The Barnum Museum is a combination waxworks, masked ball, and circus sideshow masquerading as a collection of short stories. Within its pages, note such sights as: a study of the motives and strategies used by the participants in the game of Clue, including the seduction of Miss Scarlet by Colonel Mustard; the Barnum Museum, a fantastic, monstrous landmark so compelling that an entire town finds its citizens gradually and inexorably disappearing into it; a bored dilettante who constructs an imaginary woman - and loses her to an imaginary man! - and a legendary magician so skilled at sleight-of-hand that he is pursued by police for the crime of erasing the line between the real and the conjured.
I think Millhauser would qualify for distinction as a writer's writer because many of his stories operate on more than one level — one often being a running commentary on the creative process itself. This is one of the aspects of his work that appeals to me most: He causes one to think about his methods as a storyteller — not unusual, I suppose, in the realms of metafiction.
All ten of the stories in this collection are both interesting and enjoyable — admittedly, some more enjoyable than others. Here is a brief rundown:
"The Game of Clue" — A family game of Clue proceeds, intertwined with imaginary byplay of the game's characters, which suggests more than it reveals.
"Behind the Blue Curtain" — A boy is allowed to go to the Saturday matinee alone for the first time. Afterwards, curiosity takes him behind the stage curtain where his imagination carries him inside a bigger-than-life world.
"The Barnum Museum" — A "realm of enchantments," a world apart from the world, "constructed so as to help us lose our way." In the 19th century Barnum museums actually existed in Bridgeport, Connecticut and New York City. The Bridgeport museum burned down at some point, and this story attempts to recreate — dare I say embellish? — the sense of its wonder: "In the gift shops of the Barnum Museum we may buy old sepia postcards of mermaids and sea dragons, little flip-books that show flying carpets rising into the air, peep-show pens with miniature colored scenes from the halls of the Barnum Museum, mysterious rubber balls from Arabia that bounce once and remain suspended in the air, jars of dark blue liquid from which you can blow bubbles shaped like tigers, elephants, lions, polar bears, and giraffes, Chinese kaleidoscopes showing ceaselessly changing forms of dragons, enchanting pleniscopes and phantatropes, boxes of animate paint for drawing pictures that move" — etc., etc.
"The Sepia Postcard" — An impressionist story — again, suggestive more than revealing or conclusive: A man trying to get away from it all checks into a seaside inn, but the weather! — it won't stop raining, and he leaves abruptly. All this interweaved with impressions of a scene in a sepia postcard, which seems to depict more every time the man looks at it.
"The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad" — The narrative alternates among three different points of view: (1) Sinbad reminisces, unable to recall the order in which his adventures occur; (2) a historical narrative: "The first European translation . . ." etc.; and (3) a first-person account by Sinbad. Readers who have actually read The Arabian Nights will be able to say whether this is a new adventure or a pastiche of references to past voyages.
"Klassic Komix #1" — Unless one knows the opening line of T.S. Eliot's "The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock" — "Let us go then, you and I" — one will be of the mistaken belief that this is merely a panel-by-panel prose retelling of a rather surreal comic book. In fact, it recasts the images and impressions from Eliot's poem as a comic book. The genius of the poem — and this story — is that almost every reading conjures slightly different interpretations.
"Rain" — A violent rain storm in which everything goes wrong for a man caught out wearing a new pair of shoes.
"Alice, Falling" — Once again, Millhauser takes as his point of departure a familiar text which he reimagines — in this case, the opening chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. He embellishes Alice's fall through the rabbit hole while commenting upon it at the same time.
"The Invention of Robert Herendeen" — "I decided to invent a human being by means of the full and rigorous application of my powers of imagination. Instead of resorting to words, which merely obscured and distorted the crystalline clarity of my inner vision, I would employ the stuff of imagination itself. That is to say, I would mentally mold a being whose existence would be sustained by the detail and energy of my relentless dreaming. My ambition was to create not an actual human being or a mere work of art but rather a being who existed in a realm parallel to the other two—a third realm, obedient to the laws of physical bodies but utterly discarnate." The story then goes on to explore the limitations of creating an imaginary friend.
"Eisenheim the Illusionist" — Acknowledged as the source of the 2006 movie The Illusionist starring Edward Norton, this story in truth only provides the film's bare outlines, but it is a quintessential Millhauser fantasy about a 19th century magician and illusionist who is famous for materializing and dematerializing phantom spirits and then as his last act performs the ultimate dematerialization.
While reading these stories, more than once it crossed my mind that in some respects they qualify as a type of prose poetry in the sense that they sometimes suggest more than they actually describe. Millhauser's word pictures seem to amplify in the mind and cause one to see more than is actually there. This, to me, is writing that not only conveys stories and impressions, but it stimulates the imagination as well.
If you like this kind of thing and you haven't yet tried Millhauser, this would be a good place to begin.
The last story in this collection - Eisenheim the Illusionist - is, as good as the film was, a much more interesting take on illusion and reality. In Millhauser’s short story, the ‘crime’ is that Eisenheim dared to blur the line between art and real life, between reality and illusion. The film casts the climax as a much more mundane political tale.
Several other stories collected here were wonderful as well. In The Invention of Robert Herendeen, a lonely and unmotivated though brilliant young man conjures up a companion wholly out of his imagination, but is unable to sustain the reality of the illusion.
Millhauser reinvents and/or reimagines both Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass (inAlice, Falling) and T. S. Eliot’sThe Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in Klassik Komix #1. And what he did for the movie theater cartoon in his latest cillection, he did for the venerable board game Clue in A Game of Clue. I found The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad a little less engaging than these two.
Fantasy and the fantastic never have been my favorite genres, but in the hands of Millhauser, they’re always more than that and invariably rewarding on several levels.
In all instances, attempt to make these enigmatic in such a way that the reader will think there is depth. No depth is actually required. You should also show your command of the language by going into excruciating detail
Okay, let me put this another way. I feel as though I just read all of the works Millhauser put together as he was honing his craft. The "assignment" I have provided above is a description of every story in the collection. However, these are not stories; these are exercises. If it weren't for the last two items, the task of reading this collection would have been nothing but wasted time and frustration. The last two are good – in particular the last which tells the story of an illusionist who is tapping into something no one can understand to effect illusions that are almost beyond comprehension. But the only thing these two stories do is keep the collection from being a mere half-star.
Unfortunately, two stories stuck onto the end of a collection containing tedious nothings does not a great read make.
And I want it made perfectly clear that I have greatly enjoyed Millhauser's work in the past. Dangerous Laughter was an excellent short story collection and his novel Edwin Mullhouse was one of the best I have read. Yes, I went in with great expectations. I left them dashed, destroyed, and demolished.
Do not waste your time, your money, or any brain cells on this book
Millhauser could be the poster boy for post-modernism, with his stories being full of textual jokes and narrative quirks. How much you like this stories could possibly be determined by how much you enjoy the techniques he deploys.
A good example of Millhauser's approach is exhibited in the first, and longest, of the stories, A Game of Clue. This novella consists of three strands - one, the story of four people playing a game of Clue; second, a story about the fictional characters in the game; and, three, a detailed description of the game paraphrenilia. These three threads are interwoven but comprise of named segments, i.e., the segment titled 'The Library' describes the library as it appears on the game board. This fragmentary approach works surprisingly well, with each thread being interesting enough to
Millhauser returns to this triptych format, with slightly less success, in The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, where apart from the adventure of the 8th voyage, we see Sinbad as an old man trying to remember his voyages, and a history of the English version of the Arabian Nights. (Sinbad isn't the only literary character to appear, Lewis Carroll's Alice takes centre stage in Alice, Falling, the title describing the story nicely).
The use of 'Clue' also highlights another one of Millhauser's main techniques - the use of everyday objects as being integral to the narrative. Klassik Komix #1 takes this idea further, with the story comprising of a panel by panel breakdown of an imaginary comic - it is, of course, a joke on the literary theory of deconstructionism as well, reducing a work to it's constitute parts. The Sepia Photograph places the eponymous object at the centre of a story about a writer coming to terms with the breakdown of his relationship, with the photograph disturbingly changing to reflect his state of mind. (It is hard not to see this as a homage to M.R. James masterly ghost story, The Mezzotint).
Two of the best stories in the collection also play with form. The Barnum Museum is a long detailed description, an informal guided tour, of a huge museum central to the imaginary city. This is a museum of the imagination, where everything is possible - it also sets out what may be Millhauser's approach to writing:
It has been said, by those who do not understand us well, that our museum is a form of escape. In a superficial sense, this certainly true. When we enter the Barnum Museum we are physically free of all that binds us to the outer world, to the realm of sunlight and death; and sometimes we seek relief from suffering and sorrow in the halls of the Barnum Museum. But it is a mistake to imagine that we flee into our museum in order to forget the hardships of life outside. After all, we are not children, we carry our burdens with us wherever we go....Indeed I would argue that we are at most sharply aware of our town when we leave it to enter the Barnum Museum; without our museum, we would pass through life as in a daze or dream.
This story also reveals one of Millhauser's main influences - Jorge Luis Borges. It would not be overpraising Millhauser to say at his best he is able to produce intelligent literary fantasies the equal of the Argentinian master.
The other story that takes the form of an essay, in this case an analysis of a magician's career, is Eisenheim the Illusionist. This story won the 1990 World Fantasy Award (unusual for a non-genre writer, although in truth, Millhauser is the kind of writer who gives fantasy a good name) and was disappointing adapted in 2006 as The Illusionist. What the story achieves, and where the film fails miserably, is in creating a strong atmosphere of the unknowable. We never get close to Eisenheim, we remain seated in the audience trying to understand how he does his tricks (are they tricks? could they be real?) and wondering who he really is.
The Invention of Robert Herendeen is probably the most autobiographical story in the collection - as an academic high-achiever has returned to live with his parents, and is supposedly writing the great American novel. In what appears to be a homage to both Borges The Circular Ruins and Poe's The Fall of the House of Usher the character of the title learns the dangers of the purely imaginary life.
Although Millhauser's writing is fairly dense, heavily descriptive at times, repeating certain tricks - he loves lists, and a number of the stories repeat motifs (although some of them, such as the furniture feet may just be jokes), it is always intelligent and interesting. Some may find his stories a little dry and with too many post-modern tricks but, on the evidence in this collection at least, to my mind, Millhauser is one of the finest literary fantasists around.