The Barnum Museum

Tom Wolfe and other champions of Eyewitness News realism, of fiction as Sociology 101, would have a fit over this book, but that’s not the only good thing about it. Steven Millhauser’s stories are as dense with minute realistic detail as a 15th-century Flemish painting, but they never fail to take a sharp turn into fantasy. Imagination is his favorite subject as well as his precision instrument. His fiction is about virtuosity, especially his own. But it’s also about the way imagination takes possession of the world and the imaginer. His brilliant, tender, intricately witty first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), did as much justice to the whole passionate world of childhood experience as it did to the solitary, consuming imagination of one precocious child. Millhauser may not write gripping accounts of contemporary America’s fast-lane descent into depravity, but he doesn’t produce arid, academic metafictional stalemates, either. His best, most resonant stories, like those of Kafka, Borges, and Calvino, remind us that all good works of fiction — even Tom Wolfe’s — are, among other things, fables.

The prevailing architectural form in The Barnum Museum is the labyrinth. The boy in ”Behind the Blue Curtain” lingers in an emptying movie theater, and curiosity leads him into a broom closet, which leads him into a downward spiraling passageway, which ends in festive rooms where the vivid, ghostly movie characters are idling — including a beautiful, irritable actress whom he follows into a dressing room for his first, all-too-brief intimation of sexual intimacy.

In the center of Millhauser’s imaginative territory stands a large statue of Lewis Carroll. It looms especially large in the homage called ”Alice, Falling,” in which the rabbit hole becomes a bottomless vertical labyrinth. Floating slowly downward, calmly examining the cupboards, bookcases, and pictures that furnish the sides of the abyss, Alice turns the fall itself into her wonderland and simultaneously turns the story into a parable about the consolations of imagination during our common descent into unimaginable darkness.

Some of Millhauser’s stories, such as ”In Cathay” in his previous collection (In the Penny Arcade) and ”Eisenheim the Illusionist” in this one, bring to mind the somber ironies of Kafka and Borges, but in general his imagination has a light, serene quality — the quality of a precocious child’s delight in his own ingenuity.

The Barnum Museum of the title story is another many-chambered labyrinth, filled with endless wonders — mermaids, unicorns, griffins, and other uncanny, elusive, and invisible creatures. The museum is, in other words, the imagination, in all its tawdry, visionary ambiguity: ”We walk the familiar and always changing halls now in amusement, now in skepticism, now seeing little but cleverness in the whole questionable enterprise, now struck with enchantment. If the Barnum Museum were to disappear, we would continue to live our lives much as before, but we know we would experience a terrible sense of diminishment…We may doubt the museum, but we do not doubt our need to return.” Which is reason enough to turn and return to this sometimes merely clever, most often purely enchanting book. A-

The Barnum Museum
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