Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer
by Steven Millhauser (1996)
Vintage (1997)
293 pp


I first read this book about a decade ago, and I didn’t like it much. I thought it was boring. Well, if nothing else, let this post be about second chances and about how our situation in life may well be the real reason we fail to appreciate a book. I decided a few nights ago to reread it to review it in anticipation of this year’s Pulitzer (Millhauser has a book of short stories that was selected by The New York Times as one of 2008’s five best books of fiction, so he is a contender this year too). When I started it this time I was thinking, let’s just give it a few pages. I was immediately drawn into the world of Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. I’m sure one of the reasons I appreciate it more is that I’m a much better reader now than I was then. I feel more of the subtlety. Also, my experience with people and with settings has increased my ability to connect with the book. The first time I read it all of the details bringing New York City of 1880 to life failed to grab me; this time, now that I roam those same streets, it was striking!

Millhauser’s evocation of old New York was, well, as I said, striking. The past seemed so real it is haunting; or, rather, I felt as if I were there haunting the past. Here is an early description that was one of the main reasons I kept reading past the first few pages:

Martin’s mother almost never allowed him to cross Broadway, where great red or yellow omnibuses pulled by teams of two horses came clattering by; once she had seen a man hit by the wheel of an omnibus, and another time she had seen a horse lying in the middle of the street. She herself shopped at the less expensive stores on Sixth Avenue, where high in the air the Elevated tracks stretched away like a long roof with holes in it for the sun to come through. But the line of stores and hotels on their side of Broadway between the two big shady squares, Union and Madison, was almost as familiar to Martin as his own street. At Madison Square Park his mother liked to sit on a wooden bench under the trees and look up at the big seven-story hotels, before heading back to their rooms over the cigar store . . . .

I’d love to know if this passage is intriguing to people who have never been to New York City. Imagining that place bustling, under elevated tracks, 120 years ago, and linking that to the bustle that is New York today really filled me with curiosity about the city. In a way, this book is a preface to the twentieth century. Here we see the transition from small to large to gigantic. Buildings that couldn’t rise above ten stories can suddenly go up twice — no — three times as high. Fantastic engineering feats, like the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, inspire others to think big and execute their plans, all of this before severe zoning and environmental and safety restrictions. This is the life of Martin Dressler, who started out helping in his father’s cigar store, a modest, conservative establishment. Martin’s first big dream is to create an interesting window display. Millhauser dives deeply into the soul of this dreamer, however, and we watch as his imagination, never satisfied, forces him to attempt larger and larger feats. From the cigar store, Martin finds his way into a job at a nearby hotel. There he works his way up, building capital, until he can open his own cigar booth (which sells cigarettes, something his father would never do) in the hotel lobby. He continues his jobs in the hotel too, absorbing the atmosphere, learning the system, allowing his imagination to run unrestrained.

No, what seized his innermost attention, what held him there day after day in noon revery, was the sense of a great, elaborate structure, a system of order, a well-planned machine that drew all these people to itself and carried them up and down in iron cages and arranged them in private rooms.

Soon his successful enterprise takes him higher and higher until he attempts to build a structure that houses the universe itself.

You are justified to think that as Martin’s dreams grow larger, the book itself would have a hard time sustaining this. However, the more complex and large Martin’s ideas get, the more complex the book’s structure gets — the better the book gets. Indeed, the book’s structure is a representation of what it describes. Millhauser anchors the fever-dream imaginings (all told with exceptional, exotic and attractive detail, like a sophisticated advertisement — another layer in this book) with intricate relationships, and he has the ability to navigate the complexities often felt but not understood. Through his excellent and ambitious craftsmanship, Millhauser infuses this structure with life rare in fiction. He can be lofty, taking on America itself, or he can be delicate and intimate, like when a young girl gives a young Martin “a small heart-shaped gold locket, still warm from being clutched in a fist.” This is adroit writing; by avoiding the obvious “her fist” and opting for “a fist,” Millhauser actually makes us focus on the moment and the action itself. The book is filled with moments like this. They are powerful and, though never expressly referred to again, haunt the pages just as the past does.

And as the structure and dreams get more complex, so do the relationships. Which brings me to another thing Millhauser does exceptionally well: trusting the reader. The book is complex yet controlled to the minute detail.  And through it all Millhauser feels no need to spell everything out to us; he trusts us to follow him, picking up the details. This is particularly important when delving into the many relationships in the book. When Martin is moderately successful, he takes up boarding at a hotel where the Vernons — a mother and her two daughters, both around his age — are also residing. Strangely, yet believably and not distastefully, Martin feels as if he is married to all three women. On the periphery is the hotel maid, Marie Haskova:

His little Sunday morning friendship with Marie Haskova, with its air of faint ambiguity, as if her were concealing from the Vernons a secret mistress, in one sense simplified his relation to them, for whatever he felt for the three Vernon women had nothing to do with secret liaisons. The Vernons, all three of them in a kind of lump, could be imagined only as a wife. And yet in another sense Marie Haskova confused his feelings for them, for it was as if the vague desire aroused by the Vernon women were seeking an outlet in young Marie Haskova. But there were deeper confusions, elusive connections that he could barely sense. There was something unspoken between him and Marie Haskova, something secretive and unacknowledged — but weren’t the secretive and the unacknowledged the very sign of his union with Caroline Vernon?

Caroline Vernon is destined to become Martin’s ghostly wife. Martin’s true friendship will develop with the other daughter, who will become his business confidant. These relationships portray interesting aspects of marriage and the rise of women, still only slightly, up the ladder of equality. They also exemplify another aspect of modern life: the transition of some intimate events (like dinner) into large social events, where everyone gathers around in a large room inside a large building inside a large city.

Structure and identity are important aspects to Millhauser’s novel; indeed, they are as intriguing to me as his reportage of old New York. Playfully, Millhauser utilizes themes that seem connected to intriguing theory, particularly Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. While told very realistically, the book is filled with quasi-existence and mock authenticity. Sometimes Martin only knows how he feels by looking in a mirror. Many objects are reproductions or representations of something else. He hires “live actors [to] impersonat[e] wax works.” Objects are given meaning through advertising and placement. Life is given meaning through objects.  And yet, it’s not so simple.

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