Monday, December 29, 2008

Review: Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer

Martin Dressler left me cold.

Steven Millhauser generated a lot of hullabaloo with this book – and won the Pulitzer Prize – because it is something bigger than itself. No mere historical novel – it is “allegory,” “fable,” “myth.” But good allegories, fables, and myths also have conflict and drama. This book does not.

The story marches from the hero's childhood, through his early career years and successes as a young entrepreneur, to his “final downfall” as it says on the dust jacket. But this march follows a perfectly straight path. Martin is restless at his job; he moves to a better job. Martin is bored with his new job; he opens his new business. Martin is unsatisfied with his business, he expands it. He moves on to bigger and bigger enterprises until he moves on to one that is too big. Yes, hubris is his eventual downfall, but nothing trips him up on the way. He never faces any substantive opposition and never has a set back, until the very end.

What is missing is conflict (a key element of any drama) and character development. The characters, pretty flat to begin with, are all the same at the end of the book as they are at the beginning. Several reviews compared the novel favorably to Greek tragedies, but the characters in those classic tales had complex relationships, nothing but conflict, and learned lessons along the way.

Here, many characters drift in and then fade away without any further mention of them. Martin's parents, for example, never make an appearance in his adult life. His mother-in-law, who is a major character through the middle part of the book, disappears after he marries her daughter, who literally sleeps through their marriage. Not only do the characters not grow as individuals, every relationship Martin has with another character is static.

I did not think there was much to recommend the book, other than some marginally interesting descriptions of New York City at the turn of the Twentieth Century and the ever more elaborate attractions of Martin's hotels. It just didn’t do anything for me.


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