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LITTLE KINGDOMS by Steven Millhauser

LITTLE KINGDOMS

Three Novellas

By Steven Millhauser

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1993
ISBN: 0-671-86890-X
Publisher: Simon & Schuster

 These three ingenious novellas confirm Millhauser's status as a master fabulist--an author who displays a fantastic ability to describe in detail objects of his own invention: puppets, circuses, board games, and miniatures. Here, his greatest inventions are the comic strips and animated cartoons of J. Franklin Payne--in a portrait of an artist whose work recalls the career of Winsor McCay. Like McCay, Payne raises the level of popular ephemeral to high art. And Millhauser so effectively creates Payne's inner ``kingdom'' that we begin to see reality refracted through the artist's peculiar imagination. In the 20's, Payne begins as a midwestern comic-strip artist whose first series on a dime museum earns him a place on a major New York daily, where he contributes editorial cartoons as well. With his wife--a high-brow who never really accepts his art--and daughter, Payne sets up house north of the city, where he spends hours in his studio creating his first animated cartoons. His meticulous craftsmanship results in commercial success, but also the opprobrium of his employer. As Payne begins his masterpiece, he retreats further into his world of artifice, so that by close, reality and fantasy collapse. The ``The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon'' concerns an actual kingdom, though one that exists in no discernible time or place. It's a cubist re-creation of a Prince's ``moral fall'' after he gratuitously tests his wife's faithfulness. Full of desire and duplicity, the tale unfolds rather dryly, with a description of possible endings, all of which emphasize a sense of justice and concord. Last, a faux art catalog uses the descriptions of 26 paintings by Edmund Moorash to draw a portrait of a strange genius. In the early 19th-century, Moorash's dark visionary landscapes and portraits fail to equal the bizarre demise of the artist, his sister, and their best friends. There's nothing overly academic about Millhauser's fictional inventions--for every bit of cleverness, there's the art of true passion.