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Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In the everyday world, reading people and situations can be difficult. The space between perception and reality can be a place of anxiety. Yet in The Barnum Museum, the boundary between illusion and reality is a liminal space, a space of possibility. Unquestionable interpretation is itself a fiction; however, this leads not to anxiety but to a plethora of possible meanings. Life situations and attempts to understand others are always problematic and ultimately impossible. There is perpetual uncertainty of knowledge of surroundings, background, self and others. There are always different ways of telling a story.

Reading and understanding people in Millhauser's stories can be as difficult as interpreting texts. In "A Game of Clue," four people playing the game Clue try to figure out what is going on in each other's heads even as they try to solve the riddle of the game. The characters of the game seem to be going through their own anxieties; their thoughts and actions provide a counter- narrative to the story of the Ross family: Jacob, Marian, and David. The siblings, with Jacob's girlfriend Susan, study one another without speaking, each trying to "read" the other. The flesh-and-blood men and women are as much mysteries as the characters of the board game. The setting of the story and the board game itself is described hyper accurately, as though the recording of each mundane detail will somehow provide clues to interpreting the situation, to solving the mystery of human emotion and motive. For example, each character imagines the ballroom on the board differently. Jacob remembers a trip to Paris, then thinks of David: "Jacob is glad to be rid of adolescence; he worries about David, but doesn't know how to protect him." Marian imagines an abandoned bride dancing alone. David sees his high school gym gussied up for a dance. For Susan, finally, "the BALLROOM remains unimagined: a gray rectangle on a board." We as readers are privileged to enter the minds of each character. We receive the clues about Jacob, Marian, David, and Susan, vital clues to their characters. To each other, however, they remain mysteries. They interpret the game, they seek to interpret each other, yet they fail. The game, and their understanding, remains incomplete, unresolved. We watch as remembrances of childhood, of arguments, of unspoken love, pass through the minds of the characters, and we watch the characters remain unaware in their yearning to understand.

To some extent, this difficulty in reading the world creates not anxiety in Millhauser's work, but freedom. This may be because for the most part, his work does not involve actual characters like the Ross family. The stories are populated by chimeras, often finally serving as allegory. The freedom lies in the distance of everyday life; "A Game of Clue" is the only story characterized by the sadness of misunderstanding and desire, because it is the only story in which the effects of misunderstanding on people's emotional lives are explored. In many of the other stories, everyday life is made mysterious, constantly changing. Furthermore, this magical aspect of the mundane is necessary. Everyday objects are given new life in the stories; they are found and made strange.

Movies often serve as metaphors for the troublesome distinction between illusion and reality. It is as though the Wizard of Oz were behind a curtain creating magic with smoke and mirrors; we can never be sure if what we are seeing is true or false. Millhauser uses this metaphor in "Behind the Blue Curtain." The main character, a boy at the movies, ventures to look behind the curtain and discovers that the line between illusion and reality is blurry indeed. Every Saturday the boy goes to the movies with his father:

Gravely my father had explained to me that the people on the screen were motionless photographs, passing quickly before my eyes. . . . My father was never wrong, but I felt he was trying to shield me from deeper knowledge. The beings...

(The entire section is 1,015 words.)