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Steven Millhauser: The King In The Tree


The King In The Tree

Author: Steven Millhauser
Publisher: Knopf

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Steven Millhauser's The King In The Tree takes its title from the last of its three novellas, but the moment referenced adequately stands in for the collection as a whole. Revisiting the story of Tristan and Ysolt, Millhauser places his King Mark in the branches, overlooking what he's told will be a lovers' tryst between his wife and his beloved nephew. Jealousy has made a tree-climbing stripling of a man whose power stretches much further than the view from the highest branch of his perch. In each of King's stories, passion makes fools of the noble and the base alike. The eponymous story, told from the distanced but not detached perspective of the king's most trusted advisor, draws the Tristan legend's slow revelation of unfaithfulness out to pained extremes. At first reluctant even to look into the rumors that his wife has strayed, Mark later needs empirical proof of the most conclusive kind. His denial is tied to his need to preserve the existing order of his life–and, with it, the kingdom as a whole. Faced with either illusion or chaos, he makes the only available choice, until it ceases to be a choice at all. A trafficker in illusion, Millhauser previously turned a turn-of-the-century hotel into a pan-global fantasia in Martin Dressler; King contains some similarly fantastic creations, but most of its illusions are of the everyday variety. The opening story, "Revenge," is an extended monologue with a twist. Beginning as a sales pitch for a house, it turns into a requiem for a marriage gone wrong, delivered to the woman who helped break it. The infidelities continue in "An Adventure Of Don Juan," which visits the hot-blooded 18th-century lothario as he sojourns in the cooler climes of an English estate. There, he finds the era's trend toward unrestrained whimsy in its landscaping taken to its absurd limit: The estate's proprietor creates three-dimensional tableaux of Anglo-Saxon England, contemporary Venice, and even the heaven and hell of Virgil and Homer, populating them with actors whose mute dramas mock Don Juan's growing passion for the one woman seemingly impervious to his advances. That element of human emotion allows Millhauser beneath the surface of the story. His gift for delicate, exhaustive detail lets him reveal how, whether in the private confines of a family home or the public forum of a royal court, love can both drive a world and destroy it.