Saturday, September 1, 2012

What The F!#& Should I Read Friday: In The Penny Arcade

What The F!#& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird and Wonderful
In The Penny Arcade by Steven Millhauser

It's Friday, and I'm totally writing this on time! I mean, it's six in the evening and I'm half a strong gin and tonic in, but I will get this posted for your long weekend before the steak goes on the barbeque. (I don't care if there are Halloween decorations in the drugstore already, summer's not over until I can't eat grilled corn and large lumps of meat outdoors any more. Hell, it's still August.) Today I have a book for you that I only just discovered. It was given to me - as a gift! - by one of the guys from my absolute favorite local bookstore. (Joe Christiano is a truly stellar dude who runs some ultra spectacular literary and musical events in the East Bay.) I'm super glad I decided to feature this book for WTFSIRF because in doing so I learned an awesomely fun fact: the author, Steven Millhauser, wrote the short story that went on to become the movie The Illusionist. Which is seriously one of my favorite movies ever. Actually, there are two movies called The Illusionist, and they are somewhat different, but both are totally magical and you should go see them right now. Trailers will be featured at the end of the post! But before we get to them, of course, your five important questions must be answered:

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
2. What the f!#& is it about?
3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
4. When the f!#& is it set?
5. Why the f!#& should I read it?

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
Steven Millhauser wrote this book. He's an American writer whose stories are alive with what I'd call a particularly American brand of magical realism. (You remember that time I talked about magical realism? Of course you do.)What the hell does that mean? Well, his stories take ordinary events that smack of the typical fifties-to-seventies-ish American experience (a high school party, a snow day, a rustic New England inn, a day at the beach, the titular penny arcade) and infuse them with, well, a sense of wonder and a sense of the weird. He's like Ray Bradbury, almost, with all the science fiction stripped away. His view of the universe is vivid, colorful, poetic, and tinged with mystery and curiosity, whether he's writing the world of a twelve-year-old boy, a teenage girl, a woman growing older and alone, a reclusive genius, whatever. He writes each of them individually and convincingly, but over them all arches the same kind of sky, a sky in which the light means something a little more. I've never read anything else he's written, so I can't comment on it, but there is a really awesome interview with him here that sheds some light onto the intricacies of his mind. It also makes me want to read his other books, as much or more as reading this one did.

Here's a quote, just to entice you into a) reading the rest of the interview (he has some fabulously interesting things to say about fiction, things that make me wish I'd had the opportunity to take a writing class from him - he teaches at Skidmore!) and b) reading his books:

SM: ...when things are going well, the feeling I have is much more extravagant. It’s the feeling that I’m at the absolute center of things, instead of off to one side—the feeling that the entire universe is streaming in on me. It’s a feeling of strength, of terrifying health, of much-more-aliveness. It’s the kind of feeling that probably should never be talked about, as if one were confessing to a shameful deed.

JS: And is that a feeling that seems important in terms of understanding childhood?

SM: Yes, so long as it’s clear that, for me, childhood is above all a metaphor for a way of perceiving the world.

JS: In that we’re all, if we keep our eyes open, in the position of confronting barely apprehensible wonders?

SM: Exactly.

2. What the f!#& is it about?
The stories are about the ordinary world at the moments when it passes into something deeper, wilder, or stranger. Sometimes nostalgic, sometimes frightening, sometimes simply painfully beautiful, each moment of perceptual shift passes through the eyes of the main characters (and so, too, us readers) and fades away again, leaving behind a tingling resonance of wonder. The stories are often about the potent nature of the world as it was understood in childhood, but they lack the silly sentimentalism that so often gets written into stories that attempt to recapture the magical nature of things we saw as kids. There's a lot of beauty and a certain amount of dazzlement; there's not a lot of vaseline on the lens. More than anything it reminds me of I Sing The Body Electric! and yet each story - excepting maybe "Cathay," which actually recalls Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities - is far more intensely grounded in the world-as-it-is. Ray Bradbury gives us strangeness via scientific wonder; Millhauser writes a very similar strangeness, but it's more like an old-fashioned magic trick or a sudden cloud over the moon.

3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
Ah, this is a wherever book. Especially good, maybe, for dusty corners and seemingly boring places. You never know what might get illuminated.

4. When the f!#& is it set?
Automaton from CIMA,
the Centre International 
de la Mécanique d'Art,
Switzerland. Via Wikimedia.
Most of the stories in In The Penny Arcade are set in a kind of all-American timelessness I tend to think of as the late fifties, but what the hell do I know? The first story in the collection, "August Eschenburg," is set in Germany in the late 19th century, the same sort of time period as "Eisenheim the Illusionist," the story on which the 2006 film The Illusionist is based. (Sez here that the story is markedly different from the film. Surprise, surprise. I suspect I'll still love the movie after reading it, though.) Instead of magic tricks, he builds automatons, of the sort briefly touched on and then idiotically abandoned in Scorsese's dopey movie Hugo. (I really really wanted to love that movie. I hated it. A lot. Not least because I thought it was going to be about automatons and it totally wasn't. I was lied to!) It's got that same wonderful mood of an older time, when artifice, artificiality and art were still meaningfully related and clockwork still entranced humanity.  "Cathay," the final story in the collection, is a collection of vignettes set in a fictionalized realm reminiscent of a fantasized Orient. (Fans of Invisible Cities, I'm curious what you think of it.)

5. Why the f!#& should I read it?
This collection of stories is worth f!#&ing reading because they are all about wonder and weirdness. They're a delicate and luminous reminder that the world we think of as "real" is just a slight perceptual shift away from the fanciful, the fantastic, and occasionally the frightening. The stories walk the fine line wherein a magical experience can be felt by us without a suspension of disbelief; they are an immersion in our lost senses, in the fine shadows of feeling that come to us when we are alone. They are oddly, beautifully inspirational; after all, one of them inspired this marvelous film:

Which is not the same as this lovely film, although they share the same name and a magician for a main character. Watch them both; they are delicate, elegant works of beauty and sweetness of feeling.

Have a weird and wonderful holiday weekend!

1 comment:

  1. I f!#&ing LOVE The Illusionist. Edward Norton is on my short-short list of go-to actors; you match him with Paul Giamatti and just TRY to keep me out of the theater. (And don't miss Giamatti's gem Win Win.)

    But none of that is why I'll be reading your recommendation. Millhauser owes YOU for my read, or more accurately, your words. Thank you for giving me such a warm, hopeful, honest feeling in the center of my being in telling me of another's work. And seriously, Stevie-boy---as magical as I expect your book to be, you still owe her.


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