The end of Martin Dressler: What’s going on here?

The end of Martin Dressler: What’s going on here?

So, how about that ending? I’ll admit that part of why I wanted to read this book was the pleasure of sharing its final moments with everyone. (And of rereading them myself.) I remember being rapt the first time around and this time was no different. But what, beyond the sheer absurd pleasure of the way Millhauser piles one image on top of another, is going on here?

I’ve got a theory. There’s an author’s afterword from a sort-of terrible/fascinating book called Limbo that I covered in my Box Of Paperbacks column that’s stuck with me. Author Bernard Wolfe writes of the novel as being set in 1950 if 1950 “had been allowed to fulfill itself, if it had gone on being 1950, only more and more so, for four more decades.” I see the Grand Cosmo as something like that, the spirit of the turn-of-the-century taken to its absurd extreme. Here is everything Martin helped pioneer in abundance and under one roof. It’s amazing. And it just doesn’t work. It’s an idea stretched beyond its practical limits. But in the process it becomes a thing of absurd beauty, a kind of art made from the stuff of business and industry.

Two other points of comparison come to mind. One is The House On The Rock, Wisconsin’s number one tourist attraction. For those who haven’t been there, or read Neil Gaiman’s description of it in American Gods, The House On The Rock is the brainchild of architect Alex Jordan. The story goes, apocryphal as it might be, that Jordan built it to spite Frank Lloyd Wright’s nearby masterpiece Taliesin after Wright insulted him. And when you first enter it, it looks like a particularly accomplished variation on Wright’s Prairie School architecture. Then it keeps going, sprawling out into room after room filled with knick-knacks, collections, and simulations of bygone eras, all presented with little regard for reason or coherence. It’s madness in the form of architecture. (Some of it, to be fair, was added after Jordan’s death when it was already established as a tourist destination.)

The other point of comparison: the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The end of this book begins somewhere tangible and then passes beyond coherence. Does Martin break with reality? No cue suggests he does, but could the Grand Cosmo as described in the book’s final pages actually exist? In other words, what’s going on here? And where do you think the book leaves Martin at the end after it deposits him on the other side of history?

Leonard Pierce:  I think there are clues aplenty (which the book conditions us for, with its subtle but unmistakable shift from a sort of romantic mannerist style to magical realism) that Martin has left reality behind.  His little temporal breaks, when he dreams that he is meeting the Vernons for the first time, or when his thoughts are invaded by the cigar-store memories of youth; his increasing paranoia that he is being punished for his desire to remake the world; and then, on the final pages, the notion that "he had slipped out of his life, he had passed through a crack in the world".

In this regard, though your comparison to the House on the Rock is well-drawn, I flash back to Tasha's comment in our first post about Synecdoche, New York.  She noted that like Caden Cotard, Martin Dressler had become so obsessed with constructing a reality-within-a-reality than he increasingly began to recede from both the original and the constructed one, to vanish into a space within them -- to "pass through a crack in the world".  He's seeking to precisely re-create the mysterious moments of life that had such a profound effect on his psyche -- remember that one of his final ideas is to populate the Grand Cosmo with actors playing the part of residents and tourists, which he justifies as an attempt to give it a veneer of success and normality, but which is eerily and unmistakably an effort to re-create the time when, as a young man, he was fascinated by Charley Stratemeyer taking him to see the troupe of actors rehearsing in a suite at the Vanderlyn Hotel.

I see the enigma of the book's ending not as whether or not Martin breaks from reality -- to me, it's clear that he does -- but what that break means.  To me, it seems that it's a regression to childhood, and not in the usual infantile sense that he wanted to return to the protective scents and sights and feelings of his youth, but in the sense that he wanted to return to a time before failure, to a time before he learned that things could go wrong, could turn out differently than he expected, that people and things could go their own way and frustrate his plans for them.  This is signaled in the way he returns to the catalog-of-wonders style of perceiving the city, and how, for once, he is "in no hurry" -- impatience has only led to dissatisfaction, and he has regressed to when everything was possibility and there was no reason to think things wouldn't work out.  I noted before that Martin's character, as well as the way the book's prose conveys it, is somewhat childlike; in the end, that proves to be true again, but in a negative rather than an optimistic and positive sense.

Donna Bowman: I'm already on record from the first post as having a religious experience during that three-page, single-sentence list of the Cosmo's contents. The world's magic, to me, is its diversity and unity in simultaneous display.  (It's also the magic of the evolutionary process, and I suspect that's the religious wonder that ardent atheist scientists are always trying to get us to feel.)  Martin's impulse to show the world ordered, arranged, made available, made whole and unified by a plan of seeing, while still being staggeringly diverse, specific, detailed, authentic as only a reproduction can be called authentic -- a scale model of the inside of his mind -- is one with which I deeply sympathize.  Without somehow filtering and representing the world and its systems through urban architecture, the system that brought that diversity to Martin in the first place by compressing so much in so little space, how could anyone be made to understand and experience the power of it?

And yet it's obvious that the Grand Cosmo is not a creation of a realistic fiction.  I don't think it matters whether it "really" exists or is in Martin's mind which has come unstuck from the world we inhabit.  What is breathtaking is the way, as Keith put it in his mention of Bernard Wolfe's concept, the author has been willing to follow his character away from realism into idealism, into the creation that he would make if the constraints of the real world (and of history) melted away.  Millhauser is kind enough to populate that ideal realm with architecture critics who write long pieces about the Grand Cosmo, and that in itself tells us we have crossed over into an alternate dimension.  I'm thrilled that the book went there, allowed itself to become untethered from its bricks and mortar, but not in order to become more ethereal and general.  Instead, Millhauser becomes more baroque, more specific, more ornamented, all while unifying those elements in the single grand folly of his protagonist.  It seems to me a generous, telling, and utterly beautiful way to allow the story to lift off, as it were, without losing the threads of its construction.

Zack Handlen: I never really considered that Martin had broken from reality. In retrospect, I can see why I maybe should have considered it; the novel's whimsy goes from background noise to full blast fantasy by the end, and viewed from a distance, there's definitely a shift in tone that I missed. And yet, I don't feel like there's any real break here. Even if  the descriptions of the Grand Cosmos are entirely implausible, even if if the concoctions of Martin's quixotic quest are inherently impossible... well, I'm not sure there's a enough of a reality in this book for that shift to matter. We never get a sense of this world beyond Martin and his dreams; there are memorable character here beyond the lead (though only a handful), but nearly everything we know about them is centered around how they fit into Martin's plans. He defines the reality here, so if his final efforts break some pretty fundamental physical laws, it's almost though his world moves with him. 

I'm more interested in that beautiful final passage, when Martin goes for a walk in the park and then wakes from whatever dream he's been having. The whole book has been building to this moment, like one long, slow build to that final crescendo and then collapseand that collapsed resolved in a way that I didn't expect. Like I said earlier, I thought this was going to end in catastrophe--we're told in the opening pages that Martin's going to eventually fail--and I figured the catastrophe would be, well, catastrophic. Given how much Martin defines this book, how much his story is really the only story going (you can sometimes sense people moving around the edges, but never enough of them to consider this an ensemble piece), I figured the fall-out would result in misery, chaos, and almost certainly death. But that's not what happens at all. Martin experiences financial ruin, and his marriage is probably over (which is for the best, really), but the final scene is more a moment of acceptance and peace than loss. It's as though Martin's failure wasn't about the public's lack of interest in the Cosmos, but rather simply a matter of him going as far as he could in trying to capture the world, realizing he'd reach the peak of his ambitions, and then moving on. I always appreciate redemptive moments in art. I'm not entirely sure that's what this was, but Martin didn't shoot himself or anything (unless that was something else I missed), which was a pleasant surprise.

Ellen Wernecke: Zack, I like your description of the resolution of Martin Dressler, but I don't know that I would call it redemptive. He finds some peace in the shelter of his own failed ambition, but that doesn't change the decisions he's made that have led him to that point. I saw it instead as him coming to terms with his fate: Even as he allows the Grand Cosmo's creditors access to his other properties, he can see what an unwise proposition that is -- but he does it anyway, as if accepting that his entire empire will now be sunk and he will have to return to cigar-selling or clerking a hotel desk for someone else. Like you, Zack, I also thought he might kill himself, the absence of which act was a pleasant surprise.

Beyond that soft grace note, though, I felt mostly unfulfilled by the ending. I wanted Millhauser to go further and show us whether Martin could return to humbler beginnings, because unlike Leonard, I didn't think that the Grand Cosmo was a function of Martin's mind. I can understand that reasoning to a point, but even in the most fevered of its presentations to the public, I never suspected that it wasn't a brick-and-mortar building (though as we've discussed, one with curious advancements for its time). Its melting away from reality I took as the painful divorce between Martin's vision for it and its likely fate after he lost control of the building.

Todd VanDerWerff: I, too, essentially took the ending as literal, though I suppose I shouldn't have. (It may have hurt that I read an interview with Millhauser where he said he wanted the ending to stretch reality but not snap it.) I think that Martin's ruin is so much the arc of the book - so much so that it's in the first paragraph - that the story doesn't work if he doesn't literally build this grand experience that utterly destroys him. He's going to give up on dreaming for a while and step back into a humble life and a humble trade and get back to what he's good at. Does he start over from there? Or is this how his life goes from now on? (I'm struggling to think of an equivalent businessman from the era who went from penniless to powerful to penniless.)

I've been writing a lot about how I think Millhauser probably finds Martin to be a self-identification figure, of sorts, and this final section is the greatest fear of every writer: the time when the wish to create worlds will cease and the desire to just live a simple life like the vast majority of people will begin. It shouldn't be a terrifying idea, but it is. In its own way, Martin Dressler is about the flip side of the American Dream, which is the idea that sometimes the only way to pursue that dream is to give up on it. Martin has to push the dream as far as he possibly can before he gives up, but I think he does literally do so and does literally give up on it (at least in the book's world). I realize this will never happen, but I would love to read a sequel of this (or even see the characters again in another work of Millhauser's). It's not that I want resolution, not exactly, but I think I want Millhauser to reassure me that giving up is sometimes OK, even though I know he can do no such thing.

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