In the Penny Arcade
Steven Millhauser established himself as a writer to watch with the publication in 1972 of Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright. The originality of the wit and of the intense attention to the minutiae of everyday life in middle-class America makes this parody of literary biography immensely appealing. Millhauser has yet, however, to live up to the promise of his delightful first novel. Portrait of a Romantic (1977), his second novel, while original and moving, is clearly a lesser work but leaves the reader still looking forward to more Millhauser fiction. After a nine-year wait, a collection of seven short stories may at first seem disappointing, but In the Penny Arcade shows Millhauser attempting to refine his art further, to move beyond the concern with childhood, melancholy, and death in his novels to become a truly distinctive writer. While the result may fall short of his obvious potential, he achieves some wonderful effects in this new fiction and offers some stimulating insights into the nature of art.
The three most conventional stories in In the Penny Arcade depict the emotional confusions of women. In “A Protest Against the Sun,” Elizabeth Halstrom is making the transition from adolescence to adulthood. Spending an afternoon on a beach on Long Island Sound with her mother and her adored professor father, whose shifts from playfulness to irritation hurt her, Elizabeth contrasts the world of the present with memories of her happy childhood. When a teenage boy dressed in black stalks angrily past the sun worshipers, only Elizabeth perceives that he is mocking them. She understands his revulsion for their complacent normality but recognizes that she has passed this stage of adolescent revolt.
Catherine, in “The Sledding Party,” is a younger version of Elizabeth. Catherine has been enjoying the party with her high school classmates when Peter Schiller, whom she has considered only a friend, suddenly tells her that he loves her, then abruptly leaves. Outraged at his spoiling the festiveness of the occasion, Catherine is nevertheless forced to reflect on the mysterious nature of love. Struggling against the complexity of such emotions, she feels “an immense pity for Peter Schiller, and for herself, as if someone had done something to them and gone away.” This realization leads to an epiphany which allows her to return to the party and deal with whatever may lurk beneath the simplistic surface of adolescence.
A more mature woman appears in “A Day in the Country,” though Judith, a thirty-six-year-old editor, is no less uncertain about her relationship to her world. She goes to a mountain resort to escape New York and the pain of a failed romance and to work on a manuscript, but she is annoyed by the presence of the only other unaccompanied woman there. Everywhere she turns she encounters this dark, younger woman who seems to pose some type of threat that Judith does not understand or want to confront. She is shocked when the dark woman suddenly dares to say that Judith is unhappy. Judith runs to her room in tears, weeping even more as she becomes outraged at “the banality of tears.” She does not want to be understood because she does not understand herself. She is bored by her suffering yet realizes that she cannot run from it.
The remaining four stories are more concerned with artifice than with the banalities of everyday existence. “Cathay” is a series of vignettes describing the exotic splendors of the ancient Orient. The emperor’s miniaturists create elaborate paintings on the eyelids and breasts of the ladies of the court to aid them in enticing and exciting their lovers. Other miniaturists reproduce the innumerable chambers, corridors, courtyards, and parks of the Imperial Palace in jade. Inside this miniature palace the size of a small table is, barely perceptible to the naked eye, a miniature of the miniature itself. Millhauser clearly intends the people and objects of “Cathay” to be a miniature of the entire book. The last vignette in the story, the last in the collection, presents a competition among magicians. One of the two finalists turns a jade statue into a living woman. The other magician wins by transforming a similar statue into a moving jade woman. In the Penny Arcade becomes an examination and celebration of...
(The entire section is 1797 words.)