THE BARNUM MUSEUM: Stories by Steven Millhauser
Kirkus Star


Email this review


If Millhauser's last novel, the overly long From the Realm of Morpheus (1986), was somewhat self-indulgent, then this new collection of ten intoxicating stories restores him to the more accessible scale of his last marvelous collection, In the Penny Arcade (1985). Millhauser's concerns remain heady--his literate narratives are often allusive, dreamlike homages to his masters. ""Alice, Falling,"" a full account of her descent into the rabbit hole, adds to our understanding of Carroll's masterpiece. Likewise, ""Klassik Komix #1,"" a comic-book version of ""The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock""--described panel by panel--interprets the poem cleverly as it comments upon the relation between high and low culture. And in ""The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad,"" Millhauser--a high modernist Scheherazade--provides scholarly commentary to his extra voyage, which Sinbad, now in his anecdotage, makes up from the previous seven. The world of illusion, along with the illusory nature of the world, continues to fuel Millhauser's hyper-imagination. Some pieces sacrifice story for thick description: ""The Barnum Museum"" is a detailed guided-tour of this many-roomed monument to the ""monstrous and fantastic""--a place that fully explores the uses (and abuses) of enchantment. Other magic here happens on a more human scale: In ""Behind the Blue Curtain,"" a boy on his first trip alone to the movies wanders behind the screen and finds endless rooms full of transparent actors; and in ""Rain,"" a man caught in a torrential downpour is literally washed away into a colorless smudge. The two longest stories, which frame the collection, are among the most dazzling: ""A Game of Clue"" juxtaposes a domestic scene of game-playing with the world that exists within the game of ""Clue"" itself--a tale of passion and desire, wholly imagined by Millhauser, that emotionally parallels the main story but ends when the board is folded. ""Eisenheim the Illusionist"" is a narrative portrait--a genre at which Millhauser excels--of a master magician from the late 19th century who ends his career with a dramatic trick suggesting that he himself was a mere illusion. Like the museum in the title, Millhauser ""elude[s] the mundane"" in order ""to achieve the beauty and exaltation"" of his most ""daring displays""--fictions that inspire awe.

Pub Date: June 13th, 1990
Publisher: Poseidon/Simon & Schuster