Sunday, September 16, 2007

Steven Millhauser/LITTLE KINGDOMS


A very good friend sent me Little Kingdoms as an unexpected thank-you gift for my having given her my copy of Millhauser's In the Barnum Museum, which she couln't find anywhere. I've become fascinated by collage stories, and one of the three novellas in this volume is a good example of one, "Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)." This is the story of Moorash and his relationship with three other people--his wife and another couple, their best friends--structured as a retrospective exhibition of the artist's paintings after all the characters have died. The story is in the form of an exhibition catalogue in which the paintings are described in chronological order and related to the events of the artist's (and sometimes the subject's) life. The tone of the paintings becomes more somber over time, paralleling the progressive darkening of the story. My friend was dissatisfied with the ending, calling it "purple," but I think it works very well as the inevitable conclusion to this gloomy tale. The other two novellas are also good reading. "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" is the story of an early 20th century cartoonist who becomes obsessed with making animated films, and in "The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon," the collective voice of a town tells the tale of the castle that looms above it, using the traditional elements of the fairy tale. All three novellas explore how various forms of art influence and determine the way we look at our lives, and the (sometimes fabulous) stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.

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