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Customer Review

on February 27, 2000
Steven Millhauser's "Martin Dressler" may not be worthy of the hype surrounding its Pulitzer Prize winning status but it's gotten more flak than it deserves. As a novel, it's strangely one dimensional and therefore disappointing, dull even. There isn't much of a storyline to speak of - Martin simply takes on successively bigger projects until he finally overeaches himself - and the characters (including Martin) are all bloodless, cardboard-like stick characters, sleepwalking (ironically, like Caroline) through their parts. Sure, the attention paid to periodic detail is meticulous and impressive but unless you're an afficionado of late 20th century artifacts, chances are that you'll find most of it rather tedious. That's not to say Millhauser's scene setting techniques isn't beautifully executed. It is - his descriptive prose is vivid and flawless but...indulgent. There were moments when I thought the plot was about to take off for some place leftfield but sadly, such promises were never fulfilled. Even the one heart stopping episode near the end of the novel wasn't exploited for its full dramatic potential. Martin's relationship with the Vernon women could have been fascinating had it been allowed to fuel the plot, but it remained underwritten and undeveloped. There's also an eerie feeling about the nature and relationship between the two Vernon sisters that was left unexplored. However, the weaknesses we perceive in "Martin Dressler" as a novel quickly dissolve when cast in the fable genre. Fables aren't after all about real life people but about morality and ideas. Stylistically, there are tell tale signs that suggest this treatment. For instance, Millhauser's distant and omniscient perspective of his characters - Martin's self centredness, his casual lusting over the hotel maid Maria, and his weekly visits to the whores is narrated in a tone that's entirely devoid of moral judgement. The perfectly still, never changing and repetitive image of the langourous Caroline "with her hair pulled tightly back" too has a fairy tale like and slightly spooky quality about it. Readers of "Martin Dressler" are advised to approach it as a fable to avoid disappointment. Despite its weaknesses, there were moments in there which I truly enjoyed. My verdict ? Not the masterpiece to write home about. Neither is it the dud it is made out to be.
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