“It is impossible to say just what I mean” was the lament of T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock, but for Steven Millhauser it seems to function as an excuse for all sorts of frustrating narrative devices. I thought about going back and totaling up the number of chapters which end with a character starting to say something before choosing not to, but the thought of revisiting those parts of the novel was too painful to bear.
Martin Dressler, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in what may with extreme charity be called a curious decision, is an aggravating read. So many of the choices Millhauser makes in the novel are mystifying. For instance, though the novel is set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the time period plays a very little role in the plot aside from several references to the as-yet unconstructed subway system. Or why tell the story largely through narrative summary, eschewing for the most part dialogue and set pieces? This technique has the effect, perhaps intended but no less annoying, of distancing the events of the story from reality, and draining what little life the characters may have had right out of them.
The plot of Martin Dressler is simple. Martin is a young man with boundless ambition who is never satisfied with what he has, even as he becomes a wealthier and more powerful magnate. Martin starts out as a bellboy in an old-fashioned (even for the 1890s) hotel, and through initiative and ingenuity winds up owning a chain of lunchrooms and eventually his own hotels. Along the way he marries an utterly unsuitable wife and becomes business partners with his wife’s sister. Martin’s stupidity in not recognizing his incompatibility with his wife Caroline leads the reader to have little sympathy for his plight, such as it is. Caroline is also painted with broad strokes, rendering her inauthentic in a cloying fashion.
So much of the novel’s early plot is stolen straight from better works of literature that it boggles the mind. I for one am extremely tired of male protagonists who lose their virginity to apparently benevolent and lonely older women. Every time I read this kind of scene it feels uncomfortably like wish fulfillment on the part of the author. And Martin’s whole marriage is but a faint shadow of that between David Copperfield and Dora, which was far more artistically rendered and sympathetically handled.
Near its abrupt end, Millhauser’s novel achieves a brief flash of liveliness, when Martin’s largest and last construction, which is designed to be not a hotel, but a replica of the world itself, indeed even an improvement upon it, is described in vivid detail by the author. The string of impossibilities described within The Great Cosmo at least grabs the reader’s attention and holds onto it for a while, but that tiny amount of goodwill is willfully squandered as the novel ends on yet another muted, barely expressed down note.
I guess I just don’t understand why you would write a novel like this. I suppose part of is it is the challenge of it, but that kind of thinking seems anathema to entertaining and meaningful fiction. If you’ve got something to say, damn it, come right out and say it.