We gave it a B+
As we lurch nearer to an unimaginable new century, expect a flood of books trying to make sense of the tumultuous old one coming to an end. I’ll wager that the most truthful portraits of the 20th century will be those by our finest liars — the novelists. Already John Updike has published In the Beauty of the Lilies, his great fin de siecle meditation on faith and disillusionment, and now we have Steven Millhauser’s Martin Dressler, a quiet, chilly scrutiny of the energy and fevered imagination that both invented and subverted the modern age.
Growing up at the tail end of the 19th century, young Martin rises quickly in the world, going from bellboy to hotel entrepreneur in record time. Both a showman and a visionary (and the allegorical ancestor of every 20th-century genius from Walt Disney to Bill Gates), Martin, in the end, becomes consumed by his dreams of greatness. But no matter how startling a glimpse it gives us of American grandiosity and its consequences, Martin Dressler seems a little bit dishonest. After all, while the past 100 years may have been filled with horrors and deceptions wrought by unchecked hubris, I think it’s fair to say that we’ve also had a few good laughs. B+