IN THE PENNY ARCADE by Steven Millhauser


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Adolescence and miniaturization go hand in hand in Millhauser's work, in these stories as well as in his two novels, Edwin Mullhouse (1972) and Portrait of a Romantic (1977). There isn't much else that Millhauser is interested in talking about; and in this collection, with the exception of a brocaded story that spends a lot of time describing quite richly an upstate New York mountain hotel, the potential for exhaustion of this double theme becomes all too apparent. In ""August Eschenburg,"" a German toy-making prodigy around the turn of the century finds himself swept up in the popular yen for kitsch and vulgarity; his staggeringly lifelike automatons tend ever closer to the pornographic--until he rebels. The title piece--a boy's glimpse at what a shabby penny-arcade once might have been, when nourished by the belief in illusion--operates on the same track; as does ""Snowmen,"" children's imagination and creativity running amok during a heavy snowfall, leading to fantastic snow structures. In ""Cathay"" (which in a sense--because it's a set of miniatures--is the most candid, representative story here), Millhauser sets his goal out plain: "". . .paradoxes of transparent concealment and opaque revelation."" This self-absorbed (and congratulatory) fastidiousness is everything here; and undoubtedly it's a part of adolescence and late childhood. But Millhauser's rage to recapitulate it endlessly, in thinner and thinner forms, seems tedious and shallow. Elaborate but arrested work, only for the very few.

Pub Date: Jan. 6th, 1985
ISBN: 1564781828
Publisher: Knopf