Steven Millhauser – In the Reign of Harad IV

reignharad01Another fun story right in Millhauser’s wheelhouse.

The first sentence pretty much sums it up:

In the reign of Harad IV there lived at court a maker of miniatures, who was celebrated for the uncanny perfection of his work.

As with Thirteen Wives, it is somewhat predictable how the story will play out, but the journey is such fun that it doesn’t matter.

The unnamed Master is richly rewarded by the King.  In addition to 2 apprentices, he has a residence in the palace, and an ermine robe that entitles him to take part in official ceremonies.

For a toy palace, he had created a miniature orchard including a basket of apples which was no larger than a cherry pit.  Upon each apple was a delicate stem, and on one stem, a perfect tiny fly.  This achievement opened up a new world to him.  In his next carving, he was driven to reduce the entire basket to the size of a cherry pit, its contents still ornamented by stem and fly.

The tale of his “invisible” fly makes him even more renowned.  Special lenses were required for the creation and appreciation of his masterpieces.  Astounding as these were, the Master could tell that the King was ready for him to get back to more traditional works.  The Master, however, was committed to constructing a miniature of the entire toy palace — itself already miniature of the King’s home, standing chest-high — which would be so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.  Each of its 600 rooms would be precisely miniaturized, down to the silver utensils in the drawers.

After discovering that his apprentices could satisfy the King’s more pedestrian carpentry needs, the Master was liberated to retreat further into his his shrinking world.  Soon they had their own apprentices, and the Master pursued his dream of an entire miniature city.

One day the new apprentices came calling to see the new city.  The Master allowed them to view the city through the special lens.  He had by now, however, moved beyond the visible world and there was nothing they could see.  Still, they lauded him for his craftsmanship, and took their leave.

The maker of miniatures, knowing that they had seen nothing, that their words were hollow, and that they would never visit him again, returned with some impatience to his work; and as he sank below the crust of the visible world, into his dazzling kingdom, he understood that he had travelled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go, and that, from now on, his life would be difficult and without forgiveness.

I guess it’s pick-your-metaphor.  Is the Master descending into madness?  Has he just gotten old, humored by younger people, and is just turning inward to his own thoughts? Or is just a dude who makes really small stuff?


Still available online as of this date.

Steven Millhauser – Thirteen Wives

I sent this to my Kindle some time ago and forgot about it, but this morning, I accidentally tapped the icon.  Since I had just written about Millhauser’s Eisenheim the Illusionist, I decided to see what this one was about.

It starts out simply enough with a narrator saying, “I have 13 wives.”  OK, simple in sentence structure, but not so much in implications.  Anyone who has read Millhauser knows this is not going to be a story about Mormons.   You know to expect a detailed description of life with each, and to not expect much of an arc to the characters or story.  And that is fine — nobody expects show-tunes out of Dylan.

He continues on to very briefly describe their collective living and dining arrangements in a one-paragraph introduction.  There are a few sentences that leave the story open to interpretation.

Even though I married my wives one after the other, over a period of nine years, I never did so with the thought that I was replacing one wife with a better one, or abolishing my former wives by starting over. Never have I considered myself to be a man with thirteen marriages but, rather, a man with a single marriage, composed of thirteen wives.

Millhauser then begins a numbered list.  I don’t remember him ever doing that even though his style certainly lends itself to that format.

Rather than recap the 13 essays of his wives — and there is no wrap-up following #13 — I will just say that each wife is lovingly and fully rendered; much more than some deserve.  But this is not a schmaltzy, romantic ode to Big Love or the individual women.  There are eccentricities and quirks to be found, preternatural empathy, and some defying of the laws of physics.  But the latter instances are grounded by being mixed in with more traditional relationships.

There seems to be a lot of speculation online as to whether he is describing one woman over a period of time, the multiple facets of one woman at one point in time, or actually 13 distinct wives as advertised.

There seems to be more evidence to support the 13 wives theory, but ultimately I don’t think it matters.  As usual, Millhauser puts his universe on the table and you can dig in or not.  There is enough to go around.

I rate this 11 wives.

At least as of today, it is available online here.