The King in the Tree: Three Novellas
by Steven Millhauser
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
239 pages, 2003
Stale Box of Love
Reviewed by David Abrams
In Steven Millhauser's trio of novellas The King in the Tree, love is like that box of stale crackers on the bottom shelf of the pantry you just cannot bring yourself to throw out. Neither can you force yourself to eat those crackers. No amount of peanut butter or Eazy-Cheeze can make those crackers more palatable. And so, the box just sits there. Month after month. Year after year.
The characters in Millhauser's three stories all have their boxes of crackers. Most of them hold only broken crumbs, left there by infidelity. Millhauser, best known for his Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel Martin Dressler, shakes the box and comes up with a sad, empty sound.
Which is not to say that his three stories -- "Revenge," "An Adventure of Don Juan" and the title story -- are void of good writing. There are plenty of sentences here that melt on the tongue like fresh chocolate. But hanging over the whole book is the feeling that love is hardly worth the time and effort we put into it (and, as any overworked Hallmark employee can tell you, we do put a godawful amount of effort into the Big L).
For two of the novellas, Millhauser retells two classic stories of romance: Don Juan and Tristan and Ysolt. In the first, the serial lover moves from Venice to England on a whim, since, as the first sentence tells us, he "could no longer bear his life." He accepts an invitation to come stay with an estate owner and his wife and sister-in-law. Gradually, we learn that the Englishman, Augustus Hood, is fabricating a sort of underground theme park with a surreal blend of ancient myth and "Don Juan, This is Your Life." Millhauser makes great symbolic use of those mechanical phantasmagorias Hood is constructing. Meanwhile, above ground, Don Juan is frustrated by his attempts to seduce the two women. Either he's going through a mid-life crisis or he's turning into a stale cracker himself.
In "The King in the Tree," the love is equally lackluster as the King tosses and turns in his royal bed each night, wondering if his lovely Queen Ysolt is carrying on an affair with his nephew Tristan. The story's narrator, loyal counselor Thomas of Cornwall, has little doubt that the legendary lovers are having sex in the garden, in the servants' quarters, in the North Tower, or wherever else they can sneak away from the royal gaze. Thomas has little on which to base his suspicions, other than a one-time glimpse of Tristan and Ysolt one night in the orchard, "walking so slowly that they were scarcely moving, and they seemed to lean against each other lightly." Thomas does not immediately report the clandestine moonlight meeting to the king and it is this tension which winds the story's ticking clock, a tale that we already know is destined to end sadly.
In these two novellas, Millhauser elevates his language into understated elegance which borders on a style so antique you can very nearly smell the musty velvet. The eye moves glacially across the page, slowed by the author's carefully-cultivated words.
Don Juan understood that his genius in the art of seduction lay not in his gift of beauty, not in his power to charm, not in his fearlessness, not even in his ferocious will, but rather in a subtle evolution in the domain of feeling: his uncanny ability to burrow his way deep into a woman's nature, to detect with precision the slight, subterranean ripples of inclination and repulsion that constituted the hidden life of a woman.
To use just one sentence as an example.
One could make the argument that we readers could use some languid sentences every now and then to offset the brazen, choppy shards we get in so much of our contemporary literature -- a perfectly good argument if it weren't for the fact that the first story in the book, "Revenge," is such a brazen, bracingly-told page-turner. In this, the best of the three, Millhauser sets us up with the kind of writing that punches holes in our eyes -- a promise "An Adventure of Don Juan" and "The King in the Tree" can't fulfill.
In "Revenge," a wife takes another woman on a tour of a house which, we presume, she is offering for sale. Told exclusively in the house-owner's voice, the narration moves us from room to room, gradually whitening our knuckles as we learn the secrets of each of the women. To reveal anything would be to reveal too much. Suffice to say, if Millhauser hits you over the head with a blunt instrument in the other two stories, here he cuts with razors. The voice of "Revenge" is insistently chatty, like a pair of clacking teeth you get in a gag shop.
Men have affairs every day. It's chic -- it's cool -- and good for you too. Keeps down that bad cholesterol. And great for your lower back. The numbers say it all. According to the most recent survey, ninety-nine point eight percent of all American husbands have been unfaithful to their wives at least twice in the last year. Did you know that? Also, and this may surprise you, ninety-two point four percent of all American men have slept with their own mothers. Sad but true. But here's the good news. Ninety-four point six percent of men with erectile dysfunction say that it doesn't really matter -- they never enjoyed it anyway. I found these facts in women's magazines. I was beginning to eat, as I mentioned, and I was starting to go out a little in the car: CVS, Grand Union, you name it. Wherever I went, women's magazines sprang out at me. Sleek, insolent panther-women looking at me with jungle eyes. Cheekbones like ski slopes. Thumbs hooked in bikini underpants, like a guy wearing jeans. Forty-three Ways to Snag Your Man. One Hundred Sixty-three Ways to Drive Him Insane With Lust Apparently the thing to do was find his E spot. When you found it, you pressed it. Then he raped you. Your marriage was saved. The trouble with the E spot was that it was very hard to locate; it was somewhere near the abdomen, or the pancreas. You could waste a lot of time looking for it, and meanwhile your man might fall insanely in love with someone else -- someone thinner than you.
"Revenge" races to a wicked (and perhaps foregone) conclusion, slicing love to ribbons along the way. It's too bad Millhauser couldn't keep up that brutal energy throughout the rest of the book. | March 2003
David Abrams has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, Fish Stories and other literary magazines.