Martin Dressler: Martin Dressler and the sweep of history
Keith Phipps: Martin’s ambition is a particularly American sort of ambition, as some commenters have astutely noted. I think Martin Dressler, with its concern for the way America tries to tame, compress, and profit from the world, is no less relevant now than at any other point. I haven’t seen The Social Network as of this writing, but Facebook has a sort of Grand Cosmo For Friendship feel to it, doesn’t it? Here’s this fundamental element of our existence made miniature, tidied up, and monetized.
But Martin Dressler doesn’t take place anytime. It specifically takes place as the 19th century gives way to the 20th century. (And it was written, maybe significantly, as the 20th gave way to the 21st.) I think that raises a couple of interesting questions for us. How much of an actor is Martin? By that I mean how much does he reshape the world versus getting carried along by the spirit of the age? I see Martin as a restlessly inventive character. But he seems animated less by any kind of personal genius than by the times themselves. In some respects the embodiment of a rage for efficiency, predictability, and convenience that would reach its endpoint in the Wal-Martization of the American landscape.
But he’s not just that. He’s invested in the beauty and the perfection of his creations until they fulfill their destiny and prove themselves of carrying on without him. He’s involved to an alarming degree, and that investment ultimately undoes him with The Grand Cosmo. But that’s a topic for tomorrow.
Leonard Pierce: How much I get annoyed by the inconsistencies in historical fiction is entirely contingent on how familiar I am with the period being discussed. Historical inaccuracies in World War II fiction or stories set in the Classical period drive me to distraction; but set a story in an era I'm not that familiar with, like Martin Dressler's Gilded Age, and I happily let it all blow right past me, and any ahistorical developments trouble me not a bit. (Another example of how knowledge can be a real bummer.) Which is not to say that the book was crammed with historical inaccuracies; like I said, I really wouldn't know. But at least two of Martin Dressler's big ideas -- essentially inventing the chain restaurant and the theme park -- seem chronologically a bit off.
That didn't bother me, though, because, especially as the book developed from a sort of fictionalized biography into something more fantastic, I realized that they weren't meant to be taken at face value; they were a metaphor for the growth of the nation, for the expansion of the American dream and the question of who owns it and who drives it. We are meant to understand that Martin is a man of great vision and invention; it is his gift to see the potential in everything, his talent to make that potential come true, and his curse that he can never be satisfied with the result. I was troubled at first by the relative lack of comment in the book about class and economic issues in what was a critical time for those very issues in American history, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder if Millhauser isn't trying to make a pretty sharp point about the drivers of the American Dream.
The question of what Martin Dressler wants is present on every page of the book, and in every decision he makes. Jake Gittes asked a similar overachiever what he wanted: "How much better can you eat? What could you buy that you can't already afford?" Noah Cross was no Martin Dressler, but he gave an answer that Dressler might have understood: the future. Like millionaires who strive to become billionaires and then, instead of enjoying the fruits of their efforts, just spend the rest of their lives making more money because it's the only thing they know how to do, Martin spends his whole life trying to create the future. His tragedy is that he finds the future can do just fine without him, that his creations take on a life of their own -- or, in some cases, already possessed one -- and that constantly trying to stay ahead means ignoring the essence of the here and now.
I think Martin Dressler might have existed in any age, not just the one in which we find him; that's why he's allowed to shape the Gilded Age in a way it really wasn't shaped. But that eternal quality is both what builds him up and tears him down.
Zack Handlen: I'm sure there are anachronism in Martin Dressler, just as I'm sure that, by the end, the buildings he designs could never exist successfully in the real world--and I have no problem with that at all. I guess you could say I share Leonard's disinterest in finding the mistakes in historical fiction set in periods he's unfamiliar with. It's just that, since I'm a terrible student of history, there's no actual period I can imagine knowing well enough to be able to spot the inconsistencies. If somebody showed up on Mad Men with an iPod, okay, I'd have problems with that. But minor missteps fly right under my radar.
That's not really the whole answer here, though. Dressler is technically a period piece: it requires a certain time to tell its story in, and certain social restrictions for that story's tragedy completely unfold. (It's harder to imagine him getting into exactly the same kind of trouble with Caroline and Emmeline in, say, the '80s.) But much like Little, Big before it (a novel which was nominally set in the present but always felt like it was a hundred years old at least), this is a fable, and fables aren't about recreating the past. The whole novel reads like a tall tale--we're told early on that Martin is going to succeed wildly and then fall, so even without the trappings of another age, the plot plays out like something we've known all our lives. The time and place provide the context for how this particular tragedy will play out, but I'm not sure the core of it is all that reliant on the setting. Martin's architectural obsessions probably wouldn't've been possible in an earlier age, and it's hard to see how they'd be relevant in our own (seeing as how the Internet and other media make Martin's dreams of a world within a world oddly superfluous), but, like Leonard said, his aspirations are essentially timeless.
Still, the setting wasn't by accident. I wonder at that--maybe it's the fact this is America before the two World Wars, before the Great Depression, before Prohibition, before cars really cut the distances between places, before flight. Maybe this was the only time that this Martin's particular desires, his need to capture childhood wonder in box after slightly largely box, might have been as successful. Maybe if he'd been born much later, he would've started a movie studio, or opened an amusement park... or both.
Donna Bowman: The time period, with its expanding New York (the outer edges still recognizably rural despite having numbered streets roughed in around them), seems integral to the story. Martin has the soul of a Victorian -- the obsession with tableaux and miniatures, recreating the world in a teacup -- born into the atmosphere of big business, where an idea and a line of credit can send you off into fantasyland.
And I think the relatively underdetermined historical milieu, with little mention of world affairs, works perfectly for this story as it veers into the fantastical itself. New York is a blank slate; the chain restaurant and the theme park are ideas ripe for the picking. What we enjoy is not wondering whether Martin could have invented them if he were a real citizen of the fin de siècle, but witnessing the process by which his appreciation for systemization and grasp of its possibilities on a large scale gets transformed into these now-familiar forms. In this respect the book reminded me of the Childcraft encyclopedias I spent hours reading as a kid, with their stories of inventors and their eureka moments, from the paper clip to the ice cream cone (by way of Edison rescuing a child on the train tracks). The moment of imagination is rendered exquisitely inhabitable, not remote as a miracle of genius, but the product of seeing the world in such a way that its possibilities become transparent.
Ellen Wernecke: If I'm being truthful, I sort of scoffed at the subtitle The Tale of an American Dreamer. It set me up to expect a book that was much more sentimental, even schmaltzy, than the treatment Millhauser gives to a man who is indeed emblematic of a particular American archetype if not a well defined class. Second-generation but not starving, Martin still yearns for something way bigger than he is, a point driven home again and again by his indifference to money. (Frankly I think he protests too much; he may act as if he doesn't care about it, but he certainly enjoys what his money can buy him, up to the Grand Cosmo itself.)
What bothered me about Martin's inventions wasn't so much the anachronism, as Leonard alludes to, as that these concepts had to have invented by a real Martin Dressler whose story Millhauser appropriates. It bothered me that I didn't know who invented the chain restaurant though I must walk by dozens every week and have visited them all my life. As a sociological feature, I had sort of taken them for granted, so whether they had been invented by the late '90s or turn of the century, I wasn't sure. I couldn't set them aside just to marvel at as you did, Donna; I wondered about the teeming masses of Martin Dresslers who each had their pet idea tucked under one arm as they forged into the future.
Now that I step back to consider Martin Dressler in historical context I'm surprised there wasn't more about anything going on outside New York City at the time, politically or otherwise. The combination of Martin's limited view of the world and the fairytale milieu with which Millhauser shrouds him, particularly toward the end, close that door to us -- although it would have been fun to see him get mildly riled up over the gold standard. (Maybe I'm just more sensitive to his myopia because, unlike my colleagues up thread, I live in New York City and we residents are often criticized for being out of touch with the rest of the country.) If Martin had been born 50 years earlier, he could have gone out West, but there was no more West for him to go to, and it's hard to picture him in an army uniform.
Todd VanDerWerff: I'm in New York City this week, and I keep returning to thoughts of Dressler as I wander the streets. So much great fiction has been written about this city - more than any other American city, surely - that the ghosts of stories, films, and TV shows about the place keep crowding in around the edges of the reality I'm experiencing. I still remember the sadness I felt on my first visit to New York to realize that Sleepy Hollow was no longer a small town in the middle of nowhere, that the city had completely engulfed it, even as it maintained its connection to the Washington Irving short story. To that end, the book's evocation of a bygone New York is particularly charming to me. I love living in the modern age, no doubt, but there's a certain poignancy to the idea that once the past is gone, it's irretrievably lost, that I won't get my boyhood back as surely as Martin cannot, that a perfect world and a perfect time remains forever out of all of our grasps.
One of the things I like about historical fiction, then, is that it rebuilds the past and allows it to exist concurrent to our world at this moment. (I'm reminded of how the two cities of Besz and Ul Qoma in China Mieville's The City and the City exist beside and within each other, but only as shadows for the citizens of respective cities. It's very like how Millhauser's prose built another false but somehow MORE TRUE New York atop the one I sit, typing these words in now.) There's a longing to return to the past in much great American fiction, and a sort of longing in this book as well. To that end, anachronisms didn't bother me. If I were to move back to the Gilded Age, I'd want to bring along a few modern inventions as well. Historical fiction builds another time atop the one we currently live in. Millhauser's accretion of detail, as I mentioned two days ago, is his way of building the world Martin keeps trying to tame.
So, yes, I didn't think too hard about the book's relationship to what actually happened or the historical record or anything like that. It seems to me not to be trying to be an actual reflection of events as they happened but a reflection of events as we believe they happened. The "American Dream" reference in the subtitle puts it all right there. We and Millhauser are both cagey enough to know that the American dream features a lot of false hope down in its basement, but we're also optimistic enough to think that maybe the world can be set aright through words or hotels or what have you. Millhauser is not charting the past. He's charting the literary past, the idealized past, and finding the darkness that spills out when you poke around the edges.