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: Yesterday we talked about Martin Dressler and the expression of internal desires through physical creations. But beyond turning inchoate longings for order and beauty into cigar stands, lunchrooms, and hotels, Martin also desires women. His experiences aren’t, I suspect, atypical for his time and place. As a young man, he’s seduced by an older woman. As a bachelor, he frequents whorehouses. As a suitor, he marries the woman he’s supposed to desire, while remaining drawn to an intelligent, independent-minded woman. As a new husband, he’s frustrated by his bride’s sexual ignorance of sex, a condition that hardens into distaste. As a married man of means, he takes up with—and takes advantage of—a working-class woman in his employ.
What do these women mean to him? I think in some ways, they’re another unattainable ideal. He’ll never find any kind of real sexual satisfaction with Caroline, but she looks the part of the perfect turn-of-the-century wife. Her sister, Emmeline, doesn’t, although she’s in many ways his perfect match. Trouble is, Martin either doesn’t find her attractive, or doesn’t think he should find her attractive, because she isn’t a fragile beauty in need of protection. (And in the end, it all gets jumbled together and he loses them both.)
They’re not the only women in Martin’s life, however. He develops a tender relationship with Marie, who takes him into her bed on his wedding night. He then seems to forget her until he returns to the hotel where they both lived—and one of them worked—and finds it destroyed. Though he’s a man of humble beginnings, and has yet to achieve the great wealth and success that awaits him, he’s already come to see those of lesser means, and those who immigrated more recently, as needing less respect than those of his station.
However extraordinary his story, or at least his creations, Dressler seems in many ways a typical man of his times. Millhauser, to my eyes at least, simply gives him more intense scenarios. His choice of adultery occurs on his wedding night, for instance, rather than over the course of an unsatisfying marriage. Caroline descends into actual madness rather than just the frosty withdrawal of an unhappy spouse. So what is Millhauser up to with his novel’s women? As I see it, much of Martin Dressler takes place in a world that offers previews of the century to come. Emmeline and Caroline are two forms of femininity whose competition has intensified with each passing decade, but seeing them only as that oversimplifies things. That said, we never get to know any of the women particularly well, largely because we see them through Martin’s eyes, and he never seems to fully understand anything he can’t grasp, recreate, or simulate.
Leonard Pierce: Martin Dressler's relationships with women are curious from the beginning: His bond with both his parents is curiously vague and distant, and more so with his mother than his father. (Yes, damn you, Jacques Lacan, I am that kind of reader: As soon as Martin's curious interactions with women started to unfurl, I immediately went back and read the passages dealing with his mother.)
His first sexual experience, with the irritable and needy Mrs. Hamilton, sets a very iffy precedent, training him, perhaps, to crave the distant and inaccessible, to muddle the sometimes-warring impulses toward kindness and desire. We see this frequently as the story unfurls: He drifts toward the prostitute who resembles Mrs. Hamilton in his days of regular whoring, and at least part of his attraction to Caroline—so incompatible with him, as compared to Emmeline—stems from her distance, her standoffishness, her hypochondria. And of course, she looks more like Mrs. Hamilton than does Emmeline.
All of this informs what eventually happens with Caroline, and with Marie Haskova, and leads to some of the book's most chilling scenes, from Martin's almost unspeakable frustration on his wedding night ("Tell her!") to Caroline's slide into insanity. But I find myself wondering about one of the least-explored, but most obviously strange, relationships he had in the book: the one with Little Alice Bell and her mother. It's the one that seems to perplex and frighten him the most, remaining entirely chaste, but driving him into a sort of sexual terror; it's also the one that drives him forward into regular trips to the house with the rattling windows. What about the Bells so fascinated and frightened Martin, and how did it reflect on his relationship with the Vernons? I'm not sure I have an answer for that, but it's one of the aspects of the book that haunted me after I finished reading.
Donna Bowman: Thank you for bringing up the Bells, Leonard, and now allow me to dismiss them from my mind; the episodes where Martin supervises the frighteningly challenging little girl in the hotel lobby disturbed me more than anything else in Martin's sexual history, because I was so frightened of where the book might go. That's probably an indication that a master key lies within those pages, but forgive me for not wanting to explore it.
Instead, I wonder about Caroline and Emmeline, the sisters whose duality Martin finds so beguiling when they appear as a pair, but so troubling when one is isolated from the other. (The three women he sits with night after night are a closed system that he wishes to tinker with, perhaps the incarnation of a cautionary tale against social engineering that he ignores, to his ruin.) It's clear to us readers that Emmeline is Martin's soulmate, a person who really understands him. But her deference to her sister, her indirectness, her willingness to be pulled along in Martin's orbit when she seems to know she would be better off striking out on her own, is awfully frustrating. Caroline, on the other hand, made me want to rip the book in half—such a waste that Martin succumbed to her (or his idea of her), and so cruel to torment him with her undefined illnesses and sensitivities.
All of this came to a head for me when Martin suspects Caroline of trying to effect an exchange, moving back to her mother's apartment and sending Emmeline to share Martin's. There Millhauser plays so effectively with my own inchoate desires as a reader. I hate Caroline and admire Emmeline, but I'm appalled at this attempted swap, and desperately want Martin to find some way to foil it. What do I want for Martin? Millhauser forces me to confront my suspicion that Martin simply isn't built for marriage, at least the kind presented to him for approval by his culture. And I have to give up on my romantic notion that the right woman could have saved him from himself.
Zack Handlen: I was never sure about the age gap between Martin and Alice, so those scenes didn't haunt me as much as they did you, Donna, but I do agree with you and Leonard—it seemed important at the time. I didn't think there was anything particularly unsavory in the connection, at least not in the sense that Martin himself would ever be drawn to make the relationship (ew) physical. But I think the possibility of that was enough to bother him. From what we see, this is a guy who never had any real childhood; all we ever see of him is working and planning more work. He never understands the impulses that drive him, but in the context of construction, this lack of understanding drives him forward, inspires him, while in his personal life, it sends him bouncing through a series of ill-considered relationships. I think those impulses may stem from a desire to recapture an innocence he suspects is out there, but which he never had for himself, and his interest in Alice (why are these girls always named Alice?) is just a part of that larger desire. It's the opposite of Humbert Humbert's Lolita fixation; Humbert gets off on corruption, Martin on idealization.
But that's just a chapter, and there are better-developed relationships to consider. I love it when a writer creates problematic romances that don't have obvious answers. It could be that when Martin married Caroline, he chose the wrong sister, and should've married Emmeline instead. But it could also be that neither woman was actually right for him. I can certainly see how the standards of the time could've tricked Martin into seeing Emmeline as coarser and less attractive simply because she had a stronger will than her sister, but I'm not entirely convinced that's the case. To me, it seems more like that central concern at the heart of Martin's character, that yearning for some ethereal, heavenly perfection, that drove him toward such a disastrous bride. Emmeline clearly made the better friend, but her practicality and sense might've served to bring Martin back down to Earth in a way he wasn't prepared for. Caroline was more attractive because she wasn't really there. I'm not sure Martin needs any training to peruse stand-offish women. It seems more like a part of his eternal dissatisfaction with life. Emmeline would've been fine in her way, but her straightforward decency is finite. With Caroline, there would always be possibilities, at least in potentiality. (In practice, obviously, those potentialities lost their savor quickly.) I appreciated that there was enough open room in the book, despite its short length, to leave this triangle ambiguous.
Ellen Wernecke: For all his powers to envision a building where there was none and a product people didn’t know they needed to buy, Martin is remarkably inept at envisioning the perfect wife or the perfect marriage. He’s certainly not alone in that problem, but there’s a coldness to the way he compartmentalizes his problems with the women in his life. Instead of attempting to bond with Caroline after their disastrous wedding night, he puts in longer and longer hours, even moving them into the building he’s trying to get off the ground so that he can better supervise what goes on there. Not that his courtship of her was especially ardent or anything, but there is a slight tenderness to it. Arguably, he’s kinder to Emmeline than he ever is to Caroline, and perhaps she’s better off not having been his wife. (Don’t forget his father and mother worked together in the store, so maybe he was self-consciously rebelling against that type of arrangement by choosing Caroline over Emmeline… at least for me, there was still some doubt until his conversation with Emmeline that he wouldn’t be choosing her.)
Still, I kept wanting to connect Martin’s relationship with the Vernons overall as party to his inability to find romantic satisfaction. Having spotted the mother and daughters across a dining room, he aggressively courts them as a unit, allowing them to monopolize his free time to the apparent exclusion of a normal social life. His life, which had revolved around the hotel, begins to revolve around them, and all of them together. Perhaps it would be indecent for Caroline to go out with him unchaperoned, but that he so willingly gives up his weekends, not to mention his own parents, to become the fourth member of this family struck me as somehow predatory. For a while I even thought he was waiting for them to fall into some elaborate con.
What I drew from the encounter with Alice (which I agree was quite creepy) was that Martin felt he had to suppress all natural impulses, at least while in society, to lead the successful life he wanted. I think Donna’s phrase “sexual terror” nails it; how Victorian, yet not so far away from our own hang-ups, to have him shy away from the shadow of impropriety while he’s visiting prostitutes and consorting with a maid. One of the reasons he hates Caroline is that he doesn’t have power over her as he does with other women, at least not the kind he wants. Unlike Donna, I would have wanted to see how a potential swap might have played out – would Martin and Emmeline have been very happy in their old age together? Might she have been able to stir him before he committed himself to the monstrosity of the Grand Cosmo? — but again, I believe Emmeline was better off not to give of herself to the extent that he would never have been able to appreciate. She’s a character I enjoyed spending time with, even through Martin’s limited eyes, and was sorry to see walk out of the frame.
Todd VanDerWerff: I kind of loved the idea of Caroline and Emmeline switching places. Emmeline was by far my favorite character in the book, just the kind of funny best friend that I always end up falling for. Caroline, on the other hand, always seemed more like a wraith than anything else, sort of drifting through the book and avoiding anything like easy answers. There's what seems like a half explanation in the chapter where Caroline becomes fast friends with Claire - oh, I thought, we're going to find out Caroline's been a lesbian all this time - but Millhauser quickly backs away from that. One of the things I love about the book is the fact that its characters are inherently unknowable because the society they live in largely prevents them from having anything like self-knowledge. In the case of Caroline, though, it becomes immensely frustrating.
At the same time, I liked the notion of a swap, not because I thought it made a lot of sense but because it fit with the magical realist direction the story was heading in. I was deeply saddened to have Caroline, Emmeline, and their mother leave the narrative in the final chapter, and it made the grand destruction of Martin even more poignant. When he returns to working in a cigar store, will he still be married to a woman who's incapable of anything beyond shutting herself off from the world? There's a central tragedy to Martin's relationships with all women in the book that lends the novel a certain wistfulness. (Again, I'm reminded of The Great Gatsby.)
But we haven't really talked about Martin's relationship with his mother, which is, yes, purposefully distant, especially when compared to his father, but also the source of some of Martin's happiest memories. Millhauser again and again brings Martin back to thoughts of walking along the street and looking in the shop windows with his mother, and these portions of the book strike me as a key to unlocking Martin, though I would have no idea just how it would begin to do that. There is a void in Martin's life that he keeps trying to fill with women, just as he keeps trying to fill it with more business ventures, but nothing is ever good enough (in this regard, the commenters comparing him to America are not far off). I'm reminded of being a small child and being told by everyone I knew that God was the only thing that could fill that hole I felt in my life and then slowly realizing that I was doing it wrong because God wasn't doing the trick. Martin thinks that the love of a good woman will fill the hole in his life, and he picks the woman he's supposed to choose. But the only thing that can fill the hole is that which will also destroy him.