Steven Millhauser displays his magic in “Little Kingdoms”

Note: Before I started reviewing on my own blog, I reviewed books on Now that it is ceasing to publish, I am moving my reviews to this site.

Steven Millhauser’s 1993 collection, Little Kingdoms, shows the author working in the modes and themes that are present in his better known novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, which one the Pulitzer prize in 1997. The three novellas in this collection all focus in some way in artistic creation. Only the final story is about an artist in the typical sense of the word, though the other stories are equally as focused on the creative act.

In the opening story, “The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne,” the title character is the author of newspaper comic strips who becomes interested in the nascent industry of animated cartoons. Though Payne does not work in the “fine arts,” he takes his art and craft seriously. He is a diligent worker who rises from a small-town cartoonist to one who works for one of New York’s biggest newspapers. His work ethic and creative artistry show up nowhere more clearly, though, then in his painstaking work on his animated films:

A week later [his daughter’s] fever vanished as mysteriously as it had come, and as Franklin worked long into the night, he wondered whether he had somehow drawn Stella’s fever into himself, where it flared up into images. The new animated cartoon or fever-vision was likely to be ten or even twelve minutes long, which meant ten thousand or twelve thousand separate drawings; and Franklin let himself sink into his night world with deep and secret joy (71).

Not unexpectedly, as Payne’s creativity draws him to work late into the night after full days at the office, his third-floor workroom becomes more than a quiet place to work. It becomes a symbol for how he has isolated himself, particularly from his wife. His “little kingdom” allows him to create even as the rest of his world seems–to the reader’s eyes–to fall apart. Yet in the end, it is hard not to see Franklin Payne as a success.

“The Princess, The Dwarf and the Dungeon,” is a fantasy-inspired tale that borrows its tone from medieval romances. The plot focuses on love, jealousy, and the struggle for power, but the main interest of the tale is in its meditation on how stories are made. The unnamed storyteller regularly digresses into other paths the story could take–or does take in other versions–and dicusses how the very choices create the story, perhaps even the history, he relates: “if our tales are known among the inhabitants of the castle, may it not come about that they begin to imitate … so that their lives gradually come to resemble the legendary lives we have imanged? To the extent that this is so, our dreams may be said to be our history” (170-71).

The final story is the most ambitious, even as it takes on the most typical example of artistic creation. “Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)” takes the form of a catalogue that comes with a major art exhibition at a museum. The entries of the paintings tell the story of Moorash’s art and his life, and introduce us to his sister and closest friends. The tale is one of disturbed artistic creations that are almost mystical in nature. Moorash would seem to be a master at hinting at deeper meanings through the vaguest of shapes in his paintings. For someone so subtle, though, he was unable to see as clearly in his personal dealings. The story revealed by his paintings show a man whose brief life was full of creativity but also of sadness and heartache.

While none of the novellas in Little Kingdoms is a masterpiece in itself, all of them show Millhauser working toward a mastery of craft that he was to attain in later novels.


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