Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser
It's a long time since we held the discussion of this book, Jenny's choice, and in the meantime my head has been stuffed with
my WIP (I've been a long way away, psychologically), so my memory of it is rather hazy.
The book, first published in 1997, winner of a Pullitzer prize, and more recently brought back to attention, is a kind of fable
set in New York at the end of the 19th century, when a frenzy of building development was spreading upwards and outwards to create
the metropolis we know. It concerns the son of a tobacconist who from humble beginnings as a hotel clerk becomes an entrepreneur,
developing first a series of coffee bars and then moving into the business of building hotels, each successive one larger, more luxurious,
and finally more fantastical than the last.
We all liked the book, I think, though as far as I remember Hans wasn't so sure about the unusual tension in the book between
realism and non-realism. The book begins in the mode of a fairytale, using fairytale idiom and summing up the whole story to follow:
'There once lived a man named Martin Dressler, a shopkeeper's son, who rose from modest beginnings to a height of dreamlike good
fortune.' There's also a surreal episode near the beginning in which, before he becomes a clerk, Martin is taken to the top floor of the
hotel and witnesses strange scenes amongst a troupe of actors staying there. However, the novel then quickly moves into a realist mode,
with a measured, slightly old-fashioned prose very suited to the era portrayed, and a plethora of fascinating (and clearly deeply
researched) historical details (which everyone loved). However, embedded within this realism is the motor of the novel:
Martin Dressler's own psychic development from inspired but realist business sense to ambition, dreams, and finally fantasies
that overreach themselves. As a result the novel ends in surreality, with Martin's final hotel a place that could not possibly
exist in reality, with whole replicated worlds encompassed on its endless floors, including features such as real boating lakes.
Personally, I like this narrative tension a lot as a statement of the disastrous lack of realism at the heart of so many real-life
capitalist projects, and indeed of our capitalist mentality and society, and Trevor in particular wholeheartedly agreed. There was
some discussion as to how far in any case the ending of the book was a fantasy, those who had been to LA saying that projects
there equal Martin's in their reliance on fantasy if not in impossible physicality.
Everyone was very taken with the ending, in which, recalling the early surreal scene involving actors, once Martin's final dream
hotel is failing he employs actors to act as guests. In order to do so, they (for a time) become real-life inhabitants, the fantasy thus
melding into reality. Finally, Martin walks by the river 'woken from his dream of stone', but unbowed, because it wasn't the particular
dream that was important, but the dream impulse itself. In other words, realism can't win: the capitalist fantasy won't die.
Introducing the book, Jenny found central Martin's relationship with the two sisters he meets in a hotel where he lives before
starting his own: he marries the dreamy but cool and ungiving Caroline, but takes into his confidence and business the lively and
practical and less good-looking Emmeline. Jenny saw this as a depiction of the cultural (sexist) paradox in which women are required
to fulfil incompatible male fantasies and be both beautifully fey and yet practical. I saw the two women (and his relations with them)
rather as personifications of Martin's own psychic paradox - his initial practicality, and the dreaminess that overtakes it and leads
to his downfall.
There was comment on the fact that there is a lot of repetition - especially in the depiction of these two women and their chaperoning
mother. One early description of Caroline - '...her pale hair pulled tightly back, so that it seemed to pull painfully against the skin of her
temples' - is repeated several times. This is another rhetorical and rhythmic fairytale technique, and Ann pointed to the similarity with
Homer's repetition of 'the wine-dark sea', noting that it was a kind of labelling or signalling (of themes, tropes etc). A labelling technique
seems indeed apt for the Victorian setting. However the repetitions here weren't exactly snappy, yet were repeated verbatim and so
didn't work for several members of our group. Some people indeed found the book on the whole very wordy, though I hadn't found it
unaptly so myself, and they did concede that the prose style was very suited to the era of the story.
Finally, Jenny and Clare both expressed appreciation of the fact that, in spite of this, the novel is composed of (more modernist)
short sections, which made it easier to read in the short bursts occasioned by modern life. All in all, we thought it an excellent and
engaging allegory of the capitalist urge, and thus indeed of present-day society.
The Butcher Boy by Patrick McCabe
John suggested this novel set in an Irish border town in the early 60s, which begins, 'When I was a young lad twenty
or thirty or forty years ago...' Thus Francie Brady establishes himself as a severely unreliable narrator before embarking on
a tale of the small-town ostracisation of his family for the drunkenness of his father Benny and the unstable mental state
of his mother and the resulting squalor of their life, and his own reaction and resistance to the ostracisation, which ends
in horrific violence and incarceration.
John said there were various questions that could be asked about this book. Is it a depiction of how to create a psychopath,
or is it more simply a portrayal of the brutal lives that some people still led in Ireland in the early 60s? Or is it an exploration of the
effects of English colonisation of Ireland and of Anglo-American culture on Irish small-town life? Francie's main enemies, the Nugents,
are strongly anglicised: they have lived in England and their son Phillip once attended an English private school, turning up at first in
his pristine uniform which marks him out as different, superior and privileged. Along with the Purcells, the parents of Francie's friend
Joe, they aspire to an English middle-class lifestyle, with over-neat houses and dinner parties. The trouble between Francie and the
Nugents begins when Mrs Nugent calls Francie's family pigs, a historic English insult for the Irish.
I said that I thought the book was about Irish identity and the ambivalence and confusion of realities created by the imposition
of English culture on an older, more rural Ireland, and I thought it therefore significant that the novel is set in a southern Irish town
near the border with Northern Ireland. Francie permanently longs for a lost past located in old-fashioned romantic love and family
and preserved in his mother's romanticised tales of his parents' honeymoon - tales which will turn out to contrast starkly with the
reality - and struggles always, in spite of the reality, to regard himself and his parents in this light. Yet he is deeply colonised
by Anglo-American culture. His mental landscape is peopled by characters from English comics and American films, and his acts
of transgression and violence do indeed have a horrifically comic-book character. It is significant that the anglicised Phillip Nugent
is the possessor of a large collection of such comics, all of them preserved in a pristine state, which Francie envies and tricks out
of him, the act which precipitates all the trouble between himself and the Nugents. His aggression towards the Nugents is clearly
based in part in envy: he has unbidden and ambivalent fantasies in which they tell him they know he wants to belong to them
and in which, to his disgust, Mrs Nugent breastfeeds him. He shares in the small-town admiration of his Uncle Alo, who has left
for England and is supposed to have done so well there, and the unmasking of Alo is one of the precipitating factors in Francie's
downward spiral. He has his own snobbery about traditional country people. He notes that 'a tractor went farting off home to the
mountains with a trailer of muck', a derisory image contrasting sharply with a similar but romanticised image of 'an ass and cart
going off into the green mountains', by which Francie is seduced, on the cover of Phillip Nugent's music book, nostalgically
titled Emerald Gems of Ireland. It is significant too that it is Phillip, identified with appropriating colonisers, who,
while possessing a library of Anglo-American comic culture, is also the possessor of this repository of Irish traditional ballads,
including the one that Francie poignantly identifies with his mother. Francie holds particular scorn for Mrs Nugent's
country-living brother, 'carrot-head Buttsy ... in a cottage that stank of turfsmoke and horsedung'. Buttsy's violent and
uncouth pursuit of Francie gives the lie to the civilisation of the Nugents, the ambiguity of which is already established
in their having to have returned to Ireland - a failure paralleling that of Francie's Uncle Alo. Yet the hypocrisies of the new
society are more than matched by those of the older Ireland, so widely romanticised yet a seat of devastating damage:
the damage to Francie's family is rooted in the trauma of his father's childhood in a Catholic Belfast orphanage, a pattern
that will be repeated when Francie is sent in turn to a children's home and is interfered with by a priest.
All of this ambiguity is carried by the fact that Francie constantly slips into immature fantasies which in the end he turns into
horrific reality. It is a shock to the reader to realise, when he returns from the reform school wanting to take up again his childish
games with Joe, that Joe has gone on to secondary school and has outgrown such things, and to register Francie's arrested development
- signalled in the opening 'When I was a lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago' (which also prefigures the book's theme of
confused history). I saw Francie's immaturity as representing the infantilisation of a people by both colonisation and religion, and it
was noted in the group that Francie's name for his abuser in the reform school is 'Tiddly', neatly encapsulating the immaturity of
a (historically all-powerful) Catholic priesthood.
After John's first question, Jenny had jumped in and said strongly that she didn't think that Francie is a psychopath -
she thought that his behaviour is induced by circumstances and the way he is treated - and indeed his nostalgic longings and
attachment to natural beauty, such as the single snowdrop that grows in the alleyway, militate against such an interpretation. However
it was clear that Jenny had read the book as a psychological study. Others, in particular Clare, subscribed to this reading, and I agreed
that the book did work beautifully on a psychological level as well as the political. Everyone agreed that the voice was exceptionally
acute, that the book was in fact a tour de force of voice and prose style.
One question of John's that we didn't perhaps explore in enough depth was that of Francie's verbal charm, which he uses to
manipulate people. Group members felt that the idea that he charms them is just another of Francie's fantasies, and that in reality
they patronise or are frightened of him. I feel it's more complicated than that, but was unable to articulate why in the meeting. Francie's
verbal wit is indeed quaint and acute. He comes upon some gossipy housewives in the grocery store: 'What's this? I says, the woman
with three heads? When I said that they weren't so bad. Flick - back come the smiles.' I thought there was an implication that people
were indeed momentarily disarmed by him, creating a cognitive dissonance (for both the characters and the reader) which in itself
induces fear in others. In other words, Francie uses quaint Irish charm as a threatening weapon against his oppressors.
John said that when he first read the book, several years ago, he was indeed charmed and saw Francie's actions as schoolboy
pranks until they turn horrifically violent, a view that is reflected in reviews of the time. This time, he said, knowing the ending,
he found all of it much more horrific.
Trevor noted that, unusually for Irish Catholics, none of the families, even the Bradys, has more than one child, and it was
agreed that this is because this is not a social-realist novel, but one in which each character is some kind of representation.>
Doug said that he was very impressed by the novel, but he could hardly say he enjoyed it as he found it so horrific,
a view that was shared - interestingly enough, particularly among the men.
Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton
Warning: plot spoil.
This 1941 novel, Trevor's suggestion, features thirty-four-year-old George Harvey Bone who is in the grip of an infatuation with
Netta Longdon, an out-of-work minor actress at the centre of a group of idlers who hang around London's Earl's Court all day drinking,
or indeed, blagging drinks from others, chiefly from George. The novel opens, however, when George, staying with his aunt
on the Norfolk coast for Christmas, suffers one of the mental lapses to which he is increasingly prone, in which he momentarily
forgets where he is and is then overtaken by a purpose which at other times he entirely forgets: to kill Netta. Netta and her cohorts
treat George cruelly, blatantly and even tauntingly using his infatuation with her to exploit him and going so far as to trick him, but so
great is his obsession with her that in his 'sane' moments, he entirely forgets his desire to kill her and once more simply longs to be
admitted into her affections.
Introducing the book, Trevor said he had found it hard to get to grips with these mental shifts, by which I think he meant he
couldn't understand them on a psychological level. Although there is some implication that they are fuelled, or at least exacerbated,
by excessive drinking, the book is epigraphed with a now outdated definition of schizophrenia: SCHIZOPHRENIA: A cleavage of the
mental functions, associated with assumption by the affected person of a second personality. However, George's lapses are in fact
more akin to what we might now call a fugue state, a state of forgetting, dissociation and escape. It also seemed to some so very
alien to George's somewhat passive and put-upon character that he should have such an impulse in even a dissociated state.
I said however that I didn't think this was meant to be a psychologically realist novel, and Ann agreed, saying that the mental
shifts were more of a device, used in my view for a political rather than a psychological purpose. The novel begins very explicitly
and indeed self-consciously at the start of 1939 and the run-up to war. As he walks the Norfolk cliff, George wonders when he
should kill Netta: 'January the first? That seemed a good idea - starting the New Year - 1939.' Netta and the group around her
approve of the Munich appeasement which troubles George; Netta is attracted to fascism for all the most decadent reasons:
She was supposed to dislike fascism, to laugh at it, but actually she liked it enormously. In secret she liked pictures of
marching, regimented men, in secret she was physically attracted by Hitler. She did not really think that Mussolini looked like
a funny burglar. She liked the uniform, the guns, the breeches, the boots, the swastikas, the shirts. She was, probably, sexually
stimulated by these things in the same way as she might have been sexually stimulated by a bull-fight
and the unpleasant Peter, with whom George is devastated to find Netta is sexually involved, and who has been in jail, once for
what he calls 'a minor spot of homicide with a motor-car', (and whose brutality is another source of attraction for Netta) is a Nazi
sympathiser, if not an out-and-out Moseleyite.
In my view George's obsession with Netta, mired in the unthinking alcohol-soaked stasis of an idle life, is intended to stand for
the dreamlike British psyche in the run-up to the war; it is George's fugue-like states which are the true sanity: the moments in which
he sees evil for what it is and recognises that it must be destroyed, however contrary that runs to his nature.
Ann said she felt there was also a class theme operating. Netta and Peter and co are social climbers and they tolerate George
not simply for what they can get out of him materially, but for the association with the kind of background including a minor
public school education that is George's. Indeed, in discussing Netta's attraction to fascism, the narration comments: 'And somehow she was dimly
aware of the class content of all this: she connected it with her own secret social aspirations'. John noted the similarity in atmosphere
and situation to that of Jean Rhys's Voyage in the Dark, published seven years earlier and which we discussed previously
: a book set in a similar alcohol-soaked social milieu in the
run up to the earlier war, with a similar sense of social breakdown and uncertain future - though, as we all noted, Rhys's book is
much more psychologically internal (and thus to my mind more modern).
Jenny said she had read this book more simply, as a depiction of a man manipulated by cruel people and unable to withstand
them due to his amenable nature, and had found it very moving indeed. Everyone agreed that the book did work powerfully on that
level, but whether this mix of modes works is perhaps questionable. Because George's character and emotional state are so richly
portrayed, I found it difficult to believe that he would ever kill Netta. Others reported being very engaged by the question of whether
he would, and the tension created as the narration led towards the possibility. John had said he thought the 'schizophrenia' device was
a clever way of engaging your sympathies with him when he finally does so, but people experienced surprise, even shock, while some,
including me, rather lost sympathy with George at this point - or rather, I found myself jerked out of the emotional engagement
induced by the psychological realism and forced back to the detachment created by a more political allegory.
On the whole, I think people found the book thus slightly problematic, but everyone was agreed that it is a striking book,
steeped in atmosphere and social-historical details that everyone relished, and rendered in acute prose beautifully exemplified
in this description of Peter from George's point of view: 'And he laughed in his nasty, moustachy way.'
The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald
Warning: plot spoil.
This short 1978 novel, set in 1959-60, about a widow who opens a bookshop in the fictional East Anglian seaside town of
Hardborough where she has lived for the past eight years, and the obstructions she encounters from the local population, was greatly
admired by most in our group. Mark said he had suggested the book because when he read it some years ago he was stunned by the
economy and elegance of the prose (for which Fitzgerald is so known) - an admiration shared by everyone else in the group - although,
he said, he wasn't sure what it was about.
He was probably going to go on to elaborate on this, but I jumped in and said, surely it's about small-town politics and the kind
of fascistic pressure that can be brought to bear in such small communities on those who don't conform to the wishes of those with
power. Frances Green wants to buy The Old House, a house on the foreshore with its own (damp) warehouse, a former oyster house,
for her bookshop. However, Mrs Gamart, wife of a retired general, has plans for the place as an Arts Centre - a bid to situate herself
at the cultural centre of Hardborough (and in the process inveigle herself with the remaining representative of the old gentry,
Mr Brundish, by whom she has so far been ignored). Mrs Gamart gets straight to work on Frances by inviting her to a soiree.
However, Frances, unaware at the start of such motives and machinations, and certainly unaware of where they must inevitably lead,
is undeterred and goes ahead with her bookshop, only to encounter obstructions so underhand that they can hardly be named,
with even her own solicitor party to the social pressure against her, so that in the end she is undone. Ann said that the book is thus
about the impossibility for an outsider of negotiating the unspoken rules of such a community (although Frances has been there
eight years, she is in effect a blow-in). John commented that the plot indeed amounts to a witch hunt conducted on the most
Mark, Trevor, Clare and Jenny raved unreservedly about the book, in particular its depiction of the subtlety of the viciousness
deployed against Frances. The stunning opening image, symbolic of the tussle between that viciousness and Frances's oblivion and
determination was remarked on:
She had once seen a heron flying across the estuary and trying, while it was on the wing, to swallow an eel which it had caught.
The eel, in turn, was struggling to escape from the gullet of the heron and appeared a quarter, a half, or occasionally three-quarters
of the way out. The indecision expressed by both creatures was pitiable. They had taken on too much.
Later, the narrative will comment about Frances: 'She blinded herself, in short, by pretending for a while that human beings are not
divided into exterminators and exterminatees, with the former, at any given moment, predominating.'
We all thought that the descriptions of the environs were evocative, and beautifully symbolic of the forces surrounding Frances
and the sadness of her fate:
The North Sea emitted a brutal salt smell, at once clean and rotten. The tide was running out fast, pausing at the submerged rocks
and spreading into yellowish foam, as though deliberating what to throw up next or leave behind, how many wrecks of ships and men,
how many plastic bottles.
There was some dispute about Frances's character. Clare saw her chiefly as ingenuous, and someone pointed in corroboration
to the early description of her: 'She was in appearance small, wispy and wiry, somewhat insignificant from the front view and totally
so from the back.' However, that early description is only - and no doubt narratorially deliberately only - of her outward appearance.
Others of us countered that she was feisty, in the early pages hanging on to a horse's tongue while its teeth are filed and later
responding to her solicitor who is failing to back her with a single-word letter: 'Coward!' In fact ingenuousness and feistiness are not
mutually exclusive; it is indeed that combination in Frances that is central to the plot. It is interesting, though, that we had this
dispute, and it is is perhaps relevant to subsequent points we discussed.
I said that although I found the prose elegant and the observations of people acute, I did actually find the narration emotionally
flat, with which Doug, Ann and John agreed. Doug said he suspected it was imbued with the psyche of the author, whose life was
indeed hard, the events of this novel echoing an episode of her own. Clare said that on the contrary she saw the tone of the prose
as a reflection of the state of mind of protagonist Frances. However, as had been pointed out, Frances's psyche is fundamentally feisty,
and I said that even if it weren't, then there's no need for the prose itself to be affectively flat, since the novel is a third-person
We four felt that the flatness of the prose didn't do justice to the viciousness of the situation being depicted, but the others
countered that it was precisely this contrast that made the viciousness so telling, and this was a strong disagreement in the group.
I said too that I felt that the characters were stereotypes, and once again Doug, Ann and John agreed, John strongly so.
I was conceding to the rest that in such small towns in the fifties and sixties there were stereotypes - the retired general, his
social-climbing wife, the ageing representative of old money, the louche commuting BBC employee, the more salt-of-the earth
working-class characters, all of which appear here - when John made a point that perhaps explained some of our disagreements.
There is no interiority in the piece, he pointed out. Everyone, including Frances, is seen very much from the outside. At most
we are told what Frances's emotions are. The book, as Ann said, is in the narrative tradition of writers such as Trollope,
Edith Wharton and Barbara Pym, operating chiefly as social commentary rather than psychological exploration, and taking a
rational objective view of all of the characters including the main protagonist. We are not made, as we are in the more modern
literary mode of interiority, to share the protagonist's emotional experience, but have to take on trust the narrative judgement
The reader's way of apprehending her is thus in turn directed to be rational rather than experiential - which perhaps led to our
differing reasoning about Frances. With regard to the other characters: although I had conceded that people do in life act in
stereotype roles, it is also true that no one in life is truly a stereotype: there is always a complicating interiority. This novel
eschews that interiority, leaving its more peripheral characters perilously grounded in the shallows of stereotype.
An aspect of the book that almost everyone felt unsure about was the poltergeist that inhabits the Old House, the 'rapper' as it is
locally called. The locals take it for granted, which Frances herself does, and for a while after she moves in it seems to settle down
as a low-key presence, but then later becomes more obstructive, refusing to let her open her own door then letting go and sending
her flying, and making wild and vicious noises. Because this is such a realist novel, some of us in the group had wondered as we read
if the rapper were really the locals trying to hound Frances from the house, but as everyone agreed, no evidence whatever emerged
to suggest this. It seemed that we were meant to accept its presence as a fact and symbolic only of the social pressures on Frances,
initially subtle but finally overt.
Everyone agreed that the ending of the novel is stunning. Here the objective observational narrative mode works to brilliant effect,
formally enacting the exclusion of Frances as we watch her leave with an emotion she has been made unjustly to feel:
As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame...