Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Martin Dressler

This novel, Martin Dressler by Steven Millhauser, follows what the back of the book calls "the entrepreneur" Martin Dressler as he makes (and loses) his fortune. Starting as a youth in the cigar shop of his father, he becomes a bellboy at the Vanderlyn Hotel where he works his way up to secretary to the manager. Using his funds and the funds of friends, he obtains the cigar shop franchise in the lobby of the Vanderlyn. Leaving the Vanderlyn, he opens a Manhattan lunch room/billiard hall which expands into a chain of lunch rooms throughout the New York City area. Finally he buys the Vanderlyn Hotel and opens other hotels in New York until his big dreams reach a height that cannot be maintained and he emerges, penniless, into a sunny New York to, apparently, start over. And all of this by the time he is in his early thirties.

The biggest problem with this novel, for me, was that I never bought Martin Dressler as the kind of entrepreneur who could start a small business and build it up to a real estate empire. He never seemed ... driven (at least, not until the end). And my experience of highly successful entrepreneurs is that they are nothing but driven.

Martin Dressler isn't interested in making money, he just happens to do things that are successful and that make money. He isn't interested in lunch rooms and yet he builds a chain of successful lunchrooms. He isn't particularly interested in hotels, and yet becomes a hotel magnate. What he seems to be interested in is how to make things work - the mechanics of behind the scenes systems. As a young man he is fascinated by the way that the Vanderlyn Hotel works behind the scenes in a way invisible to the guests. As the owner of a restaurant chain he is fascinated with the way that costs and labor can be saved by combining much of the behind the scenes operations of the restaurants.

But he is not passionate about anything until he finally has a dream (literally) and decides to build a hotel that isn't a hotel but is an alternate reality. And the dream proves too big.

The other problem with the novel, for me, was the women in the story. I disliked Millhauser's treatment of all of them. Martin's principal relationships are with the two sisters Caroline and Emmeline and with a maid at his residence named Marie Haskova. In some ways, Martin also exerted no great effort in these relationships. He meets Caroline, she is the beautiful sister that he is expected to marry and he marries her. His relationship with Marie is important to him but almost non-existent in actuality. His relationship with his sister-in-law Emmeline on the other hand is like a relationship with a close business partner or a woman with whom he has been married for years. I found Millhauser's portrayal of all these women annoying and I equally found annoying Martin's passive aggressive relationship with them. As an example, the following is a passage from the time before he marries Caroline, when he has never had a conversation yet about marrying her.
Sometimes, when he looked across a table at Emmeline, he had the sense that he and she had been married for a long time. It was a comfortable companionable sort of marriage, calm and peaceful as cozy furniture in a firelit room. And at once he would think of Caroline, tense and languorous in her armchair in the hotel parlor, waiting for something, something that was bound to happen or would never happen - Caroline with her half-closed eyes and motionless fingers and pale hair pulled back tight on both sides. For it was Caroline after all whom he had married, or was about to marry, or had somehow forgotten to marry. And when on Sunday mornings he stood against the doorjamb talking with Marie Haskova and watching her bend this way and that, Marie Haskova with her heavy body and sudden swift questioning glances, then too he would think of Caroline, waiting in her chair for something to happen. Perhaps they were all waiting for something to happen - waiting for him to make up his mind. For it was as if he had three wives, and was married to all of them, or none of them, or some of them, or now one or now another of them. Of the three wives, Emmeline and Marie Haskova were the most vividly present to him, the most solidly there, whereas Caroline seemed a ghost wife, a dream wife -- although he wondered whether it wasn't whether it wasn't precisely her lack of substance that allowed her to haunt and hover, to invade the edges of other women.
Millhauser draws Caroline as almost completely lacking substance and, indeed, almost completely lacking speech. She seems half asleep most of the time. She is one of the most boring women characters ever created, which I think is the point. Because it certainly says something that Martin marries her, without ever having a conversation about marriage with her and even without asking her (he has her sister ask her). Caroline is one of those annoying feminine characters that women love to hate.
It was as if her perplexing, irritating coolness, her difficulty, were a sign of her high value.
And yet, in the end, Millhauser makes clear that the marriage is a disaster.

Emmeline, on the other hand, is a very likeable woman and we are clearly meant to believe that Martin married the wrong sister. But I found myself rebelling against the idea that a man couldn't have a business relationship with a woman without us wondering if perhaps their relationship should also be physical. In the end Millhauser makes clear that there is no physical attraction between Martin and Emmeline and it is just a meeting of the minds. But by that point I was finding the novel so irritating that I felt no happiness that he had done the right thing, at least from my point of view.

This irritation factor really didn't kick into high gear until close to the end, however, I was fairly happy reading until the last few chapters. As Martin devolves into his dream state and builds his alternate reality hotel, Millhauser begins to pile on the detail. At one point he devotes eight pages (EIGHT PAGES!) to the description of the new hotel including one descriptive sentence that comprises four pages. I like detail but found my eyes crossing. Especially since I didn't believe that any place like that could exist in 1904 New York. It was more like 2004 Las Vegas.

It was at about that point that I looked to see when this novel was written and realized that it was not a newish novel but a novel written in the midst of the boom 1990's. And suddenly I realized that the novel with its bubble of dreams was a perfect reflection of the bubble years of the 1990's and accurately predicted the bursting of the bubble. Maybe that's why it received the Pulitzer Prize. At least, I hope so. Because I couldn't think of any other reason.