The Fabulism of Steven Millhauser
If what I write doesn't lead a reader into the woods, away from the main path,
then it's a failure. Somebody else wrote it. I disown it. --Steven Millhauser
WHAT IS FABULISM?
Fabulist noun: a person who composes or relates fables.
2. a liar, esp. a person who invents elaborate, dishonest stories.
fabulous adj: 3. having no basis in reality; mythical: fabulous creatures.
ORIGIN: late Middle English (in the sense [known through fable, unhistorical]): from French fabuleux or Latin fabulosus 'celebrated in fable,' from fabula.
- Born 3 Aug 1943 in NYC.
- Graduated Columbia College 1965.
- Graduate Studies, Brown University, 1969-71, 76-77.
- Married Cathy Allis, 1984. One daughter, one son.
- Lives in Saratoga Springs, NY.
- Teaches at Skidmore College.
AWARDS AND HONORS
- Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (1997) for Martin Dressler.
- Lannan Literary Award for Fiction (1994).
- Award in Literature from the American Academy
and Institute of Arts and Letters (1987).
- Prix Medicis Etranger Award (France: best foreign novel)
for Edwin Mullhouse (1972).
NOVELS AND STORY COLLECTIONS
* Edwin Mullhouse: The Life & Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 (1972)
* Portrait of a Romantic (1977)
* In the Penny Arcade (1986)
* From the Realm of Morpheus (1986)
* The Barnum Museum (1990)
* Little Kingdoms (1993)
* Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (1996)
* The Knife Thrower (1998)
* Enchanted Night (1999)
* The King in the Tree (2003)
- Psychological realism
- Formal & Structural Innovation
- Visual / Cimematic Style
- Adolescent Eroticism
- Literary Precursors: Poe, Nabokov, Borges, Calvino
- "Art for Art's Sake"
- "Literature is a game, a puzzle."
- "Fancy" Prose Style (high degree of poetic devices):
long compound/complex sentences
intense use of colors
- Secret passages and hidden rooms
- Child/adolescent narrators
- Mythological beasts
- Books and printed matter
- Adolescent male sexuality, especially breast fixation
- Mannequins, automatons, dolls
- Games and puzzles
- Movies and visual arts
SOME SIGNATURE SENTENCE PATTERNS
The enemies of the Barnum Museum say that its exhibits are fradulant; that its deceptions harm our children, who are turned away from the realm of the natural to a false realm of the monstrous and fantastic; that certain displays are provocative, erotic, and immoral; that this temple of so-called wonders draws us out of the sun, tempts us away from healthy pursuits, and renders us dissatisfied with our daily lives; that the presence of the museum in our city encourages those elements which, like confidence men, sharpers, palmists, and astrologers, prey on the gullible; that the very existence of this grotesque eyesore and its repellent collection of mostrosities disturbs our tranquility, undermines our strength, and reveals our secret weakness and confusion ("The Barnum Museum" 75).
...we perpetually hear, beneath the hum of voices, the shouts of children, the shuffle of footsteps, and the cries of the peanut venders, the faint undersound of hammers, pickaxes, and crumbling plaster ("The Barnum Museum" 74).
Periodic Sentences (A Special Type of List Sentence)
The Romanesque and Gothic entranceways, the paired sphinxes and griffins, the gilded onion domes, the corbeled turrets and mansarded towers, the octagonal cupolas, the crestings and crenellations, all these compose an elusive design that seems calculated to lead the eye restlessly from point to point without permitting it to take in the whole ("The Barnum Museum" 73).
Chromatic Imagery (Extensive Use of Color)
Past the blue velvet rope on its silver post I stepped into the well-lit lobby with its red rug and glass-covered candy counter. The glossy wrappers brilliant under the counter lights, the high popcorn machine with its yellow glass that turned the popcorn butter-yellow, the crimson glow of a nearby exit sign, all these expressed the secret presence of the dark... ("Behind the Blue Curtain" 62; note this quotation is also a periodic sentence).
Years of use have caused the black envelope to tear at the corners of the open end; minuscule black hairs of paper twist from the splits ("A Game of Clue" 72-73; note entire passage for more hyperrealism).
IN HIS OWN WORDS
From Steven Milhauser's interview with Jim Shepard, in BOMB Magazine:
SM: . . . . For me, childhood is above all a metaphor for a way of perceiving the world.
Q. In that we're all, if we keep our eyes open, in the position of confronting barely apprehensible wonders?
A. Exactly. . . . Fiction is an adventure or it's nothing -- nothing at all. What's an adventure? An invitation to wonder and danger. If what I write doesn't lead a reader into the woods, away from the main path, then it's a failure. Somebody else wrote it. I disown it.
Q. Many of your works play off literary antecedents in affectionate and complicated ways. Does that mean you'll reread The Romance of the Rose or "The Cask of Amontillado" half thinking it might engender a story of your own? Or do you continually tell yourself you're just reading?
A. It may be that I'm deluding myself, but I never have the sense of looking for inspiration in my lustful, wildly irresponsible reading. What I'm looking for, I think, is pleasure so extreme that it ought to be forbidden by law. As for the engendering of stories: that, for me, is a mystery I don't pretend to understand. I not only don't know what gives me the idea for a story, I don't even know whether it's proper to say that what comes to me is something that might be described as an "idea." It's more like a feeling, vague at first, that becomes sharper over time and expresses itself after a while in images and then in oppositions that might develop into protodramas. A murky business, at best. But once a story starts taking shape in my mind, if that's where it takes place -- I think it takes place all over my body -- then it's fed by everything in my experience that can feed it. And part of my experience is a mile-high mass of books, which I sometimes draw on deliberately to create certain effects. I'm reluctant to talk directly about my work, for fear of harming it with deadly explanations that I'm bound to regret, but let me try just a little. When I wrote Edwin Mullhouse, I made use of a number of models, such as Leon Edel's five-volume biography of Henry James, Nabokov's Pale Fire and Mann's Doctor Faustus. But to say that any of those books somehow engendered my own would be, I think, false. My book came from something deeper, more personal, more intimate, more ungraspable, more obscure than other people's books, though at the same time it was pleased to make use of those books in order to become itself, in order to give birth to itself. Books as midwives -- maybe that's what I mean.
Q. Books as midwives makes sense. But when asking about how much your reading engendered in you, I didn't so much mean ideas as feelings: so much of your fiction seems to come from deeply personal responses to already-created worlds, to previous stories: Tristan and Isolde's, or Don Juan's, to cite the most recent examples. Is that another way of maintaining what you called that discipline of distance?
A. It's true that I sometimes make deliberate use of existing stories, though it's also true that I very often don't. Insofar as I do, it is, yes, one way of maintaining a necessary distance, for the paradoxical sake of closeness. But I think something else is also at work. When I make use of an existing story, I take pleasure in participating in something beyond myself that is much greater than myself, and equal pleasure in striking a variation. I take pleasure, you might say, in acknowledging the past and then sharply departing from it. And there is something to be said for releasing oneself from the obligations of relentless novelty; a certain kind of insistent originality is nothing but the attempt of mediocrity to appear interesting to itself.
Q. Given your delight in wonders and your interest in the forbidden, does it surprise you that you haven't taken an even greater interest in monsters? The Lernean Hydra shows up in Don Juan, for example, but it's a special effect in a theme park.
A. Legitimate, bona fide monsters do in fact make occasional appearances in my work, but what interests me is something quite different. What interests me -- not exclusively, but in relation to the monstrous -- is the place where the familiar begins to turn strange. When things cease to be themselves, when they begin to turn into something else, which has no name -- that is a region I'm always drawn to. This, I think, accounts for my interest in night scenes, in childhood, in bands of prowling adolescent girls, in underground and attic places, in obsession, in heightened states of awareness. In this sense, it might easily be argued that the wondrous and the monstrous are very much the same. My plan for Mr. Juan was to estrange him from his familiar world of loveless conquest and lead him toward the terrifying world of genuine feeling.
Q. Jeffrey Eugenides has remarked that his generation of writers grew up backwards: weaned on modernism and fabulism and then working their way back to the great nineteenth-century masters of realism. Was your experience anything like that?
A. Not at all. Or rather, not exactly, and therefore not at all.
What troubles me about such a formulation is that it seems to imply a dismissal of modernism and fabulism -- those decadent, questionable pastimes -- and a retreat, with a great sigh of relief, into the arms of dear old realism. But the great modernists, including Kafka, are all supremely gifted masters of realism. To experience the modernists -- I'm speaking specifically of Joyce, Kafka, Mann and Proust, though it applies to lesser figures like Musil and Gide and Woolf -- is to experience the shock of realism, along with the shock of what undermines it or transcends it. To work your way back to the great nineteenth-century masters of realism from the astonishing heights of twentieth-century modernism is to experience a past that, however noble and admirable it may be, has already been questioned and challenged and, as I see it, vitally transformed.
As for me, I revere the great realist masters and am drowned in their work. I turn to Chekhov and the maligned but superb Maupassant far more than I turn to Kafka and Bruno Schulz. But I read them, always, with the sense that they brilliantly exhausted a method, a way of looking at the world, and that another way must be found. I read them, in short, as they were read by the very writers who directly inherited their work and turned it into something boldly new. The problem, as I see it, isn't to choose between two opposed methods -- the method of nineteenth-century realism, on the one hand, and the method, as if there were one, of modernism/fabulism on the other -- but to write something that pays homage to whatever in the past is richest and most alive, while it sets forth on its own wayward journey.
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