In novels such as Edwin Mullhouse
and the Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler
, Steven Millhauser conjured fictions as intricate and delicately formed as soap bubbles. True to form, his Enchanted Night
seems to want to float right up out of the reader's hand. In its pages are many of Millhauser's trademark fascinations: dolls; mannequins; an obsessed artist; teenage girls meeting secretly at night; and above all, the strangeness lurking just under the surface of everyday life. Set entirely over the course of one night, Enchanted Night
follows the denizens of a Connecticut town as they rise from their beds under the light of a brilliant, almost-full moon. Fourteen-year-old Laura Engstrom wakes to a restlessness so fierce that "if she doesn't do something right away, this second, she'll scream." Middle-aged Haverstraw (who still lives with his mother) writes for hours in the attic, then leaves to wander the streets. Janet Manning trysts with a lover in her yard, and a band of teenage girls breaks into houses only to leave behind the cryptic message "WE ARE YOUR DAUGHTERS." Meanwhile, more magical events are afoot. "This is the night of revelation. This is the night the dolls wake. This is the night of the dreamer in the attic. This is the night of the piper in the woods," a chorus of night voices tells us--and a mannequin begins to stir behind a store window, while all over town, abandoned dolls and stuffed animals come slowly to life.
So far, so good. But somewhere along the way, the fairy dust gets a little thick. Is it the chapter in which the moon goddess ravishes virginal Danny? ("Now she strokes the skin of the sleeping one, now she kisses his eyelids closed in dream, now she stiffens his love-lance with her hand.") Or perhaps the appearance of Pan, "a moon-dancer, a flute-dreamer" making music for the town's children? How about the "Song of the One-Eyed Cuddly Bear" chapter, which reads, in its entirety, "I wuv woo. Does woo wuv me?" The only real danger posed in this wispy novella--"the man with shiny black hair" who stalks Laura in order to add her to his "gallery"--is not actually a threat, we're assured. Millhauser even reduces his bold girl outlaws, with their "pleasure in violation," to sipping midnight lemonade with their victim. And what, really, is magic without danger? Decoration, mostly, though there's nothing particularly wrong with that--just nothing particularly urgent either. None of which is to say that there aren't moments of startling beauty in Enchanted Night. There is no stylist more graceful than Millhauser at his best, and here he writes movingly about the formless yearnings of adolescence and the mortal sweetness of sex. Yet even the prose can't quite animate his novella. In the end, Enchanted Night is a rarefied aesthetic experience that asks for very little back. --Mary Park
From Publishers Weekly
Compared to his ambitious, Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, Millhauser's new novella may seem slight, but it has a resonance and fairy tale allure that belie its slim page count. Set on a sultry summer night when an almost-full moon hovers over Southern Connecticut, the book follows a handful of small-town characters who yearn for anonymity, recognition, love or escape. Laura Engstrom, 14, seeks a solitary release from the deep restlessness that makes "her bones itch." Haverstraw, 39, lives with his mother while he works on a novel and despairs of ever achieving anything with his life. Janet Manning, 20, longs for the appearance of a "heartbreaker" she met on the beach that afternoon. A drunken romantic, William Cooper, 28, gazes into storefront displays, hoping for love and a lucky break. An old woman who lives alone yearns for company. He gracefully intertwines these lives and others with magical elementsAa mannequin that comes alive, a chorus of "night voices," a silent visit from a moon goddessAto create a trance world suffused with luminescence and longing, where each character verges on the brink of fulfillment or collapse. Millhauser sketches each person's plight in a few skillful lines and repeats gestures and thoughts so their variations resound on many levels. A set of abandoned dolls, for example, awaken and pantomime a sorrowful romance that echoes Janet's desire for her young lover, Haverstraw's long-standing friendship with a friend's mother and Coop's abstracted love for the mannequin. Only a scattering of facile nursery-rhyme type of songs echo hollowly in Millhauser's elegant, penetrating tale. (Oct.)
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