore replication and epistemology. One useful starting point may be to examine how Millhauser's work explores realism (and the real) to begin with.

Marc Chenetier says that, in Millhauser's work, realism has a "very special status, which invites [us] to trust it as a form of support and at the same time defies its own limits. Art necessarily resorts to artifice, which is a condition of the enlargement of the conscience: giving its dimensions to another reality. Any art must ... declare its artifice; this does not alter its ontological status" (La precision 64). In fact, he says,
   Millhauser thinks so little of the distinction between art and
   artifice that one of his stories insists on "the mimetic or
   illusionist tendency of our art" ["The New Automaton Museum," The
   Knife Thrower 93]. Exploring the different possible stages and
   refinements of mimesis, he draws from (and through) the absolute
   precision of replicas until he has inventions that, going beyond
   resemblance, seek the truth and beauty of the represented, yet at
   the same time demonstrate via two distinct methods that if one
   takes seriously the powers of mimesis, realism is a failure of the
   artistic imagination.... One will see that, in the end, Millhauser
   exceeds realism.... (Chenetier, La precision 64-65, emphasis in
   Millhauser quotation his)

Chenetier proposes a "mimesis of the fantastic" (65) as one of Millhauser's foundational themes and projects. If we take Chenetier's conviction that artistry (and replication) is of the first importance to Millhauser and apply it to "Revenge," it allows us to reframe our evaluation of its qualities, and the widow may take her place among other Millhauser "artists." Her creation is, of course, vengeance, and she achieves it through a spatial and temporal reframing of her house, which, through a "house tour" for her husband's mistress, she renders a permeable, unsafe zone for the unheimlich. The house admits both the past and the future in uncanny ways, through its traces of the destroyed marriage and the presumed suicide of both the mistress and the widow.

The novella is also a conceptual descendant of "A Game of Clue," with which it shares both thematic preoccupations (the secrets we keep, transgression and betrayal, and the impossibility of complete revelation) and setting and structure (both tales are set within a house, whose various rooms have not only emotional but narrative significance). The narrative techniques used in the two stories are very different: "A Game of Clue" uses a close third-person point of view that shifts among not only the human players but their Clue counterparts--Professor Plum et al.--who are treated realistically. This use of focalization reinforces the distance between the characters' epistemologies and the consequently mysterious nature of existence. Millhauser's use of the third person allows the reader to view all the characters' secrets, but these secrets themselves become clues to larger secrets, which remain unsolved. This novella's predominant tone is one of incipience; aggression, though present, is veiled. It is concerned with metaphysical purity, in the form of David Ross, the fifteen-year-old whose birthday is the occasion for the game of Clue; he is an adolescent, a state Millhauser finds fascinating:
   It feels a tug in two directions: back toward the completed world
   of childhood, from which it is permanently banished, and forward
   toward the unknown realm of adulthood, which it both craves and
   fears.... Fiction conventionally presents adolescence as a time of
   sexual awakening, but for me it feels like the very image of spirit
   in all its restless striving. (qtd. in Chenetier, "An Interview")

"Revenge," too, presents characters in liminal states, but their liminality's emotional tenor is far different. Fully committed to adulthood and all its knowingness, the mysteries in "Revenge" are solved, but the spirit, condemned to continuing in its "restless striving," has no choice but to plunge toward oblivion. The close focalization and blurring of point of view and bodily boundaries make, in some ways, "Revenge" an inside-out "Game of Clue": the latter is in part a meditation upon our inevitable separation, and the fact that when we are joined, what we share is often that very separation and our complete subjection to unsolvable mystery; the former dissolves the separation violently and completely, but evokes the ultimate separation of death.

Millhauser has said that he is fascinated by fiction's role as a means of seeing, in its most straightforward sense:
   the world is there, presenting itself to us ceaselessly, and yet it
   remains largely invisible. I remember being struck by a passage in
   a philosophy book that pointed out how no object is completely
   present to sight. If you look at a cube, you can only see three
   sides. The passage went on to distinguish seeing from imagining--in
   imagination, I immediately apprehend all six sides--but for me the
   simple fact that objects don't reveal themselves completely to
   sight became a symbol for the general invisibility of the world.
   (qtd in Interview, Bomb)

In "Revenge," the axis of sight, or space, always threatens to dissolve into the axis of time, or narrative. The house becomes a space that admits not only secret rooms--attic, cellar--but spatializes, or layers, time itself: the events of the past haunt it. "Robert's ghost is sitting right there, where you're sitting now," the narrator tells the mistress, "and my ghost is sitting here, listening to his strangled confession" (13). Ghosts, in fact, are a special form of replication, in that they replicate the past in the present.

The monologue approach also destabilizes space, because it bifurcates the reader's point of view: it both locks the reader into the widow's point of view and, because address is made in the second person, we are also, horribly, in the shoes of the dead man's mistress. The reader's only clues about how she reacts must come from the widow's statements themselves ("You seem upset. Of course you ought to be" [13].); there are few such statements, and they are necessarily oblique or fragmentary. The character of the mistress, therefore, must be almost wholly inferred by the reader. In a sense, the reader is given no choice but to become the mistress--and another uncanny triangulation is established: the reader, the mistress, and the widow.

Replication is a theme explored with great nuance in this tale, as well as the other two novellas, and this is where the fantastic is evoked in the novella. Large parts of the widow's monologue are devoted to recounting her compulsive imaginings, after his confession, of her husband's affair and of the mistress's character. The real and the monstrous are taken apart and recombined using the material of the two women's bodies (at one point the widow imagines herself without legs, as a mermaid--"nothing below my waist" [33]--and shortly thereafter, after spying on the mistress through a window that blocks the mistress's top half, makes the mistress a "mermaid in reverse, legs below and fish scales above" [38]).

It is also productive to view "Revenge" in relation to the two other novellas in the collection, which extend the exploration of replication in the love-triangle and also explore the intrusion of the past upon the future. "An Adventure of Don Juan" launches Don Juan Tenorio on the only possible adventure left for him, which is, rather than conquest, being conquered. As in Martin Dressler and "Catalogue of the Exhibition," two sisters are involved; one, Mary, is married to Augustus Hood, a prosperous member of the Somerset gentry with a fondness for artificial environments. The second sister, named Georgiana, at first interests Don Juan less than Mary. Georgiana engages in frequent philosophical discussions with Hood, whose estate is permeated (at ground level and below) with what Hood calls "living representations" (73): a ruined priory, Arcadia, a Saxon forest, Elizabethan groves, a hellish underworld (located below ground) and an Elysium (also underground). Don Juan also, at one point in the novella, descends, via a hollow oak tree, into his own past: a perfectly formed underground Venice, constructed for his delectation by Augustus Hood (117-18).

In this tale, Don Juan's interest comes eventually to rest on the unmarried sister, Georgiana. She frustrates him, and (the humor is subtly played) he sulks, grows despondent, "flings himself" on various couches, and jumps out of windows rather than using the door (this last is a variation of one of Don Juan's Venice escapes, but without the cuckolded silk merchant with unsheathed sword and the plunge into the canal). The depth and uncontrollable nature of his affection for Georgiana is strikingly at odds with his experience of himself as a person. As Edward Hower said, "To Don Juan, Georgiana represents the turbulent world of emotion, the experience of romantic love that has been missing from his life of sexual conquest" (231). To be sure, she represents a sense of destabilization and vulnerability; the Don is unaccustomed to this kind of obsession. Meanwhile, Mary Hood has fallen deeply in love with Don Juan, although he has come to rely on her for guidance in his pursuit of Georgiana. All the while, Augustus Hood, another of Millhauser's artists of mimesis and illusion, not only constructs vanished or mythical worlds but also presides over a house whose boundaries are, increasingly, indistinguishable from these simulacra. In a scene close to the end of the novella, Hood recounts the story of a laborer who becomes trapped in an underground tunnel and, after much labor with his pick, emerges in what he believes to be China (it is actually an abandoned simulacrum of a Chinese temple). "For say," Hood says to Georgiana, Mary, and Juan, during a dusk stroll by the river (which serves as another fictional way of connecting not only space but also past and future), "a man reads of China, dreams of China, and does not go to China. And say another man hacks his way through a wall and enters a Chinese temple. Now riddle me this: which China is more real?'" (129). Hood extends the riddle with several more scenarios, to which Georgiana responds. Unusually, though, Juan too has his say on the matter: "A fifth man ... travels to China. He likes the country, travels for many years, and never returns home. Poco a poco--mmm, little by little--his early life becomes vague, dreamlike. He too has never traveled to China. He has always been there" (129). Indeed, Immediately prior to this exchange, Juan has experienced a crisis in which both place and time seem to be dissolving (but not dissolving completely). He is caught in this peculiarly liminal state: "Who was he? Who? He was no longer Don Juan. He had wandered away from himself, he couldn't find his way back. Who are you? I am the one I no longer am. Basta! He would have his life" (128). He determines that night to go to Georgiana's room and have her one way or another.

But when he sets out for that chamber, he finds that he is in utter darkness and disoriented in the enormous house, with its "long and sometimes turning corridors, its various wings, each with so many rooms ... its many stairways going up or down, its galleries, its hidden chambers reached only by passages known to servants long since deceased" (131). His confusion increases as he relies only on touch and not sight: "He tried to picture the drawing room carefully in his mind, but the imagined furniture kept shifting and sliding about.... He continued forward, through the room that ought to have been the drawing room, holding out his hand in empty space. It was an odd immensity of space, as if he had accidentally stepped through a door into a black meadow--and who was to say he had not stepped into a meadow ... ?" (132).

After several more disorienting turnings, he happens upon Mary, who, carrying a candle, does not say where she is going. Juan does not detain her but holds to his determination to reach a destination, and he eventually arrives at Georgiana's room. However, it is not the "Georgiana's room" he or the reader has anticipated. As he draws aside the bed curtains (of what has become a "dream-bed"), he sees Georgiana in bed with her brother-in-law Augustus Hood.

Juan's trip through the darkness, in its effect on the reader, resembles the severely limited point of view in "Revenge," in which the reader never really "sees" the house as a whole, but only as a sequence of rooms and passages. Each journey not only dissolves ideas of spatial configuration, but undermines the idea of temporal destination as well. In the end, Juan flees England, "that legendary land composed entirely of fog" (63). But "destination" has become so undermined in this novella that the fiction leaves him (literally) in-between.

Between-ness, indeterminate futures, the nature of story itself--all continue to be explored in the final, title novella. Though this retelling of the Tristan and Isolde myth does not depart radically from previously developed variants (as "An Adventure of Don Juan" does), its concerns with time, and especially prediction, are notable. In this tale we are, through the observations of Thomas of Cornwall, our narrator, plunged into a situation in which suspense mounts not because we are awaiting one awful outcome (we already know the ending of the story). Rather, we are whirled from one set of expectations to another. As King Mark of Cornwall's suspicion of his new queen (her name is spelled Ysolt here) and his nephew Tristan grows, he deliberately thrusts them into situations in which their honor will be tested. We suspect (again, because we know the legend and because Thomas implies as much) that Ysolt and Tristan are betraying the king deeply and constantly. Yet the king, unable to contemplate what he will be forced to do if he confronts the truth, continues to allow himself to be deceived. It is an excruciating game of cat and mouse, in which the immediate, not the long-term, future is completely unstable. The long-term future, too, is indeterminate; we have only a schematic in our minds: we know the two lovers will be banished, we know things will not end well--but the particulars depend on the causal chain that veers and swerves. Tristan and Ysolt at first manage to convince the king that they are innocent; the king's chief steward Oswin raises suspicions; the court dwarf Modor (who "betrays everyone and is universally detested" [149]) does as well; Thomas himself sees the pair walking at night in a moonlit orchard. The king banishes Tristan; Tristan returns and is once more in favor. As we follow these dramatic twists and turns we are once again tied to a narrative point of view that does not allow us a long perspective; Thomas writes in journal entries, and does not know the outcome until we do ourselves. Eventually, the pair is caught, but evidence of real betrayal is not presented until twenty-six pages before the end of the 101-page novella. By that point Tristan has been banished and returned, and then the pair banished (and, once more, returned). In other words, proof comes far too late to make it surprising to anyone, least of all the reader.

Triangles, those most unstable of shapes, saturate the novella. When King Mark, demented with jealousy and grief, imprisons himself after banishing Tristan and Ysolt, he presides over a triumvirate of spiders, which forms one-third of a larger triumvirate: "Here is my court: three spiders, a raven, and a fly." Thomas himself gives us a clue as to the dynamic in play: "The love of Tristan and the Queen has always flowed around and against the King. Banished from the court, alone in the forest, did they find themselves sometimes thinking of him? ... In order for their love to flourish--in order for them to love at all--do they perhaps need the King?" (208).

In this novella, labyrinths and secret enclosures figure strongly; the castle wall is honeycombed with chambers and tunnels, and the orchard is another labyrinth with a thousand secret "rooms." These chambers and tunnels are sites of reconfiguration of triangles. For example, Ysolt is lured by Oswin to his secret grotto; Thomas has alerted King Mark, and they follow Oswin and the queen to the underground lair; as they burst into the chamber they see that Tristan has protected the queen's honor and holds Oswin at sword-point (181-82). Thus Tristan is reinstated at the court for the first time. However, the Millhauserian trope that reinforces narrative instability here is the replica. On banishing Tristan and Ysolt, King Mark commands an "artificer," Odo of Chester, to make a replica of the absent queen: a polychrome statue, with an elementary automaton-feature: her extended arm may be raised and lowered via a lever in her back. The statue is kept in a chamber in an inner labyrinth, concealed behind a cloth painted with a likeness of the king. Even here, the dynamic returns to three: as Odo the artificer pulls a cord, "slowly the cloth divided, breaking the image of the King in half. The two cloths had been placed side by side so artfully that I had not been able to detect the jointure" (195). In addition to creating another threesome (the two halves of the king and the queen), this scene shifts the suspense from a horizontal axis--time's arrow--to a vertical axis: concealment and duplication. In fact, as the scene ends, the king is "unnaturally still. His arm was raised as if frozen in the act of reaching toward the Queen, his head erect, his eyes wide, his lips parted as if in speech" (195-96).

The replica here acts as a stop-time. Indeed, there is nothing the king wants more than to stop time's inevitable progression toward tragedy. One more replica will be involved before the end of the book: Tristan marries a replica "Ysolt," Ysolt of the White Hands. This marks the endgame, when all components of the set, all players who are members of a triangle, are in the "wrong place." As Thomas points out,
   Across the sea, the Queen lies awake in the royal chamber. All
   night long she thinks of the new bride, of Tristan asleep in the
   arms of his wife. In Tristan's chamber the King lies awake; he is
   thinking of the Queen alone in her chamber, of Tristan laughing
   with his bride. Here, in Tristan's castle, Tristan lies restlessly
   beside the beautiful Ysolt, the Ysolt who is not Ysolt, who can
   never be Ysolt, who by daring to bear the name Ysolt has doomed
   herself to lie beside him untouched, unloved, and unforgiven. Ysolt
   of the White Hands lies white and motionless under the coverlet.
   Her hands are crossed over her breasts. Her eyes remain open in the
   dark. (231)

This replica Ysolt also acts as a stop-time. Her lie to the wounded and ailing Tristan--that the first Ysolt has not cared enough to see him before he dies--kills him. The only continuity subsists in Thomas's pen: the last words of the novella are fitting:
   I dipped my quill in the ink of the oxhorn, shook off a drop with a
   single sharp dip of the wrist. I pulled my candle closer and bent
   over the page, my head bowed as if in prayer. I, Thomas of
   Cornwall, prince of parchment, lord of black ink, king of all
   space, summoner of souls, guardian of ghosts, friend of the pear
   tree and the silence of waves, companion to all those who watch in
   the night. (241)

"August Eschenburg"

If we use Millhauser's length criterion, "August Eschenburg" is a novella, and has structural commonalities with other Millhauser novellas. In terms of thematic richness, it is foundational to Millhauser's oeuvre, and deserves far more critical attention than it has been given thus far.

Its titular protagonist is one of Millhauser's solitary male artists. The son of a watchmaker, Eschenburg, after seeing a performance by the itinerant magician Konrad, becomes fascinated with Konrad's exquisitely constructed automata. He turns from his instruction as a watchmaker's apprentice to constructing his own automata. His figures eventually attract the attention of Herr Preisendanz of the Preisendanz Emporium, a large department store in Berlin, who recruits Eschenburg to create figures for the store's display windows. Eschenburg's work is spectacularly successful until he is undermined by an unscrupulous imitator, who provides automata for the newly opened competing store, Die Bruder Grimm.

The competitor's automata, because they are imitations of Eschenburg's imitations, are replicas of replicas, and, in a sort of machinic devolution, are degraded both in terms of the quality of their imitation (they are much coarser than Eschenburg's) and their performative aspects (their purpose is to titillate, and, as in all pornography, they do so by fragmenting the body: the focus is not on how the body, as a whole, replicates a human form, but on how the exaggerated buttocks or breasts draw the eye). Eschenburg's automata cannot compete with such decadence. He is fired and returns to his small town, Muhlenburg, and his watchmaker father.

It is at this point that the novella's form begins to transcend the ordinary, and it does so in terms of both the text's comments upon teleology and closure and in the way the text's structure echoes these concerns. Eschenburg's return to Muhlenburg is not unpredictable. However, the appearance of his competitor Hausenstein at the village is, and from this point forward the story does not follow a predictable trajectory. Hausenstein is an aesthete with a degraded and cynical vision:
   Nietzsche, bless his romantic soul, had invented the Ubermensch,
   but Hausenstein had countered with a far better word: the
   Untermensch. ... [B]y it he meant the kind of soul that, in the
   presence of anything great, or noble, or beautiful, or original,
   instinctively longed to pull it down and reduce it to a common
   level. The Untermensch did this always in the name of some
   resounding principle: patriotism, for example, or the spirit of
   mankind, or social progress, or morality, or truth. (36-37)

Hausenstein is also, of course, a hybrid: he appreciates Eschenburg's art--that is why he has come to find him--but produces what he knows is "trash" (34). He is one of Martin Dressler's predecessors as the romantic businessman who is drawn irresistibly toward increase. That Eschenburg allows himself to be convinced to return to Berlin and establish an automaton theater there (Das Zaubertheater, which will feature Eschenburg's automata but be underwritten by Hausenstein) results in a fusion. It is no longer clear, between the two men, who is the "original" and who the replica; Eschenburg's superior productions are dependent upon Hausenstein for their ability to have being in the wider world. In other words, Hausenstein's actions, cynical though they may be, allow Eschenburg's automata to come to life; yet Hausenstein needs Eschenburg, perhaps, as Eschenburg himself speculates, as an ideal in which to found his cynicism and as both a cure and preservative for his ennui (37).

The ramifications of Hausenstein's and Eschenburg's relation to each other and to their respective automata for doubling and replication are wide. However, if we are to return to our theme of triangles and a fictional "third way," we will also find much to appreciate in "August Eschenburg." Two images early in the story may serve as starting points. First, Eschenburg in his childhood was fascinated with a "cruel and marvelous toy": a paper figure which, when a live bird was trapped inside it, appeared to come alive. This crude automaton is "far better" than tamer animated toys, and it is partly because it is genuinely alive--animated by a living creature. These paper figures are a reversal of Hausenstein's pornographic automata: the outside is a "man" animated crudely and fearfully by the bird trapped inside; the unpredictable, tortured, clumsy movements of the man are unpredictable and tortured precisely because the creature inside's responses are so complex and because the stakes are nothing less than life and death. Hausenstein's automata are, above all, predictable in both their identity as automata (he is not trying to pass them off as perfect imitations of real people; rather, they are parodies) and in their performative aspects: the swaying buttocks, the overt sexual encounters delight partly because there are no surprises involved except the usual ones. Eventually, of course, it is this crudity that undoes Eschenburg's own automata; he discovers that Hausenstein has been operating an automaton theater competing with his own creation, and that this second theater's revenue--based on the attraction of Hausenstein's degraded figures--is what keeps the first theater afloat.

Yet there is something even more striking about the Zauber-theater and this story. Marc Chenetier points out that, because of rhetorical strategies such as the use of terms like "'First of all ... and then ... and soon'"
   [the fictional dreams are] condemned to open-endedness,
   unfinishedness, to infinite extension, to the eternal, which they
   necessarily join, like [these dreams' products] and like the texts
   which bespeak them: "Yes, the art of the automaton was a magical
   art, for when all was said and done there was something mysterious
   and unaccountable about clockwork: you breathed into the nostrils
   of a creature of dust and lo! it was alive. And so the art of
   clockwork was a high and noble art: the universe itself had been
   constructed by the greatest clockwork master of all, and remained
   obedient to mysterious laws of motion. And on the moving earth, all
   was ceaseless motion: wind and tide and fire." (Chenetier, La
   precision 52-53; Millhauser, Penny Arcade 61)

Thus Eschenburg and Millhauser's other artists are condemned to ceaseless motion: there is no closure, no biological death--only weariness.

If the trapped bird enacts the beating of life within the machine, Konrad the Magician, Eschenburg's earliest inspiration, signifies the artist condemned to the "ceaseless motion" of natural law. Having discovered that Hausenstein himself operates the Black Boot, a theater of crude and sexualized automata that competes with (and finances) the Zaubertheater, Eschenburg packs a few of his figures and becomes a wanderer much like Konrad.

The point in the novella at which closure might logically occur is when Eschenburg is on the way back to Muhlenburg, having discovered that the Zaubertheater is no longer operating. On the last leg of the trip, when he is awaiting a coach, he rests at the base of a tree. Impulsively he buries his suitcase (which contains his automata) in the leaves; this act precipitates a melancholy meditation upon his life and fate in terms of the machinic and the biological, in terms of accident and design. Eschenburg finds that he cannot reconcile anything about what has happened to him. "And so it had all come to nothing. He had given his life away to a childish passion. And now it was over" (63).

He sleeps, and this would seem an appropriate point at which to end the story. Yet the novella cannot close so neatly. Eschenburg awakes and cannot find his suitcase, and in this moment of disorientation, time itself seems suspended in the vacuum created both by the arbitrary nature of a mechanistic universe and by his sudden loss of memory and ability to orient himself in terms of a logical chain of causality. Then, says the text, "He remembered" (63), and the remembering restarts the clock. There is to be no rest for Eschenburg the artist. "A short while later, he picked up his suitcase and started back to the coach house" (64). Like the novella form, like, as Chenetier remarked, the dreams of all Millhauser's artists, he is condemned to "infinite extension, to the eternal" (La precision 52).

"A Game of Clue"

This novella, in its tone, setting, and theme, tempts comparisons to American realists such as John Updike. Yet it succeeds on the basis of the extent to which the reader accepts not only the physical and psychological realism of the primary story--a family drama, subtly enacted through an evening of Clue played on the porch of the family house in Connecticut--but also a secondary tale which involves the characters on the board: Miss Scarlet, Professor Plum, Colonel Mustard, Mrs. Peacock, Mr. Green, and Mrs. White.

The novella is divided into short sections, an innovation Millhauser will use in later novellas such as "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon" and "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)." The section headings (run into the text) may, if isolated and read sequentially, be read as hints or clues themselves. For example, if we examine, somewhat arbitrarily, the first thirteen headings--"The board"; "The table"; "Jacob"; "Pray forgive me"; "The library"; "Marian"; "Tokens and weapons"; "The porch"; "David"; "Doors and passages"; "The pleasures of secret passages"; "A woman of mystery"; "A warm night in August"--we can see that they imply certain events and tensions in both the primary (Connecticut) and secondary (Clue) narratives, and can themselves be read as a sort of incipient "shadow narrative," one that never quite comes to life but still haunts the fiction.

The fifth section, typical of descriptive sections throughout the novella, uses exact, meticulous, nearly clinical language:
   Viewed from above, the LIBRARY is a symmetrical figure that may be
   thought of as a modified rectangle: from each of the four corners a
   small square is missing. The resulting figure has twelve sides. As
   in all the rooms, the furniture is pictured from above and drawn
   in black outline. Thus the lamp on the central table reveals only
   the top of its hexagonal shade.... (Barnum Museum 12)

This meticulous description serves not only to instantiate the setting for readers, but also, through its verticality (both because it is a description that lacks the "horizontal" forward momentum of conventional narrative and because it enables the readers to share with the players the sense of looking downward--on a vertical axis--into a subterranean world), serves to establish an alternate path into the story. That is, like the "secret passageways" in the game itself, it forms a narrative secret passageway that allows us entrance to the second story, that of the Clue characters.

Our first glimpse into the secondary narrative occurs in a section titled "Pray forgive me": Colonel Mustard has disturbed Miss Scarlet, whom he will shortly attempt to seduce. The characterization in this passage is not noticeably different from that in the primary-story sections. The colonel is, certainly, a coarse, scheming philanderer, and his personality contrasts sharply with those of the players--Jacob, Marian, and David Ross, as well as Jacob's girlfriend Susan Newton--who surround the game board. Yet he is as dimensional as they are.

His entrance underscores the fact that the primary-narrative characters--Jacob, Marian, David, and Susan--have no control over the world of the Clue characters; they see that world only in its dimmest outlines, through the tools of the dice and the cards and the schematic drawing on the board. They must guess at the outcome, just as they must guess at the outcome of the game that is occurring among themselves, in which each person (through close third-person narrative that shifts among the characters) speculates about the motives and aims of the others. For example, the youngest character, David, who is celebrating his fifteenth birthday, is (poignantly) obsessed with whether his brother Jacob will participate in a ritual they have enacted on David's previous birthdays: staying up late together and talking. Marian speculates on Jacob's motives for bringing his girlfriend Susan Newton to a family celebration. Susan speculates on Jacob's state of mind and on David and Marian in general. Two games of Clue--one on the board, one in the Connecticut house--are played at once.

Psychological gulfs separate both the Rosses and Susan Newton and the group of Clue characters. Alienation is the order of the day for both primary and secondary narratives, an alienation growing from insoluble secrets. Neither the Clue characters nor the players nor we can discern exactly what will happen in the future, even after the game is "won" by the youngest Ross, David. In other words, we know who, where, and with what implement the murder was committed, but the secrets of the Clue characters' hearts remain obscure, and, indeed, they seem trapped in an endless physical space (the mansion) and an ongoing drama that has no discernible outcome. Like other Millhauser replicas, they are condemned to a sort of machinic eternity, which breeds new secrets even as others are solved. The human players' feelings are clearest to us, but the overwhelming impression is one of isolation and yearning. Susan Newton is alienated, having been treated coldly by Jacob and by his sister, who resents her presence at a family gathering; Marian, the sister, is alienated by Susan Newton's presence and by her own sense of her life's "waste and drift" (13). Marian regrets accusing her brother Jacob of selfishness for bringing Susan and for arriving at the family home several hours late; the weapon she used against her brother--her accusation--has turned upon and wounded her. David longs for time alone with his brother Jacob and is oppressed by his own sense of waste: the game of Clue is flawed; the cards cannot be divided evenly among four players. Susan Newton's presence has made it so the games "won't count" (17). Jacob himself vibrates with anger, tension, and a bitter and black frustration; only twenty-five, he finds himself already riven by the impossibility of choosing between what he feels called to do (he has taken a year off to write, but is drastically blocked) and his other alternative (completing his doctorate and forgoing writing for good). In the end, his frustration is with the impossibility of biological life: he will not live long enough to be both writer and scholar.

Professor Plum, who walks the secret passageways below the Clue mansion, provides a structural counterpoint to the Ross parents, Martha and Samuel, who sleep upstairs as the others play Clue on the porch. The professor allows himself to be seduced by the passage-ways, which are (with the doors) the "secret life of the game," because they allow the character's tokens to enter and leave the rooms, the sites of the action (17). Yet they have an importance superior to this, which is that they are pleasurable and seductive. That they seduce the professor is not surprising, because all the characters in this novella are seduced by secrets they are not allowed to know, secrets that, like the professor's passage, are never ended--made into knowledge rather than secret--by disclosure. The point of the game of Clue is the clues themselves, which are all located on an axis other than the conventional narrative. The passageways lead nowhere and thus do not, as secret passageways should, reveal secrets--including where they will eventually lead. Up in the attic other secrets are stored: childhood toys, which evoke not only the childhoods of the players but family history. Marian's grandmother's toy German schoolroom, though (perhaps appropriately) disarranged, evokes not only the connection between grandmother and granddaughter but between a historic before and after, demarked by immigration and identity shifts. In addition to memory, the school evokes history, including history's tendency to submerge the past's secrets in its relentless forward momentum. The attic toys also include the token for Professor Plum. Thus the professor, who wanders the passageways below the mansion in the secondary narrative, and his symbol--the lost token that rests in an old shoebox above the heads of the Rosses and Susan Newton in the primary story--form not only a vertical axis but a narrative suspension or lack of closure: in the final scene the secondary story slows, gels, and fades, but achieves no real "end." Instead, in the last line, Professor Plum is simply "fading among his fading passageways" (60).

No secrets will be resolved, for the Rosses or Susan Newton, for the Clue characters, or for the reader. Instead, the Clue board established a passageway between the imaginary and the real, but like the passageways Professor Plum wanders, it is not clear where these passageways lead. The Clue characters are condemned to endlessness; the Rosses and Susan Newton are all too aware of their own biological being and the ending that implies, and the impossibility not only of discovering but also of telling secrets. What both sets of characters have in common is the proliferation of clues that, if eventually they reveal their secrets, at the same time establish the structure that ensures more clues will arise, accumulate, and lead their own mysterious, whispering lives.--D. A.

Interpretive Approaches

Criticism in English of Steven Millhauser's work, though not abundant, varies widely in terms of approach. This may be because Millhauser's novels, short stories, and novellas pose interpretive questions, both as a body of work and individually, with which American critics are unaccustomed to dealing--at least in an American writer. The sheer range of Millhauser's work--from the overtly fantastic to realistic (if strange and uncanny)--is itself daunting. Classifying his work is not easy or, perhaps, possible, and this fact can flummox critics whose project relies on traditional classification or taxonomy. For example, the introduction of the supernatural does not reduce the sense that Millhauser's realism is authentic. His 2003 novella "Revenge," in which there is no particle of identifiable magical realism, still manages powerfully to evoke the uncanny. Its method has something in common with Poe and Kafka, but its literary inheritance also includes John Updike. Dreiser and Hawthorne have been named as Millhauser's precursors; so (often) has Borges. The romantic sublime also has a place in his fiction, but this sublime operates very differently from what is usually called to mind by that term.

In terms of narrative, too, easy interpretive strategies are rare. Though much of Millhauser's work concerns itself more with trope than with formal experimentation, questions concerning the nature of time and of causation are frequently raised via these tropes. In the instances in which Millhauser does make use of formal experiment--"Klassik Komix #1," for example, as well as "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)"--the experiment's basis is in genre hybridity rather than overt narrative disruption, metafiction, alternative history, and so on (though narrative is, of course, affected by the genre experimentation).

In short, negotiating some of these dynamic binaries--the realistic versus the fantastical; biographical fiction versus the purely invented--can lead to interpretive cul-de-sacs. Scholarly critics tend to adopt one of two broad approaches. The first group attempts to trace authorial intention (and usually includes some measure of biographical criticism in this attempt), and/or tries to discern Millhauser's place in the literary/historical pantheon (should he have a place on the shelf next to Borges or to Hawthorne?) In other words, this group primarily tries to elicit the significance of Millhauser's works as literary/cultural productions or artifacts. The second group tends to focus more on textual criticism and less on literary history, authorial intention, or biography. That is, they examine the method or poetics by which the fictions themselves operate. (Not surprisingly, the second group has a somewhat easier time.)

In 1991 (just after the 1990 publication of The Barnum Museum), the journal Salmagundi devoted a significant portion of its fall issue to Millhauser, and Mary Kinzie's lengthy essay is one of the first extensive treatments of Millhauser's work as a whole. In terms of this discussion, Kinzie's essay is in some ways paradigmatic: she is attempting to reconcile Millhauser's early novels (especially Edwin Mullhouse and Portrait of a Romantic) with In the Penny Arcade and (especially) The Barnum Museum. Because the novels encourage the reader to find parodic elements in them (Edwin Mullhouse for obvious reasons, and Portrait of a Romantic for the reason that Arthur Grumm and his companions at various points skirt the edge of self-parody), they also encourage searches for influence and for authorial intentions. The story collections, however, do not, and Kinzie's aim of proving her "conviction that [Millhauser] was wrestling with and trying to extend the literary example of Borges" (132) is frustrated by Millhauser's own contention that Kafka, particularly Letters to Felice, has been a far greater influence.

However, Kinzie is also an early identifier of Millhauserian stylistic and narrative traits that other critics have since commented upon, and in her investigation of the Borges connection she uncovers some of the paradoxes that must be addressed in any Millhauser criticism. She notes that Millhauser applies the "smaller-scale techniques of fictional realism to a largely notional as opposed to a realistic landscape" and thus creates "his own subtle, clever, funny, breathtaking, and delightful mode of magical realism" (116). However, she cannot reconcile Millhauser's use of minimalist characterization with the fact that "Millhauser's work is perfectly riveting," and spends much of the essay approaching the problem through the Borgesian criteria for fantastic literature. In the end, she leaves her question about characterization mostly unanswered. However, the fact that she has raised it tells us much about the discomfort American critics and readers feel when they try to respond to this highly original work whose fictional operations can appear mysterious and, indeed, magical.

It is perhaps in keeping with Millhauser's own fictional poetics and perhaps ultimately most useful to allow that the imaginative engine that drives Millhauser's work is in fact structural and thematic tensions--between "real" and fantastic, casuistry and existentialism, replication and originality, miniaturization and gigantism, minimalism and maximalism, the horizontal and the vertical, the catalogue and the dramatic narrative, suspension and closure, childhood and adulthood, and so on, ad (almost) infinitum. In fact, Millhauser himself, in a recent interview, points out that dual and competing preoccupations with the fictional and the real (and perhaps by implication realism and the fantastic) have always obsessed us:
   Americans have always been notoriously practical, while at the
   same time they're consumed by visions--a contradiction that
   strikes me as characteristic of hope-crazed conquerors in a new
   land. Cut down your trees, build your cabin, dream your dream.
   The great American novel is Moby-Dick, a visionary masterpiece
   filled with minuscule realistic details about whaling. As for
   realistic fiction: it comes late to America and is actually quite
   foreign, a delayed importation of French naturalism.
   In this sense, a writer like Hemingway is radically un-American,
   a betrayer of the tradition represented by Hawthorne and Melville.
   Any art form that blurs the distinction between reality and fiction
   is as American as apple pie. ("Questions")

In terms of explorations of the text, the realistic/fantastic (marvelous, uncanny) binary, in all its instantiations, may be plotted along two axes: space (under which we may include all stylistic characteristics) and time (enacted through narrative). * Insofar as the American hunger for forward momentum is sometimes expressed through the desire for a good story, many popular critics are bothered by what they have termed a certain sense of stasis in Millhauser's fiction. This discomfort seems to be related to Millhauser's extreme descriptive precision, which also frequently draws charges of art-for-art's-sake preciousness. These charges frequently seem to derive from a fear of coming to a stop and looking, with care and attention, around ourselves--which is one of the things Millhauser's fiction does. Ultimately, this careful looking in Millhauser's fiction itself constitutes a kind of narrative. Cecile Roudeau (among other critics) has established that Millhauser's descriptive precision is not simply "beautiful writing," but also, via displacement, frequently functions as the narrative dynamic in Millhauser's work. Again, Roudeau compares Millhauser's work to Calder's mobiles; the fictions are not, she says, "simply ... marvelous stories told by an illusionist of genius, but also ... playful and fragile architectures [that] defy the rigidity and weight of the (verbal) material [of which they are constructed] ..." (13). She draws specific and detailed comparisons of Millhauser's fictional technique with the functional aesthetics of the mobiles. "The Knife Thrower" is compared with Calder's "Vertical Out of Horizontal": "The horizontalness, the linearity of a classic narration emerges from a verticality of incessant reprise.... With Millhauser, it seems that the 'next' is always first an 'again.'" Variations in linguistic motifs--"the same words return: [he] 'raised his arm and threw' [or] 'tossed' or again 'flung' ..."--underlie the narrative dynamics: the text "oscillates thus around a point of equilibrium that is also one of displacement (and it is this that permits the story to 'advance')" (15, emphasis added).

Roudeau's insight is valid across most of Millhauser's oeuvre. Displacement is constitutively related to two of Millhauser's fictional techniques, listing and repetition. In fact, neither listing nor displacement nor repetition occurs alone, because none is possible without displacement (listing because of its cumulative effects--each item is successively displaced by the next, as Arthur Saltzman points out in "In the Millhauser Archive"; repetition because it must occur across time--otherwise it would be simultaneity--and each successive repeat displaces the one that occurred before it). Thus I would submit that descriptive precision--along with lists, replications, and other techniques that require or are driven by such precision--not only creates a different and more complex view of time but in fact creates a new kind of fictional time in Millhauser's narratives. It is this unfamiliar fictional time that drives critics' displays of anxiety, which are frequently cloaked in dismissal and, occasionally, outright vituperation. It is not a lack of narrative dynamic that bothers people. It is that Millhauser's is a new narrative dynamic--a genuine formal innovation.

Clues to understanding this formal innovation may perhaps be found in the author's own critical preoccupations, which focus upon three related topics (all crucially related to displacement): replication, miniaturization, and repetition (across narrative or across time, as opposed to the repetition involved in replication). In "The Fascination of the Miniature" (1984) Millhauser points out that this fascination has not only to do with the miniature's tininess but also with the fact that it is, unlike the gigantic, "without dread" (34). Further, the miniature, in order to fascinate (and not simply to tire) must include "thoroughness of execution, richness of detail"; in other words, "the miniature seizes the attention by the fact of discrepancy, and holds it by the quality of precision" (34, original emphasis). This last phrase almost exactly replicates the way Millhauser's fiction itself works: the dynamic relation of the "real" to the "imaginary" seizes our attention, and our attention is held by the precisely described imaginary and real world. * The precise descriptions constitute their own kind of narrative dynamic.

Replication, too, has been defined closely by Millhauser ("Replicas," 1995). Though replication is "an act of radical unoriginality" (and therefore "subverts the Romantic idea of originality by insisting on total imitation" ["Replicas" 51]), it nevertheless seeks to duplicate its original exactly. If it succeeds completely, though, without revealing itself to be a replica, it is no longer really a replica but a "false original" (53). Therefore,
   The replica may thus deceive us for a time, but it must also
   undeceive us. Ideally, a certain moment will be reached when the
   spectator, confronting the ambiguous object, experiences a
   wavering or hesitation: caught between belief in the object and
   a secret doubt, the spectator will experience an almost
   metaphysical uncertainty. The true art of replication lies in
   imitating an object so perfectly that it may be mistaken for an
   original, while at the same time it reveals its falseness. (54)

Millhauser names a number of methods by which this may be accomplished: falseness of material; geographical incongruity; the scale model (as Millhauser points out, an instance of the miniature); trompe l'oeil, the wax apple, the photograph, the Platonic object, the movie set, and more, on through the idols of Epicurus, and, last, memory (which, of course, has implications for the ways in which Millhauser plays with the vertical and horizontal aspects of narrative) (54-59). There are degrees of exactness in these replications. In terms of Millhauser's fiction, though, his next set of observations has interesting implications:
   by pointing beyond themselves to another world that by contrast is
   felt to be genuine, replicas create in those who look at them a
   feeling of restlessness and desire. In the very act of revealing
   their nature, they leave us dissatisfied. And yet by presenting
   themselves frankly as imitations, by offering themselves as playful
   or made-up versions of serious objects, replicas present themselves
   also as seductions or temptations. Because we needn't take them
   seriously, they offer us release from the oppression or solemnity
   of actual things. (59-60)

Along with this release comes danger: at heart, replicas, in their "hidden arrogance," want to "secretly undermine the world of primary objects," to "claim superiority by virtue of their playfulness" (60). In fact, the power of replication, as "a branch of the dark and many-branched art of illusion ... lies precisely in the conflict between two forces: the thrust away from imitation and toward a superior, authentic world, and the equal and opposite thrust away from that ceaselessly summoned world toward a world of alluring artifice" (60). In this dynamic, we allow the real to be ceaselessly displaced by the artificial, but the "feeling of restlessness and desire" the replicas evoke invites us to replace the replication with the real. The dynamic is a narrative one; the nature of replication is descriptive. Where these axes cross is where Millhauser's fiction occurs.

Although Millhauser himself has not written about listing per se, it is perhaps his most radically innovative technique. It is also one frequently responsible for critics' imputing a "static" quality to Millhauser's fiction. Saltzman's 1996 essay "In the Millhauser Archives" (reprinted in 2000 as chapter 3 of his book This Mad "Instead": Governing Metaphors in Contemporary American Fiction) is the most extensive exploration in English of how Millhauser's lists function. As Saltzman says, "For Millhauser, lists are conspicuous interfaces where art and life, systems and surge, the magical and the mundane coalesce"; significantly, also, lists, as always "arbitrar[y] and incomplet[e]," are a location for "imminent spawn" (50). Saltzman productively examines several Millhauser works--"The Barnum Museum," "A Game of Clue," and Edwin Mullhouse--in terms of lists' "sustained crossbreeding of inventory and invention" (55). He maintains that the list is another form of "scrupulous distortion," to use pseudobiographer Jeffrey Cartwright's words, and operates with a complexity comparable to that of metaphor (61). In other words, lists suspend narrative in some ways but open it up in others. Like Roudeau, Saltzman points out that the descriptive precision of lists enables the interpenetration of time and space: a list's "arbitrariness [and] incompleteness" implies movement, alteration, accumulation: all narrative qualities (50).

The public appetite for abundance--expressed in Millhauser's fiction through lists--is not new, and one would think that, especially in an acquisitive twenty-first century American culture, lists would be particularly satisfying. (Lists are also, of course, a quintessentially American fictional technique--Moby-Dick's cetological catalogs are only the most striking example.) However, Millhauser's fictions expose a dangerous side of listing, for the lists not only temporarily suspend time but also overcome it: time's relevance (or irrelevance) is determined along this cumulative, spatial, vertical axis, and not the other way around. They force the reader not only to attend to this vertical axis but also to allow this vertical axis temporarily to undermine the primacy of the horizontal, forward-driving narrative. In other words, rather than being appended to a forward-moving narrative, the lists take over the narrative and force the reader to shift not simply her definition of causation and event but her notion of how these principles may be bodied forth in a "fiction."

This phenomenon is present not only in Millhauser's fictions viewed as narrative constructions but thematically as well. In some ways, the destabilizing of time by the oscillations created through listing is a kind of sublime--it is uncontainable because neither the spatial nor the temporal has primacy. The maximalization of detail that intensifies the spatial is similar to the maximalism pursued with such energy by Martin Dressier. Saltzman's 2001 essay "A Wilderness of Size" usefully explores how maximalism can become a sort of American sublime: "Americans have enjoyed a national heritage of presumption, whereby we may choose to regard every promontory as an exclamation point. As a result, our confrontation with the Uncontainable does not so much dwarf as endow us" (590). Martin Dressier, though, as Marc Chenetier has pointed out, concerns an artist of the technological, and the technological always becomes exhausted, yet at one and the same time does not die a biological death. Its trajectory is indeterminate, as most of nature's is not.

Millhauser's own 1994 essay on Thomas Mann's Tonio Kroger demonstrates even more deeply the importance of repetition and variation in relation to time. This close reading of Mann's novella explores the ways in which repetition and variation, in the form of the leitmotif, serves as a way of "binding together the various parts of [the author's] tale--a method that cuts across chronology, that serves to halt or defeat the relentless advance of fictional time" (199, emphasis added). Millhauser does not here refer to any of the effects I have named above vis-a-vis creation of a new sort of fictional time; rather, he is talking about a writerly problem: "A fifty-page story that covers nearly twenty years and is arranged chronologically risks a dissipation of its effects, risks, that is, becoming scattered or diffuse; and a writer committed to such a scheme must continually strive to overcome the dispersive tendency of his narrative" (199). In Millhauser's statement, it is in this sense and this sense alone that the leitmotif serves to "halt or defeat the relentless advance of fictional time." Yet the halting and defeating of fictional time is crucial to stories that occupy a much smaller chronological space than does Tonio Kroger.

This is so in part because the leitmotif, in cognitive terms, functions in somewhat the same way as memory. "At the moment of repetition, past and present become one, or rather are held in the mind separately but concurrently. For an instant, confluence abolishes chronology. Time is deceived, outwitted, overcome" (Millhauser, "Some Thoughts" 200). Yet the leitmotif is more effective than flashback because there is no "creaking of machinery in its entrances and exits" (although flashback has the one practical advantage of being able to reach into a past outside the temporal range of the text itself) (202). Moreover, leitmotif, because it functions as temporal synecdoche, "will also summon forth past settings or situations or even entire scenes--a whole cluster of pasts. In this way the past of the text is continually carried forward into the present" (202).

Millhauser's sensitive discussion of repetition in Mann has several implications for his own work. Insofar as leitmotif is present in Millhauser--and it is, in abundance, especially in works that take place over a long span of time (such as Martin Dressler)--it functions in just these ways. (Millhauser is so fond of leitmotif that he often repeats phrases or sentences word for word at different points in a novel, novella, or short story.) However, leitmotif is integrated into the text in the way a list is not. Lists, once again, seem to the reader vertical rather than horizontal: they imply a stoppage of time, yet an instantiation of narrative through (as Saltzman puts it) their "arbitrariness and incompleteness" (50). They are, in important ways, a real stoppage: while the listing is taking place, no conventional narrative motion except what is implied by their arbitrariness and incompleteness takes place. Yet the reader is aware that the lists may be sleight of hand: the narrative may be occurring behind or alongside the listing (while the reader is absorbed in the catalogue, the action may be occurring offstage, or just beyond the reader's peripheral vision). In either case, the list induces an experience of time that is outside most readers' experiences. As Saltzman puts it, "Lists reinforce this paradox: all transcendence is tied to the roll call of integers; conversely, the surface tension of components may enable the imagination to exceed the rim of the real, the way water overfills the glass without spilling" (53). This function extends to time itself, and makes time into a form of the sublime: we are in the world of story, yet we can no longer use the world of story, or narrative, to contain time.

However these binaries operate in Millhauser's fiction, it is clear that they are far more than and far different from simple aesthetic self-indulgence. They demand much more from the author (in terms of technical prowess and writerly courage) and the reader (in terms of willingness to enter this fictional world) than the kind of psychological realism to which we are most accustomed. In the end, it is Saltzman's lovely metaphor of the water swelling momentarily above the rim of the glass that best embodies the breathlessness the reader feels at certain moments in Millhauser's fiction: when the impossible has actually occurred somehow, occurred palpably in one's own sensorium.

--D. A.

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* All translations from the French throughout this issue are those of the respective essay's author.

* This essay will not undertake a thorough narratological analysis, but will instead establish a few broad principles that will, it is hoped, be helpful both in understanding the negative popular responses to Millhauser's work and in suggesting further avenues of critical exploration.

* Douglas Fowler, in his 1996 essay "Steven Millhauser, Miniaturist," has examined Millhauser's fiction as instances of the miniature and as "a world that demands our most serious attention" (140).
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Steven Millhauser: the writer's writer and author of Martin Dressler and Edwin Mullhouse offers a new collection of short stories.
Steven Millhauser. Dangerous Laughter.

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