Millhauser has a Pulitzer to his name, and his tale of a remarkable magician, Eisenheim the Illusionist
(not in this collection), was adapted to the screen as “The Illusionist.” He has a very rich imagination and can weave together the real and un-real with great skill.
The collection offers a trio of reality-based stories sandwiched between works of a fantastical nature. August Eschenberg
is the long opening tale of a clockmaker, and creator of what we would call animatronics today, who must cope with a world in which the inferior and crass succeeds at the expense of the sublime. A Protest Against the Sun
shows a 16-year-old at the beach with her family, clinging to the innocence of her youth as she steps back and forth between childhood and adulthood.In The Sledding Party
a teenager at a winter party becomes upset when a boy she considers just a friend confesses his love to her then runs away. In A Day in the Country
, a woman on a weekend retreat is unsettled by a mysterious, sad-looking woman she keeps seeing. When the woman finally speaks to her, we learn the vacationer’s secret.
Back to fantasy in part IIISnowmen
portrays one-upsmanship in a neighborhood as people compete to construct the most fantastical snow-based creations.In The Penny Arcade
, a 12-yr-old boy is disappointed by the place, remembering it as a more lively and promising venue. Now the games seem old and dusty. But when there is a sudden silence, he finds a closed off area and returns to experience the games the way he remembers. One must bring a bit of magical expectation to get magic in return.Cathay
is a fantasy, in many small chunks, about beauty. It describes diverse aspects of this strange place, including that the Court women have elaborate miniatures painted on their eyelids and breasts.
I had a mixed reaction to this collection of stories. I felt very drawn in by most, (August Eschenberg, A Protest Against the Sun, A Day in the Country, In the Penny Arcade
) but removed from others (The Sledding Party, Snowmen, Cathay
). Millhauser clearly has the ability to make his characters live. One could certainly feel the conflict of the 16-year-old at the beach, struggling to walk the line between child and woman, and the pressure building in a vacationing woman in need of relief from her grief, but at times the author seemed more interested in making a point, using characters as, well, automatons in service of a larger purpose. That said, I found his writing beautiful, rich and satisfying. His fantasies are fascinating. This was my first exposure to the author and I will certainly seek out other Millhauser works.