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Book Review : Taken for a Ride Through a Dreamland Hall of Mirrors

October 16, 1986|JEFF SILVERMAN | Silverman is a Los Angeles writer. and

From the Realm of Morpheus by Steven Millhauser (William Morrow: $17.95)

About halfway through Steven Millhauser's "From the Realm of Morpheus," netherworld pilgrim Carl Hausman, inveterate journal keeper that he is, moans upon entering a chambered hall of mirrors that he has somehow misplaced his pencil and paper. "If I don't make some record of what I see," he sighs, "I'm afraid I'll forget everything."

Not to worry. His guide and constant companion, Morpheus, that clever swain of a god of dreams, fishes through one of his pockets and reels in a pencil, then casts into another to retrieve an envelope, a little tattered but fine for the task at hand. "What say'st thou, lad," beams Morpheus approvingly, "art not fortunate? Beethoven did scribble symphonies on such scraps as this."

We're not so lucky. You see, Beethoven--let alone Dante--Steven Millhauser ain't.

A Bizarre Place

That said, the underworld he creates in this, his third novel, can be a pretty fascinating and often bizarre place, a place of giants and little people, a place where mirrors have memories and sensitivities, where paintings come to life, islands float, and books never finished take their place beside books never started beside books that argue back beside ancient classics lost forever on the library's endless shelves. It is also a place where the actions don't add up to much, where characters tend to drone on in dream-inducing monologues and where the lord of the manor, old pipe-smoking, wine-guzzling, misogynistic Morpheus himself, the greatest dreamer of them all--"a denizen of the dark, a magnifico of murk, a malingerer, a ne'er-do-well . . . a loafer in the poolhalls of the soul. A dangerous companion, a trusty guide. Not the sort of fellow you'd want to introduce to your sister"--is zapped by his own punning and burdened by a stiff Elizabethan lingo of " 'sdeaths" and " 'sbloods," "forwhys" and "mayhaps." Anon, even contemporary Carl learneth to picketh up (gee, the plague must be catching) the patois.

Like most conceptions of the underworld, Millhauser's landscape can be a dream to wonder on but a nightmare to wander through. There's no real map or destination, just a series of episodes in search of a story that allows Morpheus to strut his stuff as he schleps Carl from adventure to adventure and meditation to meditation with no transitions in between or throughline to keep it from all scattering. Ultimately, that may be the nature of dreams, the essential geography Morpheus lords over, but, like a dream, it doesn't quite hold together when you finally wake up.

Following a Foul Ball

Carl--we never learn much about who he is, where he comes from or what he does in his earthly station--stumbles into his odyssey innocently enough. On a bright August day, he finds himself sitting on a park bench, watching a baseball game and musing over nothing in particular, when a foul ball rolling into a nearby thicket lures him from his reverie. In chasing the errant ball, he stumbles Alice-like through a chink that leads to a staircase to a chamber to a door that opens up into his remarkable journey, perhaps real, perhaps a fiction set in his own slumbering mind. The distinction is never clear. Nor, I think, does Millhauser intend it to be.

Through two earlier novels ("Edwin Mullhouse" and "Portrait of a Romantic") and a volume of short stories ("In the Penny Arcade"), Millhauser's charted an often poetic path of imaginative lushness. That imagination doesn't fail him here.

In the book's best section, a tour through the lost continent of Atlantis, he whips up a fairyland where palace artisans precisely create such physical realities as clouds and sunbeams that vanished when the island disappeared into the sea: "As we descended the flight of steps leading down to the floor of a chamber, our host explained that the cloud-artists of Atlantis were highly skilled craftsmen whose work never ceased, for the clouds of Atlantis were continually in need of repair and replacement. The cloud material, composed of a frothlike substance manufactured in a subterranean cloud-chamber, was exceedingly delicate, subject to easy rupture, and doomed to dissolution by the heat emitted by the lights of the upper sky. A cloud, when laboriously completed, had no fixed and final shape, for the cloud-material was by its very nature unstable. Completed clouds were delivered in boxes to all parts of the kingdom and released into the sky by specially trained scholars. Occasionally, a cloud failed to rise, or was wafted back down by an unexpected breeze, to the great delight of children, who jumped into the air and gathered fistfuls of cloud-stuff, which they molded into fanciful shapes."

Much of "From the Realm of Morpheus" is filled with fanciful objects and characters of no fixed and final shape. And without an engine to drive them, they don't so much waft as idle, eventually running out of gas. After 370 pages, you figure you've been taken somewhere, but you're not sure just where and you're not sure just why.

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