Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

Steven Millhauser, Author
Steven Millhauser, Author Crown Publishers $24 (0p) ISBN 978-0-517-70319-9
Reviewed on: 04/01/1996
Release date: 04/01/1996
Paperback - 304 pages - 978-0-679-78127-1
Hardcover - 978-0-517-43428-4
Downloadable Audio - 978-1-4498-7767-5
Paperback - 272 pages - 978-84-92663-45-3
Open Ebook - 147 pages - 978-0-307-76386-0
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Literature's romance with the building-as-metaphor earns new energy through Millhauser's latest novel (after Little Kingdoms, 1993), which quietly chronicles the life of an entrepreneur whose career peaks when he builds a fabulous hotel in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Beginning with his first jobs-in his father's cigar shop and as a bellhop-young Martin's rise is fueled by a happy blend of pragmatism and imagination. Both inform the design of the cafes and hotels he builds as an adult, though the latter seems to gain sway in the construction of his magnum opus, the Grand Cosmo. Within the rusticated walls of that grand hotel, one floor's elevators open onto ""a densely wooded countryside"" dotted with cottages; another floor simulates a rugged mountainside, featuring ""caves"" furnished with beds, plumbing and ""refrigerated air."" For recreation, guests can wander in the artificial moonlight of the Pleasure Park or visit the Temple of Poesy, where young women in Green tunics will recite poetry, 24 hours a day. Such amenities speak of Dressler's view of the hotel as ""a world within the world, rivaling the world."" In deliberate contrast stands Millhauser's cooler evocation of his protagonist's private life. The magnate's genial sister-in-law works for him, while the troubles of his neurasthenic wife-""his sister's sister, his tense, languous, floating, ungraspable bride""-reflect his increasingly manic, untethered imaginings. Millhauser's characteristic fascination with the material artifacts of the vanished past-and the startling deftness with which he can describe the street, the carnival, the hotel that never existed-marks him as a cultural historian as well as an idiosyncratic fabulist. Taking its place alongside other fine tales of architectural symbology, from Poe to Borges to Ayn Rand, this enticing novel becomes at once the tale of a life, a marriage and a creative imagination in crisis. (Apr.)
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