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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

"Martin Dressler", building the fake empire

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer 
Steven Millhauser

Very hard book to rate. It made think of many other references, in particular to movies like "There Will Be Blood" (the raise of America), "Synecdoche, New York" (these actors at the end), of books like "The Tenants of Moonbloom" and in a very particular note, on a very good friend of mine, and one of my all-time favourite songs, The National's "Fake Empire" (obvious reasons). The problem is that, while I enjoyed watching/reading/hearing these works, I cannot say the same about "Martin Dressler".

My biggest "issue" with the book is how it is written. Steven Millhauser prose (at least in this novel) is focused in descriptions, where his pen becomes exuberant and profuse. Something that very few exceptions aside, I find annoying. Worse, there's the feeling descriptions keep increasing while you read, there's a sense of accumulation, which exhausted me. I don't need that never-ending catalogue of objects.

Which in all honesty, is a quite unfair comment to the book, because that obsession for the details reflected in the exhaustive descriptions are quite in order to show us the nature of Martin Dressler, the main character of the novel. Martin is a very peculiar character. He is like a child that seems capable of succeeding in everything that he desires... to the point of being obsessed.. until he gets it... and then he needs a new obsession. I can see Millhauser sees Martin not only as a very interesting character, but also as a metaphor of the times he lived (the end of 19th-century and the start of the new one) and a prophetic voice of the capitalist self-made man in America. The one that was capable of creating and living the American Dream.

Millhauser writes about Martin's success in an almost magical way. He clearly has the intention of creating a fable, but the lack of realism in the "superficial story" to me was a bit tricky, or better said, discouraging. Is that ambition? Is he a pioneer? An enterpreneur? Or a silly kid that gets easily bored? While I don't think a clear answer is needed, as keeping the mistery could be even more interesting than resolving it, in my opinion "Martin Dressler" doesn't make the "trip" addictive for the reader, as I believe the book works better on a philosophical level.

Another clear example, at least to me, is the apparition of his "emotional live" while he keeps getting richer. On a symbolic level is a pretty suggesting combination, deconstruction of what can someone find attractive in a women (there's three of them here) with the addition of the typical sexual awakening (whorehouse classic scene) and being seduced while he is married. Sure, Caroline, Margaret and Emmeline all represent different sides of woman of that times. But again, on what regards to the development of the story, their role is very boring and poorly resolved (the "shooting" chapter in particular).

I don't want to be too hard with "Martin Dressler" as I can easily see the amount of incentives this book might have for many readers. Its stimulating, conceptually very rich and profuse in imagery (loved the dichotomy of going underground while at the same time aspiring to go higher with their hotels). Sure, Martin works great as a paradigm of capitalism, but sorry again, that interpretation also works for the book itself. Its a paradigm of ambition, in terms of structure, style and scope. Like capitalism, this book is a voracious monster that finally ends swallowing itself.

SCORE: 4,5/10

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