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Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer Paperback – March 25, 1997
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Martin Dressler is a turn-of-the-century New York City entrepreneur who begins in his father's cigar store but dreams of a bigger empire. That dream shapes into a series of large hotels. At first, Dressler's seems the archetypal American success story, but he does not quite grasp the future. The Manhattan of fabled skyline is about to take shape just over the horizon, but Dressler cannot see it. So the story becomes another kind of fable, as Dressler contemplates having "dreamed the wrong dream." --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
From Publishers Weekly
Literature's romance with the building-as-metaphor earns new energy through Millhauser's latest novel (after Little Kingdoms, 1993), which quietly chronicles the life of an entrepreneur whose career peaks when he builds a fabulous hotel in turn-of-the-century Manhattan. Beginning with his first jobs-in his father's cigar shop and as a bellhop-young Martin's rise is fueled by a happy blend of pragmatism and imagination. Both inform the design of the cafes and hotels he builds as an adult, though the latter seems to gain sway in the construction of his magnum opus, the Grand Cosmo. Within the rusticated walls of that grand hotel, one floor's elevators open onto "a densely wooded countryside" dotted with cottages; another floor simulates a rugged mountainside, featuring "caves" furnished with beds, plumbing and "refrigerated air." For recreation, guests can wander in the artificial moonlight of the Pleasure Park or visit the Temple of Poesy, where young women in Green tunics will recite poetry, 24 hours a day. Such amenities speak of Dressler's view of the hotel as "a world within the world, rivaling the world." In deliberate contrast stands Millhauser's cooler evocation of his protagonist's private life. The magnate's genial sister-in-law works for him, while the troubles of his neurasthenic wife-"his sister's sister, his tense, languous, floating, ungraspable bride"-reflect his increasingly manic, untethered imaginings. Millhauser's characteristic fascination with the material artifacts of the vanished past-and the startling deftness with which he can describe the street, the carnival, the hotel that never existed-marks him as a cultural historian as well as an idiosyncratic fabulist. Taking its place alongside other fine tales of architectural symbology, from Poe to Borges to Ayn Rand, this enticing novel becomes at once the tale of a life, a marriage and a creative imagination in crisis.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
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Top customer reviews
Certainly, MARTIN DRESSLER, Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel, shares this fantasy component with his short stories. In fact, this novel culminates—at least stylistically—with its eponymous hero Martin Dressler wandering the Grand Cosmo, a combination hotel, amusement park, museum, and vacation destination that he, a young and visionary real estate developer, opens in 1905 in a dreamlike version of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Here’s a small sample of what Martin has procured for his goggling guests to experience as they wander:
“…the many parks and ponds and gardens, including the Pleasure Park with its artificial moonlight checkering the paths, its mechanical nightingales singing in the branches, its melancholy lagoon and ruined summerhouse; the Haunted Grotto, in which ghosts floated out from behind shadowy stalactites and fluttered toward visitors in a darkness illuminated by lanternlight; the Moorish Bazaar, composed of winding dusty lanes, sales clerks dressed as Arabs and trained in the art of bargaining, and a maze of stalls that sold everything from copper basins to live chickens; the many reconstructions of Hidden New York, including Thieves’ Alley in Mulberry Bend, an opium den, a foggy street of river dives…”
Such fantasy, maybe ten percent of this novel, is undeniably well done, albeit not to everyone’s taste. Meanwhile, the remaining ninety percent of MD shows a young Martin—the book examines his life from roughly his ninth to his 33rd birthday—evolving in business and as a man. These are the dominating components of this book and read as if Millhauser is determined to show that he is more than an author who issues sequences of fantastic images.
In business, Millhauser positions Martin as a natural. He is an able boy working in his father’s cigar store, where he is noticed by a clerk in a nearby hotel and hired as a bellboy, and then rises gradually in the ranks of the hotel, where he revives a moribund cigar store in the lobby and then starts as a restaurateur… and so on until Martin develops the Grand Cosmo, where he unleashes his imagination in stone. “For a building was a dream, a dream made of stone… He had… built his castle in the air…”
So, does this work as a narrative? Nope. In fact, it’s downright irritating since Millhauser presents Martin’s career as a steady progression that finally yields to a single hubristic mistake. In Millhauser’s character Martin, there is no ambition, no strum und drang , and no juice and he rises due to a mechanic-like interest in how things work. In business, such personalities are sometimes called clock-makers (not a compliment) and they do valuable work in the accounting department. They are not, as is Martin, entrepreneurs.
Meanwhile, the second major component of this novel is Martin’s courtship and marriage. Here, Millhauser is careful to establish that Martin is a randy dude; for a time, he visits a brothel regularly; and he consummates a flirtation with a hoi polloi housekeeper. But overwhelmingly, Martin’s sexual issues are entangled with the three Vernon women, who are a flirtatious mom and two sisters—Emmeline, who is masculine and faintly repulsive, and Caroline, who is withdrawn and depressed but for an interlude—one chapter—when she develops what is clearly a lesbian’s crush on another woman. The upshot? Again, Millhauser is irritating, this time because he animates what is supposedly a heterosexual story with deeply ambivalent and repressed sexual inclinations. No wonder Martin’s fantasy world at the Grand Cosmo, which has 12 underground levels, is so over the top.
It seems like the wily, winding prose that made this book so noticeable to the Pulitzer committee back in 1997 now make it feel a bit outdated, stilted and alienated from its own subject matter. Beyond a doubt it's well-written and masterfully edited, but as reviewer Ethan Cooper points out, it's a book of seeming contradictions ...
On the one hand, it's about a bootstrapping entrepreneur. On the other hand, it spends most of its effort and length focusing on the more fantastical elements of his career and creations.
On the one hand, it's exhaustively descriptive of these fantastical elements. On the other, it's completely oblique in regards to the more intimate aspects of its secondary plot (Martin's romantic life). It seems clear that we're to conclude Caroline is a closet lesbian and Emmeline may have had an ongoing affair with Martin ... but it's hard to assume these types of things when everything else is so explicit.
On the one hand, the book is ostensibly directing Millhauser's gifted fantasies toward a nostalgic look at Old New York and The American Dream (tm). On the other, we get only passing glances at the city, as Millhauser uses it to tell the most cookie-cutter tale he possibly could--given the setting and subject matter.
By the end of our story, Martin seems unchanged. It's supposed to be empowering, but it seems like he hasn't really learned all that much and I can't help feeling many readers are left feeling the same way.
The writer spends a lot of time detailing the impressive hotels Martin envisions and builds. But as he tries to make up for his lack of success in his personal life by over compensating in his business life, he fails at both.
It's sad, but he is not broken. He looks at it like this; he was not broken by failure, he was not broken by fear of failure, so in a way he has succeeded in a way many of us hold ourselves back from. He has tested the full limits of his knowledge, skills and abilities. He has no regrets.
We see where he went wrong. Eventually he sees where he went wrong too, but he argues; how can he see it as the wrong choice, since it is the logical choice, the natural choice to choose beauty over plainness, to choose form over function.
He rolled his dice till they came up snake eyes and he has no regrets. We should be happier for him, but I was not happier - maybe just a little wiser.
Enjoy this book, I did. I recommend it.