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July 15th, 2014

03:02 pm - "...obscure, internal, unformulated, and as secret as any complicity."
I have, at long last, finished Memoirs of Hadrian. I have spent three months with the book, but now that it is finished I hardly know what to say about it. I have never had a reading experience quite like this one, in the sense that it felt both transcendent and like a slog, often simultaneously.

Let me say first that the book is undoubtedly a work of genius. The phrase "literary ventriloquism" gets tossed around, but Marguerite Yourcenar has achieved something that goes beyond even that commendation. Memoirs of Hadrian is the perfect distillation of a human consciousness, a work of utter authorial effacement. Despite the incredible amount of scholarly work she did to produce this novel, Yourcenar renders herself invisible and presents to us Hadrian complete: full of his memories, shaped by his time and by his lifetime's worth of work and thought. Not only does she do this, but she does it in absolutely beautiful prose--her sentences are careful, measured, unadorned, but beautiful nonetheless.

So why did long stretches of the book fail to hold my interest? Why did I feel so little impulse to pick the book up again after I had put it down? I found that reading it required immense concentration; I could only handle five or ten pages at a time, and even then I had to continually pull my focus back to the words on the page in front of me. I developed a fondness for Hadrian as I spent more and more time with him, and there were times (though they were isolated incidents) when his thoughts or (even rarer) his feelings resonated deeply with me, yet this never translated in a desire to know what would happen next. I could admire the book intellectually and aesthetically, but could not feel deeply engaged with it.

But it's another form of engagement, isn't it, to spend three months with a character? To sip continuously from a book over a long period, rather than drinking a few deep drafts? It is, of course, even if I can't describe exactly what the difference is. I only considered quitting the book when I was trying to read it in my usual mode. Once I had slowed down, and settled myself into the habit of reading just a few pages at a time I never questioned whether it would be worth it to finish the book.

And perhaps that is the result of my long wrestling with this work: something of value has been imparted, though I can't say now what it was. Perhaps the value, or part of it, is in the wrestling itself.

Reflections on the CompositionCollapse )

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May 18th, 2014

02:14 pm - Quiet Sunday
Tommy and Coco at the window

I drove Ms. E to school this morning and dropped her off so that she could chaperone a group of her students on a three-day trip to the state science fair. She will be home again on Tuesday; until then it's just me and the cats. And it's funny, isn't it, how habits of separation and togetherness become ingrained? She was away so much last summer that I got very used to being on my own. But as we talked about this last night, we counted it up and determined that we had only spent one night apart since last August. One! An extraordinary amount of togetherness, well above what is normal for us. So I am out of the habit of spending time alone like this, and it did feel a bit strange when I got back to the house this morning. But it's good, too: I will write and read, take care of the house and garden, and prepare myself for some longer separations that are coming in the next few weeks.

Clematis after the rain

I finished Ali Smith's The Accidental last night, and I found it disappointing. The book had so much potential to be...well, not great--I don't think it could have been great, but it could at least have been interestingly weird. And in the end it did not manage even that. The book tells the story of a rather ordinary English family and the mysterious woman named Amber who talks her way in amongst them while they're on holiday, manipulates them, lies to them, and pushes various buttons for each of the various family members for as long as she's allowed to stay in their midst. The story had a lot of momentum at first (there were a hundred pages or so in the middle of the book when it came as close to being a page-turner as anything I ever read), but this all fizzled as the book wound down to its rather empty ending. I wanted more from this book: I wanted Smith to go farther and darker and weirder, I wanted more connections, I wanted the story to have more meat.

Next I will read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout. I loved loved loved Olive Kitteridge a few years ago, which makes me fear that my expectations may be too high and I'll be disappointed by this one too. We shall see.

Cranesbill geranium

The garden is as imperfect as it always is, yet it is making me so happy these days. Clematis are blooming; coral bells are blooming; the hydrangea was not killed by its hard pruning just before a hard winter, but instead is growing back in compact and healthy and beautiful; tomato seedlings are becoming strong tomato plants; I am cooking with herbs from the herb garden. All of this, it seems, is enough to make me overlook the problems, the plants I am worried about, the ways in which I would like to invest time and money that I don't have at the moment.... So it is lovely right now and I will enjoy it.

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May 14th, 2014

05:21 pm
Cluttered desk

  • I have been feeling flustered this week, scattered, my mind as cluttered as my desk always is. I'm not sure why--I don't think I'm under any extraordinary stress right now--but concentration has been hard to come by. My attention is in splinters, constantly breaking and veering in various directions. I am trying to exist in this state, rather than get frustrated with it--frustration, it seems, only worsens matters. Right now I am pausing, sitting down with a cup of tea to write this, in the hope that it may help.

  • I finished The Lover by Marguerite Duras last week. It remained right through to the end as it was when I posted about it last: odd, fragmentary, cold and hot at once, with an ending of surprising beauty and intensity. The story is often described as being about the sexual relationship between a 15-year-old French girl and a 27-year-old Chinese man in French Indochina in the 1930s. But that is only part of the book's dual focus; the other part is the girl's broken family and the troubled relationships between her, her mother, and her two brothers. I found the family story much more interesting than the love affair--there is a deep malignancy buried in it, seen only in glances, hinted at but never named. And this darkness gives the book much of its power.

  • And now I am reading The Accidental by Ali Smith. I had never heard of it until I saw it recommended by Jeanette Winterson in some sort of article that involved women novelists recommended works by other women novelists. I sometimes love Winterson's work and sometimes do not, so I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that I'm not yet in love with The Accidental. The story is interesting enough, but Smith indulges in all sorts of gimmicky stuff (writing a chapter in the form of a Q-and-A interview with one of the characters, for instance) that do not seem to serve much purpose here.

  • I am meant to be working (still!) on my review of Jean Ross Justice's Family Feeling, yet it drags on and on and shows little progress. I am engaging in the sort of work-avoidant behaviours that always plague me when I have a deadline or an externally-imposed project. Which is weird in this case, because I have no particular deadline and I chose this project myself. Ah well, ah well, my scattered mind isn't helping. Perhaps I should just put it away and take it out next week.

  • I'm excited to be teaching a new class in a new venue this summer. The class is an eight-week short story workshop, and it's being offered through Musehouse Center for the Literary Arts. (You can see my course listing in their summer catalog, but I will be the first to admit that the formatting is annoying!) It will be very interesting, since it's been a long time since I've taught in a straight workshop format. I will need to give some thought to how I want to structure the class, how best to use the time of both each individual session and of the eight weeks as a whole, and some of these questions will not be possible to answer until I have met the students and learned a little bit about their needs and expectations. So there may be a certain degree of difficulty associated with it, but I'm looking forward to trying something new!

And that, I think, is that.

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April 28th, 2014

06:24 pm
Today I am thinking about the question of believability in fiction. A vital question--if you can't make your audience believe in the story you are telling, then what's the point of telling it?--but also a slippery one. What makes one story more believable than another? Why can one writer make me believe things that seem entirely implausible from another? What makes a story feel true when I know perfectly well that it is a fiction? It can be easy to assume that the answer is realism, or that believability and realism are interchangeable ideas, but I don't think that's true. There are works of fantasy, strange dream-like works, outlandish bits of magical realism that have felt more believable to me than stories that take place in the most realistic of settings.

So what is it? Consistency is part of it, of course, and character is perhaps the most important component of all--it I don't believe in the characters, if their actions seems artificial or their words ring false, then forget--there is not likely to be anything that will redeem the story for me. But it's not just that, of course. It is a quality unto itself, something ineffable, something fundamental to the act of creating fiction. Some stories don't strive for it. Satire, for instance, is rarely rooted in believability. And some writers actively undermine it, like Ian McEwan, who seems to have made his name in literature by writing stories that purposely highlight their own artifice. And that's fine. Stories can be entertaining without being believable; they can have interesting things to say; they can be ironic or clever or funny or beautifully written. But I have never felt a deep emotional resonance with a story in which I could not wholeheartedly believe. I have never loved a story I did not wholeheartedly believe.

I am thinking about this today because last night I finished a book with a believability problem: The Robber Bride by Margaret Atwood. The book concerns three women: Tony, a tough-minded historian; a flaky New Ager named Charis; and Roz, a garrulous but highly successful business woman. The three are ostensibly friends, though we scarcely see them interact with each other and they seem to have nothing in common besides the fact that, at one time or another, all three of them have been manipulated, duped, and had a man stolen from them by a mysterious and mysteriously powerful woman named Zenia. Atwood gives us the back story of each of the three friends in turn--first her childhood (each one difficult in its own way), next her relationship with the man in question (each one dysfunctional in its own way), finally the fateful entry of Zenia.

And it seems funny that I had trouble believing these stories because none of them, on the surface, are that farfetched. It's not impossible for people to fall in love with people who are bad for them. It's not impossible for people to want desperately to keep a relationship alive, even when anyone can see that the relationship was unhealthy. It's not impossible for people to believe a whole pack of lies, especially when the lies are specifically constructed to be something they want to believe. It's not even impossible for people who are intelligent to do all of these things. Yet when the women in Atwood's story did them, I couldn't believe in it. What is missing from the story that would make me believe? What would it take to get me to feel for these women whose lives are so stagnated that they can't get over what Zenia did to them so many years ago? I don't know. I couldn't feel for them. I could only say, "Are you kidding? It's been decades, and all three of them still think about this shit every day? Are you kidding? None of the various abuses, abandonments, and deprivations they suffered as children taught them the resiliency to deal with this situation? Not one of them has taken the time to reflect on whether or not the man that Zenia stole was really all that great to begin with?"

Not everything about the book was awful, of course. There were individual scenes that were highly compelling, and I really liked the way Atwood presented Charis's nutty New Age beliefs sincerely, in the same way Charis herself would have presented them. Tony was an interesting character, and her individual narrative the strongest of the bunch. But in the end the fact that I could not believe in the story or the characters sunk the book for me. Ah well. It is interesting to note that Surfacing, my favorite of the Atwood novels I've read, tells a story that, on the surface, is much more far-out than the story of The Robber Bride, yet I had no trouble at all in finding that one believable....

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March 19th, 2014

05:15 pm - Reading
I have been reading Binocular Vision, a volume of short stories by Edith Pearlman. The book is covered with blurbs praising Pearlman as an unsung master, an underrated but brilliant craftswoman of short fiction; there is an introduction by Ann Patchett that says basically the same thing. And it's true that I had never heard of Pearlman until my friend Krista recommended this book to me, despite the fact that she has been quietly publishing in a great many journals for years now, and winning "best-of" awards, and appearing in various anthologies.... But I'm not quite sure I'm ready to call her a master.

I have read about fifteen of the stories and they were all strong specimens of the form, all interesting, all utterly competent. I like her characterizations; I like her frequent use of historical settings; I like the way she handles her themes. Yet Pearlman's competence leaves me a little cold. What are these stories missing? What allowed me to love Tessa Hadley's short stories a month ago, but does not allow me to love these? Is it an element of risk? Of looseness? Of sprawl? Or perhaps it is simply beauty. Pearlman's prose is smooth and perfectly adequate--I couldn't tell you anything that was wrong with her sentences, yet they do not rise up off the page and take flight, and the stories don't either.

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February 13th, 2014

03:47 pm - ...what all of them were yearning for, though none of them had come anywhere near it...
A man worries vaguely about his sister while stuck in the Paris airport after his flight is cancelled. A young couple pay two separate visits--first to his parents and later to her family--and they each react differently to the way the presence of the other causes contexts to shift and familiar things and people to seem strange. Three strangers return to the house of their godmother, where they all spent time as children, to sort her possessions after her death. A daughter-in-law spends a weekend in the country with her husband's family.

It's difficult to summarize the stories in Tessa Hadley's collection Married Love. The plots are too wispy and too subtle to be captured in a sentence or two. Anything I write seems to say both too much and too little. The stories are richer than any summary can convey, but also finer and more delicate. But this is what I loved about the stories--the way they are little ineffable things themselves, brushing at the ineffable things of life. They reminded me of stories by Alice Munro in the way they felt so complete (each one a world unto itself) and the way they ranged so widely, encompassing entire lives' worth of memories and backstory in the space of a few thousand words. And they reminded me of A.S. Byatt's short fiction in their disregard for the conventional structural expectations of short stories.

In case it's not already obvious, I found Married Love unendingly pleasurable to read. I wanted it to go on forever and ever. But what I loved most about it (and what I envied beyond belief) was its effortlessness. I wrote earlier about Hadley's prose, each sentence obviously carefully crafted yet in such a way that the work never showed. The whole book was like that, in every element: the characterization, the plotting, the movements backward and forward in time. Oh, that my work could ever feel a fraction as effortless as these stories! Beautiful, beautiful.

The edition of Married Love that I read had one of those sections of supplemental material that are occasionally found at the backs of books--the sort of thing that sometimes contains discussion questions for book clubs, or previews of the author's next work, or whatever. This one contained a little four page autobiography by Tessa Hadley and a short essay on the writing of the stories in Married Love. One thing I learned is that Tessa Hadley is one of the late-in-life writers who I find so encouraging (and who we were talking about last week, marchioness): she was nearly 50 when she published her first book. She said a few other things I liked too.

About the years she spent raising children before going back to university and then pursuing her writing career, Hadley writes

I'm sure my daughters-in-law can't imagine a retreat so complete and dull-seeming as those years of shopping and cooking and cleaning and waiting in the school playground. They're right, probably. Though there's something to be said for all that slow invisible work the mind does when it isn't buoyed along by anything outside.

About short stories:

For me short stories represent a wonderful kind of writing freedom. In a novel, each element as you introduce it will have to have its fulfillment later and be woven into the created whole fabric of the book. In a short story, you can be irresponsible. The short form is so good at catching life on the wing, flashes from the intensity and mystery of people's inner lives, their strange motivations, their yearnings. [...] I think you have to feel that you can hold a story in one hand, however it sprawls. It's a single thing; it's a single room, if you like, in the house of fiction. Whereas a novel is a whole house, and the writer (and reader) can move around inside its different spaces.

If you had to wait until the end of a novel to find out what to make of it, the novel would fail. But you can hold a short story in suspension as you read, waiting to see: Where will this go? Where must it stop? What does it mean, that it stops there? [...] a moment comes that seems to clinch something or change something, but it's not obvious what or how.

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January 1st, 2014

01:59 pm - 2013: the year in books
Happy New Year, friends! I have to confess that I love this time of year on livejournal, as everyone posts their summaries and reflections, their resolutions and goals, their lists of books and movies and what have you... I've already shared my goals for the coming year, so now it's time for the annual reading list.

My reading seemed to go in phases this year: I had stretches of time where I loved every book I read, and other stretches where I spent ages slogging through two or three lackluster books in a row. In 2012, I narrowly missed my goal of reading 33 books so I set the same goal for 2013. I made it this time, but it was surprising to see that for the first half of the year I was on pace for a much higher total, and then slowed down significantly in the last three or four months. Interestingly, at the same time that my reading pace slowed, I decided I need to get a handle on my ever-growing pile of unread books and so forbade myself from checking anything out of the library. So that means I just couldn't get as excited about the books I own? Or I made the wrong choices from my shelf?

Enough talk! Here is the list (links go to the post that contains the closest thing to a review of each book that I wrote):

01. Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
02. Toby's Room by Pat Barker
03. Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada
04. Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
05. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
06. Bad Dirt by Annie Proulx
07. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
08. Art and Fear by Ted Orland & David Bayles
09. The Last of the Handmade Dams by Bob Steuding (never posted a review--oops!)
10. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
11. The Real and the Unreal: Where on Earth by Ursula K. Le Guin
12. Tenth of December by George Saunders
13. The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
14. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
15. Plainwater by Anne Carson
16. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
17. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee
18. Inscriptions for Headstones by Matthew Vollmer
19. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson
20. Historic Tales from the Adirondack Almanack by John Warren
21. Ireland by William Trevor
22. Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
23. Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser
24. Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster
25. A Humument by Tom Phillips
26. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles
27. The King Must Die by Mary Renault
28. We the Animals by Justin Torres
29. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
30. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
31. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
32. Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rolvaag
33. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
34. An Everlasting Meal by Tamar Adler

Not a single re-read this year--how unusual! Only 12 of my 34 books were by women, which is also unusual--I usually come closer to a 50/50 split. Far more nonfiction than usual, and fewer short story collections. For my own interest, here is the list divided up a couple of different ways:

By genreCollapse )

By nationality of authorCollapse )

My favorites this year:

Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood: Two closely linked novellas with narrators that are highly observant of others and intriguingly effaced themselves. Clever and compelling and full of beautiful prose. A pure pleasure to read!

Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. A brilliant example of the novel-in-stories, this book provides a complicated portrait of two families over several generations. I loved Erdrich's variety of narrators and the way she subtly traced the long ripples of history through her characters' lives. Erdrich's use of language is so rich it feels decadent.

Tenth of December by George Saunders. Brilliant, brutal, heartbreaking, funny. This is on everybody's "Best Books of 2013" lists, and it belongs on all of them.

The Charioteer by Mary Renault. Fun, fun, fun. A soap opera, sure, but it grabbed hold of my emotions and made me feel like a teenager. It's a flawed book, but I loved it anyway.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I hated the first hundred pages, but now I'm ready to call it the best book I read all year. This book is so smart, so sharp, so gripping. It's full of fantastic characterizations and sly humor. I can't remember the last time I was so engrossed in a book.

Other titles I would recommend include Every Man Dies Alone, The Real and the Unreal, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Bring Up the Bodies.

The biggest disappointments were Steppenwolf and A Gesture Life, which were just plain boring, and Gone Girl which was utterly, inexcusably moronic.

Here's to great reading to 2014 for all of us!

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November 7th, 2013

04:37 pm - Books
A wet and grey afternoon in the middle of a week that has been busier and more stressful than anticipated. But now I am home from running errands in the rain and wind, and I'm going to make a cup of tea and tell you about some books.

I. "The Great Plain Drinks the Blood of Christian Men and Is Satisfied"

It's been over a week since I finished Giants in the Earth by O.E. Rölvaag, and I still don't quite know what to make of it. The books is centered around Per Hansa and his wife Beret, a pair of Norwegian immigrants who travel from Minnesota to settle in the Dakota Territory. Per Hansa is ideally suited to life on the prairie--he's hard-working, optimistic, and neighborly. But Beret struggles with their new life. She feels isolated, hates the endless unbroken prairie around her, and turns to strange forms of religious fanaticism to comfort her in her misery. There is much that's interesting in the book, from Rölvaag's detailed accounts of daily life in the Dakotas in the late 19th century to his sensitive depiction of Beret's unhappiness, but somehow the book never came together into a compelling whole for me. A few great set pieces, lots of interesting historical detail, but no real emotional resonance. And I hated the ending. Really hated. I can't think of the last time a book's final ten pages had such a negative impact on my opinion of the whole work.

One interesting fact about Giants in the Earth: despite the fact that it's set in the United States and tells what seems to be a quintessentially American story of settling the Great Plains, Rölvaag wrote the book in Norwegian and it was originally published in Norway. Only later was it translated into English so it could be read in the US.

II. "...and the button, too, there, still, only not where I am."

Still dipping my toe occasionally into the cool, eddying waters of The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. Still enjoying my intermittent immersions in Davis's meticulous prose and quirky thinking. I've been thinking too about how fortunate I am to have had the chance to hear her read on two occasions. She is a fantastic reader of her own work, and I find myself trying to hear these stories in her voice when I read them.

III. "...all the years of decline and renewal..."

I've started reading Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner, a book that has been sitting on my to-read shelf for years. It's interesting to finally read it, because I'm realizing how little I knew about it. I had no idea, for instance, that it was such a Californian novel (though I'm well aware that Stegner's famous fellowship is at Stanford, so I don't know why that came as a surprise). For some reason I also imagined that it was a difficult book, but I've found the first 80 pages to be accessible and engaging. The book seems to be starting somewhat slowly and I wasn't sure at first that I liked Stegner's narrator, but I'm warming up to him now. Plus, the book is about one of my favorite themes: family history, and the things we know and those we will never know about the people who came before us. I think I'll like it.

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September 9th, 2013

10:25 pm
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel tells a long, many-threaded story: Henry VIII's divorce from Katherine of Aragon, his re-marriage to Anne Boleyn, the beginnings of the English Reformation, the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, the rise and rise and rise of Wolsey's servant Thomas Cromwell. All of these plots are important, but it is Cromwell who is at the center of the book--appropriate, perhaps, since it seems he was also at the center of virtually every political development and intrigue in England in the 1530s. Mantel follows Cromwell from his low beginnings--the book opens with a scene of fourteen-year-old Cromwell being beaten nearly to death by his brutal drunkard of a father--to the lofty heights of King Henry's council chamber, showing us every twist in his fortunes along the way.

About that opening scene: it's effective. It would take a cold-hearted reader not to feel sympathetic toward a main character when we first meet that character battered and bruised and struggling to crawl out of the way of his father's boot. It worked on me, anyway--I loved Mantel's version of Cromwell, I wanted to hang out with him, I rooted for him even when he was at his most manipulative and morally ambiguous. And why not? He is an amazing character: eminently capable, intelligent, ambitious as the day is long, full of contradictions, possessed of a fine sly sense of humor which spreads outward from him to fill the narrative. In Mantel's telling, it almost seems as though Cromwell amasses power simply by always being the most imperturbable person in the room. Yet there is something unknowable about him too, a mystery that shrouds his innermost thoughts and motivations. We get hints, but we can never be quite sure--it's always possible that each of his machinations is just part of larger machination happening on a level too deep for us to see...

This review got really long.Collapse )

I didn't want to give in to the hype surrounding Wolf Hall. But in the end I had to admit that it was great. I've was talking with a writer friend recently about the extent to which a writer's job is to give the reader pleasure, and Wolf Hall gave pleasure in abundance. I couldn't get enough of it. So much so that as soon as I finished it, I picked up the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. So far Bring Up the Bodies does not quite live up to Wolf Hall, but I have great hopes that it will improve.

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July 20th, 2013

05:53 pm
Martin Dressler, Martin Dressler... Or, to use the book's full title, Martin Dressler: the Tale of an American Dreamer. I picked it up because I've read several of Steven Millhauser's short stories in The New Yorker recently, and I liked them enough to want to read one of his novels. I finished it yesterday, and I'm not entirely sure I know what to make of it.

Martin Dressler, the dreamer of the title, begins life as a hard-working helper in his father's cigar and tobacco shop. As a teenager, he gets a job as a bellhop in a hotel and rises quickly through the ranks. He saves his money and, while working at the hotel, he opens a successful cafe that soon becomes a chain of cafes. Before long he buys the hotel where he used to work, then begins building his own, ever grander and more outlandish hotels. Martin's success in business seems effortless; everything he touches turns to gold. His personal life is a different matter. Martin is tenacious in his pursuit of him business goals, but he seems unable to focus on the other side of life. He meets a pair of sisters, aimlessly falls into a marriage with the wrong sister, and then acts like he's too distracted to remember that he has a wife.

I found Martin's messy relationships more interesting than his charmed life as a hotel magnate. There were powerful moments of foreboding, when it felt like things were about to go seriously wrong, and hints of some dark and strange sexual currents flowing between Martin and the sisters. But Millhauser seems to find this stuff less interesting than I do--he would rather spend his energy describing the crazy features of Martin's latest hotel: the underground parks with full of flowing trout streams and live squirrels and chipmunks, the forest on the 27th floor where woodland cottages take the place of hotel rooms, the Moroccan bazaar on the 7th floor staffed by actors trained in the art of haggling like real merchants. All of this stuff is fine, and Millhauser's prose is a pleasure to read no matter what he's writing about, but I often found my attention wandering. I couldn't help feeling like there were rich veins in this story that Millhauser failed to mine.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book for me was the setting. The story ostensibly takes place in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it is actually set in a sort of historical dreamtime. Some of Millhauser's historical details are accurate, I'm sure, but accuracy does not seem to be his goal. There is very little about Martin's story that is believable, and the same is true of the era. Millhauser isn't much concerned with representing what day-to-day life was really like; instead he gives us a dream image of New York at the turn of the century. Paul Harding's Tinkers was like this, and 'historical dreamtime' is, in fact, a phrase I have begun to use in thinking about my own book and its relationship to historical fact.

Besides Tinkers, Martin Dressler reminded me of two other books: Mark Helprin's Winter's Tale, which I found completely aggravating when I read it about six months ago, and Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion, which was stranger and better than either Helprin's book or Millhauser's. The connections with Helprin are obvious: the same New York City setting, the same historical era, a similar sprinkling of magical realism over the narrative. The relationship with Ondaatje is harder for me to tease out. Perhaps it is in the slightly loose connections with which both Millhauser and Ondaatje bind incidents to each other. Or else it is in the focus on cities, growth, construction--Millhauser's scenes of Martin's hotels being built are reminiscent of Ondaatje's Toronto bridge-builders.

I think that I will seek out more of Millhauser's work, despite the fact that Martin Dressler was not quite what I hoped it would be. Perhaps I'll read a collection of his short fiction, instead.

In other news: Ms. E gets home from Arkansas today, and all her summer travels will be over! Her flight lands in just under an hour, so I need to get ready to head to the airport.

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