THE BARNUM MUSEUM
By Steven Millhauser
Poseidon Press. 237 pp. $18.95
A storyteller's most important gift is an ability to enchant the reader. There are lots of ways of doing this -- an exciting plot, a charming style, a distinctive world view -- but all of them serve one end: to create "a waking dream" that will keep us turning the pages. A book fails when its spell is broken. Then we find ourselves picking holes in the plot, being irritated by stylistic tics and getting bored with the author's obsessions.
The best writers tread gingerly between enchantment and irritation. They push their techniques to the limit -- and sometimes beyond it. "Ulysses" bedazzles, "Finnegans Wake" bedevils. Even the most addicted Proustian sometimes wants to scream: "Marcel, just go to sleep already."
Ultimately this means that one must approach any book in the right spirit, must be sympathetically in tune to its particular magic.
Like many readers, I find Steven Millhauser irresistible, even while recognizing, grudgingly, that for others the stories in "The Barnum Museum" may possess an artificiality that makes them seem abstract or even lifeless.
Millhauser is a prose poet, a creator of artifacts of the imagination, and as such is not the author for anyone looking for red-blooded American action. Very little of consequence happens in his tales; most are simply descriptions of the marvelous. "Alice, Falling" relates Alice's thoughts while tumbling down the rabbit hole toward Wonderland. "A Game of Clue" imagines that Miss Scarlet, Colonel Mustard and Professor Plum are actually alive, gradually contrasting their amorous entanglements and philosophic misunderstandings with the confused personal relations among four young game players. "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad" interweaves three story lines: a portrait of Sinbad in retirement in his garden, an account of his fabulous, hitherto untold eighth voyage, and a brief history of scholarship about "The Arabian Nights."
All this may sound like just another twee trip down post-modernism's memory lane. Didn't Borges and Nabokov, Barth and Calvino mine all the gold out of this vein? Well, judge for yourself. Here is the opening sentence to "Eisenheim the Illusionist": "In the last years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire of the Hapsburgs was nearing the end of its long dissolution, the art of magic flourished as never before." If you can close "The Barnum Museum" at this point, then Millhauser is not for you. Some of us, though, could no more stop breathing than stop reading.
Illusion and reality, the power of the imagination, the nature of storytelling, childhood wonders, a yearning for romantic adventure, a taste for the erotic and slightly perverse -- these are Millhauser's fictive obsessions. They are supported by a supple low-key style, one that blends a fanatical particularization with a peculiar wistfulness. "A solitary passerby, walking on the gravel at the side of the road, sees, through branches of Scotch pine and the exposed portion of the screens, the four players in their island of light, distinguishes a woman's bending shoulder, a white upper arm, a tumble of dark thick hair, and feels a yearning so deep that he wants to cry out in anguish, though in fact he continues steadily, even cheerfully, on his way." There is also humor, perhaps even the soft pressure of autobiography: "One evening in the winter of senior year I placed my right hand on the bare upper thigh beneath the charcoal-gray skirt of Carol Edmondston. She looked thoughtful, as if she were trying to remember an address."
Millhauser's flair for description reaches its zenith in his catalogues of wonders. "Cathay" -- part of his previous story collection "In the Penny Arcade" -- simply listed the marvels of the ancient Chinese royal court, including concubines so dazzling that a glimpse of their beauty would leave a man broken-spirited for life, racked by unappeasable longing. In this new book he relates the similar enchantments to be found in "The Barnum Museum," a labyrinthine building that houses attractions far stranger than any in "The Circus of Dr. Lao." Merely consider some of the items available in the gift shop:
"Mysterious rubber balls from Arabia that bounce once and remain suspended in the air ... boxes of animate paint for drawing pictures that move, lacquered wooden balls from the Black Forest that, once set rolling, never come to a stop, bottles of colorless jellylike stuff that will assume the shape and color of any object it is set before, shiny red boxes that vanish in direct sunlight ... storybooks from Finland with tissue-paper-covered illustrations that change each time the paper is lifted, tin sets of specially treated watercolors for painting pictures on air."
Luscious as such lists are, they can cloy after a while, and it is wise to portion out slowly the 10 stories in "The Barnum Museum." This is, after all, fine writing, prose that quietly struts its hour upon the page.
Once it seemed that Millhauser might develop into a superb realistic novelist: His much-acclaimed first book, "Edwin Mullhouse," brilliantly evoked an American childhood in the 1950s, down to Roadmaster bicycles and the particular grit on blacktopped playgrounds. Yet that novel's form -- an authorized literary biography, only this time the famous writer is an 11-year-old boy and the biographer his best friend -- already showed Millhauser's playfulness, skill at linguistic mimicry and fascination with formal experiment. All three of these reached their ne plus ultra in a group of bawdy wonder stories, marketed as a novel, called "From the Realm of Morpheus." Much of that book was written in a lip-smacking pseudo-Elizabethan lingo of immense gusto, and should be a standout on the shelf of anyone who admires sentences that swagger, sashay and generally show off. But even here readers will disagree: One man's earthy is another man's musty.
"The Barnum Museum" doesn't display any of the previous book's Falstaffian heartiness; the sentences are of a Cartesian clarity, even when the action reaches its most delightfully far-fetched (a retelling of T.S. Eliot's "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" as "Klassik Komix No. 1"). Think of these stories as literary fairy tales, lost chapters from "The Arabian Nights," the further ghost stories of an antiquary, the slightly etiolated blooms of a late romantic imagination. Steven Millhauser is, all in all, a wonderfully appropriate writer for our very own fin de sie`cle.
The reviewer is a writer and editor for The Washington Post Book World.