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Tom DeignanJanuary 13, 2023
Steven Millhauser (Facebook.com)

“I had only two choices. Either quit or get bigger. That is the way business is in the United States.”
-Desi Arnaz

By the standards of how we interact with each other, and the world around us, 1997 seems more like a century past, rather than a mere 25 years. There was no iPhone or Instagram back then. A “snap” and “tweet” were just sounds. Yes, AOL did have millions of “subscribers” by 1997—and was even shifting away from “hourly rates”—for its hissing and buzzing dial-up service. Overall, though, most of us—including some of America’s most celebrated storytellers—were blissfully ignorant that a commercial and communications revolution was well underway.

We are again living in a kind of gilded age, of big builders, big dreams, big money.

There are more pay phones than text messages in late-1990s movie hits like “Good Will Hunting,” “Donnie Brasco” and “Fargo”—all of which were available, after their theatrical runs, at Blockbuster Video, which raked in $4 billion following another year of 10 percent growth, with little competition on the horizon—not even from a tiny outfit called Netflix, founded that same year, in Scotts Valley, Calif.

Many of the big books of 1997 also looked backward rather than forward—from Philip Roth’s American Pastoral and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, to Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon and Don DeLillo’s Underworld. The winner of the Pulitzer Prize in fiction that year, Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer, seems almost a parody of a dated cultural artifact, right down to the old echoes of Horatio Alger in its subtitle.

But look beyond the clopping hooves and telegraph poles. Twenty-five years later, Martin Dressler—unwittingly—shines a harsh but revealing light on some of the 21st century’s most powerful forces (relentless innovation, high-tech capitalism) and enigmatic personalities (Elon Musk, Elizabeth Holmes).

“A hungry man would stop anywhere for a bite to eat,” Millhauser’s titular protagonist observes early on. “What Martin wanted (to build) was the kind of lunchroom that would attract a man who wasn’t hungry.” He later adds: “I want them to be unhappy when they’re not here.”

This captures a particular and sinister genius—cultivating hungerless cravings, inflicting wounds in order to serve up the salve—of the 21st century’s most successful companies. Apple and Amazon, Google and Meta: They don’t sell mere products, but moods, emotions, states of mind, at the click of a button, at the speed of light, at the expense of so much more that could nourish the mind, body and soul.

Apple and Amazon, Google and Meta: They don’t sell mere products, but moods, emotions, states of mind, at the click of a button, at the speed of light.

And so, again and again, we’re left angry, anxious, hyper-connected yet disconnected—even “mocked…for exchanging texts with potential paramours using (an) Android phone,” as the Wall Street Journal noted in a January 2022 report, about the Yeatsian passionate intensity inspired by the various hues of various gadgets’ text bubbles. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, his texts are green,’” commented one iPhone devotee, “and my sister literally went, ‘Ew that’s gross.’”

Martin Dressler would surely be impressed by this, what has been dubbed Apple’s “walled garden,” its alternately beneficent and exclusionary strategy encouraging people “to pay the premium for its relatively expensive gadgets and remain loyal to its brand,” as the Journal put it. With no irony at all, a recent best-selling book chronicled “how Apple became a trillion dollar company” but along the way “lost its soul”—an ethical collapse that seems to consist mainly of failing to produce a gadget even more pricey and addictive than the iPhone.

And yet, while dragging the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook off to the whipping post may be fine sport, what’s the state of our own souls in all of this? We who encourage and enable these 21st-century digital robber barons? Are we their victims? Co-conspirators? Could we find our own way out of the walled garden? Do we even want to?

We first meet Martin Dressler as a young boy, the observant son of an immigrant shopkeeper. The setting is New York City, the late years of the Gilded Age. Perhaps most conspicuous about the setting, though, is what is missing. Millhauser is stingy with the cultural signifiers—the huddled masses, urban decadence and squalor, past shadows of today’s culture wars—that are often used to establish historical accuracy, or titillate cultural studies grad students.

Like much of Millhauser’s fiction—over a half-dozen story collections, as well as weird but mesmerizing novels like Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer (1972) and From the Realm of Morpheus (1986)—Martin Dressler unfolds with the sparse, slow-burn precision of an old European fable. When young Martin heads to Coney Island with his parents, he “take(s) it all in,” Millhauser writes—the swooping gulls, ocean waves and “fancy beach hotels like palaces.”

Like much of Millhauser’s fiction, Martin Dressler unfolds with the sparse, slow-burn precision of an old European fable.

Even as a child, Martin detects bigger things—a worldwide web, if you will.

(U)nder the water a great telegraph cable longer than the longest train stretched past sunken ships and octopuses all the way to England—and Martin had the odd sensation, as he stood quietly in the lifting and falling waves, that the world, immense and extravagant, was rushing away in every direction … the bridge piers went down through the water to the river bottom and down through the river bottom halfway to China.

These are not the musings of a budding “small business” man. The vistas, the horizons—the canvases, you might even say—will need to be vast. When a friend later suggests that, in business, a conservative approach is best, because most people possess only a narrow set of skills, Martin snaps: “You’re any kind of man you damn well want to make yourself.”

What does that mean? The man is a work of art, like the work of art itself. The resulting dance may be beautiful, but also fallible and flawed—like the dancer. That Martin’s ultimate creation is an immense hotel called “The Grand Cosmo” hints at the stakes for which Millhauser’s characters play.

And where does a holy, cosmic creator fit into all of this? Early on, Millhauser writes that Martin “dreamed his dream…a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealousy, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw, that brings everything to ruin.”

This is one of just two crucial references to an otherworldly deity in Martin Dressler. Near the end, Martin wonders if he’s “being punished for something deeper than crime, for a desire, a forbidden desire, the desire to create the world? For of course only God and Harwinton could do that.” Harwinton is an advertising whiz—another creator, but of illusions, of something literally out of nothing. Which must be why Dressler bathes him in a divine light.

Throughout his long career, Millhauser, who turns 80 next year (and hasn’t published another novel since Martin Dressler), has been fascinated with the creative impulse at its many stages, from inspiration to construction to execution—which can mean to bring to life, but also to kill, or obliterate.

Throughout his long career, Millhauser has been fascinated with the creative impulse at its many stages, from inspiration to construction to execution.

Millhauser’s 2006 story “In the Reign of Harad IV” is about a “maker of miniatures,” who carves and etches “a basket of brilliantly lifelike red-and-green apples, each no larger than the pit of a cherry,” and “on the stem of one apple (there is) a perfectly reproduced copper fly.” The art gets smaller, and smaller still, bordering on microscopic, and invisibility. Then again, consider all the art in the world that goes unseen. Or is never truly seen.

Similarly profound questions are posed and explored—at far more dramatic and lifelike scale—in what may be Millhauser’s most famous story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” later made into the 2006 movie “The Illusionist,” starring Edward Norton and Jessica Biel.

So Martin Dressler is first and foremost a fable about creation. But as a longer work than “Eisenheim” or “Harad,” its boundaries push out further. The conditions and constraints under which Martin creates—big-city American capitalism—must also come under scrutiny. Martin’s first venture—a restaurant and “billiards parlor”—is a success, yet he still sometimes feels “irritable and idiotic.” Just as the artist in “Harad” feels an “odd, internal itching…(not) the first time he had such stirrings at the end of a long task.” And the narrator in Millhauser’s 2011 story “Miracle Polish” feels “a restlessness so terrible that (he) can no longer bear to sit still.”

Even Dressler—or Millhauser—doesn’t quite seem to know what to make of such feelings.

Was there then something wrong with him, that he couldn’t just rest content? Must he always be dreaming up improvements? And it seemed to Martin that if only he could imagine something else, something great, something greater, something as great as the whole world, then he might rest awhile.

This veers awfully close to compulsion, even addiction—an ironic spin, perhaps, on the “creative destruction” Joseph Schumpeter touted as essential to capitalism. Which might explain why Martin, amid all of his dreamy building, also refers to that which is “being annihilated by American efficiency and know-how.”

Another restless, creative immigrant, the actor and show-biz pioneer Desi Arnaz, was once asked why—after finally achieving fame as a musical and comedic performer—he used the resulting fortune to purchase RKO Studios, thus starting yet another climb up yet another mountain, as a production mogul. “I had only two choices,” Arnaz explained. “Either quit or get bigger. That is the way business is in the United States.”

This is true around the world, as Elon Musk, a boy raised in 1970s Pretoria, can attest. He looked at automobiles and believed he could move them differently. Then he looked to the stars and the sky. In between, Musk surely had moments when he felt “little sharp bursts of restlessness, of dissatisfaction,” as Millhauser writes of Dressler, “as if he was supposed to be doing something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring.”

Desi Arnaz: “I had only two choices. Either quit or get bigger. That is the way business is in the United States.”

Pioneering the transition from gas to electric vehicles, from earthly travel to space travel, was somehow not enough for Musk. So he set about scaling Mount Twitter. Why? For many of the same reasons Arnaz took on RKO, and Sheryl Sandberg “leans in” and the scorpion in the old fairy tale stings. And Martin Dressler builds bigger and higher. It’s what such creatures do.

Dressler’s final creation, “The Grand Cosmo,” “combine(d) elements of the hotel, the museum, the department store, the amusement park, and the theater in a colossal enclosure,” Millhauser writes. This prehistoric version of The Mall of America, in fact, “was nothing less than the city itself,” yet also “provided sensations unavailable to the mere city dweller unfortunate enough not to enter its enchanted walls.”

The Grand Cosmo…rendered the city unnecessary. For whether the Grand Cosmo was the city itself, or whether it was the place to which one longed to travel, it was a complete and self-sufficient world, in comparison with which the actual city was not simply inferior, but superfluous.

At some point, creative destruction simply destroys.

We are again living in a kind of gilded age, of big builders, big dreams, big money. Jeff Bezos and the lords of Amazon devised a revolutionary strategy for moving goods around an increasingly interconnected world, profiting mightily when Covid-19 shut everyone inside their homes. But it turns out the worldwide web which enabled Amazon can also be flimsy, even downright fragile, with its rickety “supply chains,” and pricey fossil fuels, dispensed by oligarchs who don’t think all that much about human rights or a heating planet.

Except that for the Martin Dresslers of the world, who’s to say you can’t go back to the drawing board and build better, stronger, faster wings?

“Tiger King” and Netflix also became pandemic royalty, the culmination of a plan set in motion 25 years ago, only to be copied and co-opted so effectively that Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos now has to worry about becoming the next Blockbuster if he can’t produce more humans to subscribe to his service.

Unless Netflix looks to the Harwintons of the world, to create an advertising “revenue stream.” Something out of nothing. Which, in an extreme way, is what Elizabeth Holmes tried to do with Theranos. And there had to be a moment when she comprehended the consequences of her deceit, her own tangled web. And the potential benefits still outweighed the costs. This is how such creatures think, what they do, even after great falls, after they’ve lost their shirts, or souls. In the wake of Martin Dressler’s comeuppance, there is no sense of regret, but rather a kind of transcendent delusion. We find that Martin “passed through a crack in the world.…Here in the other world, here in the world beyond the world, anything was possible….You might float up into the too blue sky and never come back. You might dissolve into flickering spots of sun and shade.”

There is something of Icarus here, flying too close to the sun. Except that for the Martin Dresslers of the world, who’s to say you can’t go back to the drawing board and build better, stronger, faster wings? Or simply bend the sun to your will? You can do anything you want. Be anything you damn well want to be. If you just lean in.

And so—to paraphrase another story of bold dreams and capitalist nightmares—we beat on, boats seeking the next great current, borne forward ceaselessly.

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