Mysteries flow from realm of the unreal

November 03, 1993|By Dan Cryer | Dan Cryer,Newsday

Steven Millhauser is an intrepid explorer of the unseen and the invisible. The titles of his recent books, "From the Realm of Morpheus" and "The Barnum Museum," reveal their creator's penchant for the fantastical and the bizarre. Surely the Roman god of dreams and the American impresario of spectacle are his soul mates, just as his literary models range from Edgar Allan Poe to Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

"Little Kingdoms: Three Novellas" is Mr. Millhauser's new book, and it follows this customary path. It demonstrates anew his wonderfully fluid storytelling and his fascination with the nature of art and the creative process.

In his probing of the mysteries of creativity, Mr. Millhauser himself is endlessly inventive. The novella about a cartoonist, "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne," is an unusually straightforward narrative for the writer, but he casts "The Princess, the Dwarf and the Dungeon" as a medieval fairy tale. As its title indicates, "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edward Moorash, 1810-1846" employs the format of the museum catalog and the language of 20th-century art history.

In each case, Mr. Millhauser emphasizes that art confined to "realism" or "naturalism" cannot begin to capture all of reality. "Is there not a risk that our art lacks mystery?" ask the collective narrators of Millhauser's fairy tale. "With their clear eyes, so skilled at catching the look of a piece of velvet rubbed against the grain, with their clear eyes that cannot see, how can our artists portray fleeting sensations, intuitions, all things that are dim and shadowy and shifting? How can the grasping hand grasp the ungraspable?"

J. Franklin Payne of the book's first novella produces editorial cartoons and cartoon strips for a 1920s New York newspaper. Whenever his strips edge too far out into the fantastical, his editor orders him back. Such is the power of Payne's art that it "threatened to carry him off in a hot-air balloon on a voyage from which he might never return."

Increasingly, Payne finds an outlet for his frustrated creativity in the new world of animated cartoons -- but at enormous cost. His first movie requires 12,324 painstakingly rendered drawings. Worse, he loses his wife to a flamboyant cartoonist-entrepreneur who had been his friend. Ever mindful of cinematic illusion, Payne conjures up a final scene for himself in which wife, friend, editor and parents join in thunderous applause for his art. This too, we know, is only make-believe.

The book's most powerful story is a species of make-believe both old-fashioned and postmodernist chic. A prince and princess live the most contented of lives until the arrival of a visiting nobleman stirs up the prince's latent jealousy. The prince demands that his wife sleep next to the visitor to test his good intentions, thereby setting in motion a self-fulfilling prophesy that will change things forever. The prince's adviser, a dwarf with a fine perception for psychological intricacies, acts as master of the intrigues.

This mesmerizing tale is told with a quiet grace, a paradoxically effective means for exposing the horror of self-inflicted suffering. Seamless in the telling, it gains power from being told by the townspeople across the river from the castle. Exaltation, devastation and revelation, they know, are essential to the human condition, necessary if sometimes painful balances against routine.

The most sophisticated of storytellers, these townspeople assert that "a story with a single ending seems to us a bare and diminished thing, like a tree with a single branch; and each

ending seems to us an expression of something that is buried deep within the tale."

The last novella portrays two couples in upstate 19th-century New York (each a brother and a sister) who manage to create in zTC their personal lives endless permutations of torment. Each man, a painter and an architect, proposes to his friend's sister; each woman rejects her suitor. Edmund Moorash, the painter, projects his personal tortures onto his canvases. Well ahead of their time, they succeed in their intent: "to disturb, to confound, to render uncertain." Again the cost of making art is high, ending in a grisly tableau of dead bodies.

Though Mr. Millhauser, too, succeeds in persuading us that he could be an art critic or historian if he chose, his novella is too wedded to its scholarly structure -- "If the sketch was in fact made on January 6, then the two figures were a late addition to the snow picture" -- to be very affecting, especially following the wonders of "The Princess, the Dwarf and the Dungeon."

Steven Millhauser has focused before on his aesthetic views, notably in "From the Realm of Morpheus." If he chose to expand his fictional subjects beyond this somewhat narrow, self-referential horizon, he could be a yet more persuasive champion of art that knows no boundaries.

Title: "Little Kingdoms: Three Novellas"

Author: Steven Millhauser

Publisher: Poseidon

-! Length, price: 239 pages, $21

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