Steven Millhauser

Little Kingdoms

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From Publishers WeeklyOverlappings of imagination and reality cast magic through these three vividly conceived novellas exploring the ramifications of artistic creation. In “The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne,” the eponymous hero, a cartoonist for a New York City newspaper in the 1920s, labors in the study of his Mount Hebron home on a “secret, exhilarating project”: thousands of numbered ink drawings that will constitute moments of an elaborate animated film. As the world of his art becomes more splendid, the day-to-day reality of his life becomes progressively less rewarding. “The Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon” juggles familiar motifs of legend--a beautiful, virtuous princess; a jealous prince; a scheming dwarf; a towering castle and subterranean dungeon--in its tale of a town's self-conscious effort to attach a fanciful, folkloric past to its utilitarian present. “Catalogue of the Exhibition” fashions a biography of fictional 19th-century painter Edmund Moorash and his intimates from a sequential discussion of his exhibited works. Millhauser ( The Barnum Museum ) evokes the impact of non-verbal art with uncommon ease. He develops each of these stories with such narrative precision and well-chosen detail that even his most fanciful and abstract conceits fully engage the reader.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Kirkus ReviewsThese three ingenious novellas confirm Millhauser's status as a master fabulist--an author who displays a fantastic ability to describe in detail objects of his own invention: puppets, circuses, board games, and miniatures. Here, his greatest inventions are the comic strips and animated cartoons of J. Franklin Payne--in a portrait of an artist whose work recalls the career of Winsor McCay. Like McCay, Payne raises the level of popular ephemeral to high art. And Millhauser so effectively creates Payne's inner kingdom'' that we begin to see reality refracted through the artist's peculiar imagination. In the 20's, Payne begins as a midwestern comic-strip artist whose first series on a dime museum earns him a place on a major New York daily, where he contributes editorial cartoons as well. With his wife--a high-brow who never really accepts his art--and daughter, Payne sets up house north of the city, where he spends hours in his studio creating his first animated cartoons. His meticulous craftsmanship results in commercial success, but also the opprobrium of his employer. As Payne begins his masterpiece, he retreats further into his world of artifice, so that by close, reality and fantasy collapse. TheThe Princess, the Dwarf, and the Dungeon'' concerns an actual kingdom, though one that exists in no discernible time or place. It's a cubist re-creation of a Prince's ``moral fall'' after he gratuitously tests his wife's faithfulness. Full of desire and duplicity, the tale unfolds rather dryly, with a description of possible endings, all of which emphasize a sense of justice and concord. Last, a faux art catalog uses the descriptions of 26 paintings by Edmund Moorash to draw a portrait of a strange genius. In the early 19th-century, Moorash's dark visionary landscapes and portraits fail to equal the bizarre demise of the artist, his sister, and their best friends. There's nothing overly academic about Millhauser's fictional inventions--for every bit of cleverness, there's the art of true passion. — Copyright ©1993, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.
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