Wrapped Up In Books is The A.V. Club’s monthly book club. We’re currently discussing this month’s selection, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale Of An American Dreamer, in a series of posts to be followed by a live online chat Thursday at 3:30 p.m. CST.
Keith Phipps: Well hello there. Nice of you to join us for this (slightly delayed) discussion of Steven Millhauser’s 1996 novel, Martin Dressler. It’s my pick, and I hope you liked it. I know I, if anything, appreciated it more the second time through.
Let’s start with a few words about Millhauser: I don’t know much about him. But that’s because Millhauser doesn’t really want us to know much about him. Dinitia Smith’s 1997 New York Times profile, (if profile is the right word) carries a telling headline: “Shy Author Likes To Live And Work In Obscurity.” Millhauser has been writing since the early ’70s, and he attracted some attention with his first novel, 1972’s Edwin Mullhouse: The Life And Death Of An American Writer 1943-1954 By Jeffrey Cartwright. More novels and short stories followed, but obscurity seemed to want Millhauser until Martin Dressler won the 1996 Pulitzer. Then he seemed happy to let it claim him again.
That isn’t exactly fair. Millhauser has published short stories and novella in the years since, and the ones I’ve read have been excellent. He even saw one of his stories turned into a (not-great) movie called The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton. But he’s remained something of a cult taste. But it seems appropriate that a man who could create a book as enigmatic as Martin Dressler should be known primarily through his work. That’s certainly the case of the book’s hero. We spend the book with Martin, but end up knowing him primarily through his actions and surroundings. Martin has an idea. Martin makes it happen. Martin makes choices, but we rarely get the reasons why. The passages dealing with his inner life suggests he doesn’t fully understand why he feels as he does. For instance:
Sometimes, when he walked over to the cigar store on his lunch hour, he felt as he stepped inside, a sudden impatience, as if the brown dusk, the tulip-shaped globes of the cigar lighter, the jars of sweet-smelling tobacco were part of a world he had left long ago, a world of red horsecars carpeted with straw, of short pants and bedtime stores, of his mother’s hand as they walked up Broadway past big windows and clattering omnibuses. And he longed for Saturday afternoon, for Sunday, when he could walk for hours along the six avenues of his new West Wend world, under the brown elms of the Boulevard or up along the wilder reaches of the Central Park, where tarpaper shanties sprouted in the scrub; when he could walk forever he liked, turning at a whim to explore the cross streets, many of them muddy lanes, or weedgrown paths between cliffs of rock.
That’s a lovely accumulation of description, and part of the book’s pattern of using exterior details to reflect its hero’s interior life. We’re told what he yearns for, if not why, and know that he tries to realize those desires through material creations. (Well, some of them, anyway. We’ll talk about the novel’s women tomorrow.) Why? I have some ideas related to the novel’s subtitle—“The Story Of An American Dreamer”—but let’s see what you think.
Donna Bowman: It's the "accumulation of description" that I adored about this book, culminating in the three-page, single-sentence list of the wonderfully specific features of his final hotel/world—one of the most transportive experiences I've ever had while reading.
But back to Martin. We certainly know less about his peculiar psychology than we do about his building plans, but we still know a lot about him. Chiefly that he's not really interested in business or money per se, but in systems. Once a system that he designed is running, he loses interest in it, because the process of building it has inevitably led him to see its boundaries—the delineations that limit its scope. And why should any system have boundaries? Why should any system be less than all-encompassing, be less complex than the universe itself, which is only a system by which things are organized and related to each other?
I relate to that. My children are builders in a way that I never was. My grandiose Lego creations and neighborhood business ventures always remained mostly in my head, the frustrating trial-and-error process of transforming them into reality being too much for my impatience. They create games and structures that astound me with their complexity, invention, and seeming ease. What's more, they go back to them again and again, never growing tired of the wellspring of delight these structures, once built, direct into their lives. Combine their facility with world-building with my frustration at its inevitably petty scale, and you have Martin.
Leonard Pierce: Because I just have to be different, I'll admit that I found the accumulation of description early on in the book a tad annoying; it worked pretty well when Martin was a child—the near-obsessive cataloging of the items that make up a world is certainly familiar to me from my own childhood. But from a literary standpoint, it started to grate on me, and the older Martin got, the less charming I found it; it became, not a gimmick exactly, but almost a form of padding.
But a literary device (in this case, a polysyndeton) doesn't have to be appealing to be effective. For in a lot of ways, as Donna notes, Martin is like a child—and what's more, a very successful and, in a certain sense, charmed child, who improbably gets what he wants at a very young age, and so, as he grows, sees no need to stop seeing the world the way he saw it then. Why shift your worldview when it yields such magical results? Why change the way you perceive reality when reality almost seems to mystically respond to your desires?
Of course, that can't last forever, and the intrusion of elements that won't correspond to Martin's plans, schemes, and desires inevitably takes place later in the book. I think this is to its enrichment, and I think it's no coincidence that this polysyndetonic pile-on becomes more rare as the story becomes more complicated. Martin starts the story as a boy to whom the world is full of infinite possibility, but as we are warned from the very first chapter, seeing all possibilities come to pass is something that cannot be borne. Martin grows up, but still retains the frustrations of a boy when things don't work out the way he wants, when people (from his parents to his partners to his wife) turn out to be people with their own agendas instead of vehicles for fulfilling his desires. The more he becomes aware of this, the more the text deepens; it retains the magical pathways of childhood, but channeled through the compromises of adulthood.
Tasha Robinson: Put me in the same column with Leonard as far as finding the “accumulation of description” in Martin Dressler annoying—at the beginning of the book, I enjoyed the scene-setting, since the book’s sense of era and place is so key to what Millhauser is building. But toward the end, when those seemingly endless lists of features found in Martin’s buildings kept droning on and on, I started to skim, then to skip paragraphs outright. It reminded me a great deal of the similar “hypercard stack” lists of architectural features and other things in House Of Leaves—not so much padding, as Leonard suggests, as an attempt at reader hypnosis. In both cases, the point seemed to be to lull readers into a glassy-eyed state of dreaminess that was meant to echo the dreamlike lean of the book.
Which feeds into my answer to Keith’s initial question: Who is Martin? It’s right there in the title: He’s a dreamer. I really wish that was literal, actually. Millhauser nods in that direction in the book’s final pages, when he talks about Martin slipping out of a crack in the world, and how it almost feels like he might wake “from a long dream of stone” back into his own childhood. But then he refutes that idea sharply by emphasizing Martin’s physical reality— “the light was too bright, his left buttock hurt, his calves itched.” And in a way, I found that disappointing. So much of the book’s move from solidity to magical realism (which I believe we’ll discuss later this week) would have made more sense to me if this was all a literal dream that he was eventually destined to wake up from, “Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” style.
Because the entire book does seem like a dream, a child’s idea of his own future, inspired by his own ambitious desire to improve on his father’s store and expand his business and his horizons—and by the ambition and expansion of the age, as buildings spring up seemingly out of nowhere, and the weedy dirt footpaths of New York become a metropolis. The way Millhauser evokes this era—a time when you could find dirt footpaths and untouched, wild land in New York City, but progress and industry and urbanity was rolling across the city at a frantic pace—was my favorite part of the book by far.
And Martin seems meant as an embodiment of the age, a sort of wave rolling across the city a little faster than the rest, and destined to peak higher than others, then be forced to fall back to their level. He’s that sense of mad, ungoverned expansion and modernization in human form, never satisfied with any particular change, and creating change for its own sake, not for any particular goal. Really, he’s a spiritual brother to Philip Seymour Hoffman in Synecdoche, New York—a man so obsessed with the abstract goal of reproducing life in his art that he’s fallen down a rabbit hole into a world that no longer necessarily has access to either.
Zack Handlen: Hitchcock (I think) once said something about how audiences are always willing to watch someone who's very good at their job, and that's what came to mind reading the beginning of Martin Dressler, because here was someone who was very, very good at his job, and that pulled me in from the start. I'm a sucker for this kind of narrative—I love watching characters succeed beyond their wildest dreams, only to crash back to Earth when they fly too close to the sun, or when their reach exceeds their grasp, or when Henry Hill does waaaay too much coke in one afternoon. So from the title, and from the hints in the opening chapter, I figured I had some idea of what to expect. For some reason, I got the idea that Martin would be a gangster, or that he'd break the law somehow. At the very least, I assumed that his tragic fall would stem from some flaw in his character. And that is what happened, but it didn't happened at all like I thought it would. Martin's worst crime is cheating on his wife after she turns him away on their wedding night, and while he's far from a perfect hero, there's nothing truly hateful or villainous in him. He builds buildings that try to contain the world, and while there's something more than a little sad in his ambitions, there's nothing evil about it. His fall isn't really that much of a fall at all, and I enjoyed that, the way I enjoyed the rest of this thoughtful, melancholy little book.
As for the accumulation of detail, well, when I got my copy of Dressler from the library, I was happy to see it was a short book, because given my work schedule, I needed something I could polish off in a weekend. I'm not sure how long it took me to read the novel. Certainly no more than three or four hours combined, although not all in one sitting. But it didn't feel short after all, and that's partly due to all those descriptions. The plot here maintains the same steady pace from beginning to end; even when Martin's ambitions grew more and more oversized, the story's hold remained roughly the same as it was from the start. It's not so laid back as to be boring (at least, I never found it boring), but it's never so fast that I felt myself carried away in a rush by the prose. I liked that balance. It wasn't the most fun novel I've ever read, but there was a thoughtful craftsmanship at work here that I appreciated quite a lot. Some writers awe you with work that seems to flow directly from their veins, but Dressler is the sort of novel where you can feel the careful, patient attention to detail in each line.
Why does Martin do what he does? Like Keith said, I think it has something to do with that subtitle. By the end of the book, Martin has become intent on creating something so amazing that it would satisfy every need a person could have. He's striving for godhood, in a way, constantly throwing out new drafts of Eden, but there's also something deeply human in his desire to control what he loves. It seems more American than European, the need to be active in the pursuit of one's dreams, to possess and innovate instead of simply appreciate and admire. Another aspect of this novel that I enjoyed is that the author never condemns Martin for his behavior, even though his final failure is an inevitable endpoint of his ever-widening aspirations. Martin struggles, and eventually he fails, because he's not struggling for something that could ever fulfill him. He's not the first.
Ellen Wernecke: I felt a strong sense of déjà vu when I started Martin Dressler, whose opening chapters—let’s say everything before Martin’s promotion to day clerk and his involvement with the cigar stand—feel familiar, specifically in a cinematic way. The image of the child growing up, looking at his parents and saying, “There must be more than this provincial cigar store.” At that point, I was more invested in what he would choose to do than that he felt that yearning in the first place, because it felt somehow preordained for him that, despite his initial misgivings about the hotel job, he would not stay in the cigar store.
The novel’s limited perspective forces us to think a little like Martin, who (as Leonard mentions) is surprised and frustrated when the people around him exercise their autonomy in ways that earn his disapproval. We hardly see his parents after he moves up town and gets wrapped up in the Vernons, who function as a pseudo-surrogate family; we never find out what they think about his career, possibly because Martin doesn’t care whether his parents think he’s a success or not. I think Millhauser pursues this characterization consistently and to a fault: sometimes I wanted to shake Martin and force him to develop some exterior awareness. The strongest outsider opinion of Martin’s career, paradoxically, emanates from the newspaper reviews of his projects, only because he gives them the agency to upset him. I liked Martin Dressler but felt restrained by the goggles of his world view, wanting always to peel away from him and see what else was going on in his world of which he took no notice.
His choices in practicing his trade reflect Martin’s limited view. To some extent all architects shape the lives of the people who will live or work in their buildings, but Martin’s obsession with changing the way people live, and insisting that he knows what they want better than they do, makes him a miniature tyrant. He doesn’t exactly go the Howard Roark direction, but there’s a whiff of it here as the Grand Cosmo fails to meet his expectations: Instead of converting part of the building to a hotel, the trade he knows best, Martin goes in the other direction and kicks out short-term renters, effectively declaring that the Grand Cosmo’s tenants live the way he wants them to live. But is his American dream more about, as Zack brings up, creation or control? I think his obsession with control is what eventually sinks him, as the ripening of the dream into something more rotten.
Todd VanDerWerff: I loved Martin Dressler. I felt in it a real kinship with another great American novel about a man who built things, only to have them turn to ashes: The Great Gatsby. It seems to me a very vividly realized book, one about how little promise the American dream actually holds when you sit down and look at it straight-on. You can build the world you want for yourself, but that doesn't guarantee you'll be a better person. The novel is all about someone who keeps trying to build a new world to escape into and rejecting the old worlds that he was a part of, and when the story concludes with Martin wandering along the river and having stray thoughts about the people he's left behind, it's powerful, as though his whole life is over, even though he's barely in his 30s.
That said, while reading it, I couldn't help but think that Martin is unknowable because, to a degree, he's Steven Millhauser. Millhauser tries to construct elaborate alternate worlds for all of us (and perhaps him?) to slip into. He uses ever-increasing levels of detail to build those worlds. He seems to pointedly obscure himself from us, and perhaps even from himself. He's trying to invent some sort of alternate cosmos, an alternate way of telling a story that has less to do with usual narrative structure, and more with getting us intoxicated on what he's done.
I always think it's dangerous to read the protagonist of a novel as the author of that novel. Surely the two have some traits in common, but just because someone writes something doesn't mean it's a part of themselves. Yet I recognize in what Millhauser is doing something fundamentally true to writers of fiction: They all don't like the world as it is, and want to build a new world to disappear into, even if that new world is just slightly different from our own. Even the most realistic short story out there has, on some level, a dream of control creating it. Authors are the gods of their own worlds, no matter how much they may say that the characters tell them what they're about to do. Having this kind of power can seem just as intoxicating as, well, building a giant structure that seems to hold the world entire within it. I don't think there's a definitive case to be made that Millhauser intends for Dressler to be him, but with Keith's knowledge about how obscure Millhauser prefers to be, and with the fact that we never really get to know Dressler at all, I wonder if there isn't more of the author in the protagonist than either would want to admit.