June 11, 2014 by Beth - I SNIFF BOOKS blog
I adore Steven Millhauser. He is one of my favorite authors. His themes are unlike anything else I have encountered. His writing style makes me swoon. Long descriptive sentences yet each word is important and chosen with deliberate care — you can’t even imagine an editor daring to suggest that Millhauser hurry up and get to the point because the point is in the details, the fascinating minutiae. His thorough writing style is all the more fantastic because it perfectly complements one the themes he often writes on: individuals who are extremely passionate, and a bit obsessive, about their interests and hobbies.
The title story in his Little Kingdoms collection, The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne, is about an comic turned cartoon artist. Franklin is a gifted and imaginative artist with brilliant visions. Franklin is obsessive about his work, his ink drawings are meticulous, and depending on the project, he feels they must perfectly mirror reality or accurately portray his fantasy worlds. The quote below thrills me! I love Franklin’s passion for his work. And I immensely enjoyed reading the descriptions of Franklin’s comic panels — I wish I could go out and buy an anthology of Franklin’s work!
“And then he had laid aside his drawing board, that smooth-worn dark board with a faint shine that reminded him of the shine of a well-handled pipe, and with a sense of excitement he had brought out of packet of carefully trimmed rice paper, set up his other board with its glass window, pulled over his jar of Venus pencils and a fresh bottle of black drawing ink, and set to work on his secret, exhilarating project” (page 14).
I also love this quote from The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne. It’s just classic Millhauser. Bringing attention to the things that would normally go unnoticed.
“His sparse black hair was combed sideways across the top of his head and seemed to match the dark hairs on his fingers, which looked as if they had been combed carefully sideways” (page 57).
But The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne is about so much more than comics and cartoons. Millhauser’s gift is that he can cram so much life, so much everything, so much energy and emotion into a story. The story is about Franklin, yes, but it’s also about his home study where he draws. It’s also about his proper office and his relations with his colleagues. It’s about Franklin’s relationship with his daughter, Stella, his wife, Cora, and how all three of them interact. It’s about Franklin’s friend, Max, and how Max interacts with Franklin and his family. It’s about Franklin’s relationship with his art. It’s about how others react to his art. It’s about motion. Attachment and detachment. Childhood memories. Time.
If you’ve never read Millhauser before, I highly recommend starting with The Barnum Museum. It is an incredible, imaginative, fresh, and unique collection of short stories — it even includes the short story that the movie, The Illusionist, was loosely based upon. But you could very well start with Little Kingdoms and be good to go. Millhauser is a literary rock star. I hope if you give Millhauser a try that you will adore his writings as much as I do.
**There are two other excellent novellas in Little Kingdoms, but I chose to just re-read one.**