Friday, November 12, 2010

Steven Millhauser

                The Barnum Museum



The Barnum Museum is a combination of waxworks, masked ball and circus sideshow masquerading as a collection of short stories. Within its pages, note such sights as: a study of the motives and strategies used by the participants in the game of Clue, including the seduction of Miss Scarlet by Colonel Mustard; the Barnum Museum, a fantastic, monstrous landmark so compelling that an entire town finds its citizens gradually and inexorably disappearing into it; a bored dilettante who constructs an imaginary woman - and loses her to an imaginary man! - and a legendary magician so skilled at sleight-of-hand that he is pursued by police for the crime of erasing the line between the real and the conjured.The work of a Sorcerer, a devotee of Paradox.

  • A Game of Clue
  • Behind the Blue Curtain
  • The Barnum Museum
  • The Sepia Postcard
  • The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad
  • Klassik Komix #1
  • Rain
  • Alice, Falling
  • The Invention of Robert Herendeen
  • Eisenheim the Illusionist


Although this is a collection of short stories, I feel this is a misnomer, as these tales  may appear finite on the page, but escape these limitations through the authors own sleight of hand. Steven Millhauser is the puppet master behind the illusionist, he is the Wizard of Oz, with such a panoply of devices, tricks, magic mirrors and secret panels. A wondrous array of machinery that one mind could possibly conceive.

The perfect example is the story – A Game of Clue (Cluedo), this story is told from the perspective of the players, following their thoughts & feelings, their gameplay and what is happening in their lives, whilst, at the same time we follow the characters in the game – Mr Green, Mrs Peacock, Professor Plum, and of course Miss Scarlet who is being pursued by Colonel Mustard. We watch the action as it unfolds with a needlepoint description of every minute detail, with scientific precision Millhauser unfolds the drama, revealing a tale that totally surprised me with it’s erotic nature that, like some Burlesque dancer, revealed all, yet revealed nothing.

The prevailing architectural form in The Barnum Museum is the labyrinth in which you attempt to navigate your way round, and in doing so you come  across the artefacts, exhibits and all sorts of paraphernalia. Some of it is openly displayed, some hidden in cul de sacs, blind alleys, corners fenced off and yet, you feel an urge to explore, a need to check what’s there, just like the boy in “ Behind the Curtain” which starts as a visit to the movies, until a peek behind the curtain reveals…….. Then there's Robert Herendeen, who invents an imaginary women, spending months creating each component, “ I  decided to invent a human being by means of the full and rigorous application of my powers of imagination”. Only to find he has a rival.            

In the title story (The Barnum Museum), there is a perfect description of the book itself -

“The enemies of the Barnum Museum say that its exhibits are fraudulent; that its deceptions harm our children, who are turned away from the realm of the natural to a false realm of the monstrous and fantastic; that certain displays are provocative, erotic, and immoral; that this temple of so-called wonders draws us out of the sun, tempts us away from healthy pursuits, and renders us dissatisfied with our daily lives.That the presence of the museum in our city encourages those elements which, like confidence men, sharpers, palmists, and astrologers, prey on the gullible; that the very existence of this……….. Some say that these arguments are supported and indeed invented by the directors of the museum, who understand that controversy increases attendance”

And then there is “Eisenheim the illusionist” who conjures up ethereal beings and is being monitored by Herr Uhl -  local chief of police and amateur magician - who believes that Eisenheim is subverting the  Austrian empire by crossing the boundaries of what's considered reality. This was turned into a film starring Edward Norton as Eisenheim  and Paul Giamatti as Inspector Uhl , Director: Neil Burger.

Steven Millhauser(wiki)

The Illusionist(wiki)

Steven Millhauser(Publisher)

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Amanda said...

I picked up this collection from the library a couple years ago because I wanted to read the story behind the movie The Illusionist. Then I read A Game of Clue, which has stuck in my mind as one of my very favorite short stories ever. It was really brilliantly done, and even though I haven't read it for probably 3 or 3.5 years now, I still remember whole lines verbatim, and was just thinking about it again last night!

@parridhlantern said...

Hi,Amanda. Its a fantastic story, I was amazed by the way it drew you in, revealing itself by minute gestures, until you were just totally enveloped in its world, I just loved it.

Bellezza said...

What an interesting connection to The Night Circus. It sounds as if these stories may have more plot (and perhaps more darkness?) but they still seem quite compelling. I'll check our library to see if they have a copy, but while I'm doing so please don't hold your breath. I'd hate for you to be an addition to the wax works. ;)