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Phantoms of infidelity

The King in the Tree: Three Novellas, Steven Millhauser, Alfred A. Knopf: 224 pp., $23

March 16, 2003|Jeff Turrentine | Jeff Turrentine is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Book Review, the New York Times Magazine, Architectural Digest and

All of the houses in "The King in the Tree," Steven Millhauser's new collection of novellas, are haunted. Ghosts are everywhere: gliding down hallways, meandering through gardens late at night, creeping up basement stairs and refusing to take leave of the bedrooms once shared by lovers. Like spirits doomed to wander the Earth for eternity, these restless souls are fated to spend their days reliving the betrayals that snuffed out their erotic selves, hurling them unawares into the realm of the cuckolded and the left behind.

Millhauser is probably best known as the author of the novel "Martin Dressler," which earned him the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for its depiction of a Gilded Age entrepreneur whose triumph, a mammoth and mysterious hotel archly christened the Grand Cosmo, was filled with secret rooms and subterranean levels, all suggesting the concealed pockets of our experience. Like its predecessor, "The King in the Tree" is buoyed by quirky touches that can now fairly be referred to as Millhauserian: a gothic love of hidden passageways and pitch-black chambers, a related affinity for architectural metaphors, and reflection on the relationship between objective reality and our subjective descriptions of it. Where it differs is in its focus on a single, ignoble human trait: the power to make mournful ghosts out of the living.

Infidelity is the glue binding these three novellas. In "Revenge," the only one set in the present day, a widow selling her house gives a woman the grand tour, taking the prospective buyer from room to room while recounting a life spent with her husband, a preoccupied academic. His chief preoccupation, it is eventually revealed, was his affair with the very woman now being ushered through this sepulchral space by the all-too-aware but none-too-forgiving seller. Without resorting to caricature or the cheap thrills of horror fiction, the author gives us an image of a wronged woman whose sorrow has mutated over time into psychopathic rage. But this is Steven Millhauser, not Stephen King: Just when we've prepared ourselves for a scene of bloody reckoning, we're brought back from the edge by the narrator's mordantly comic combination of pathos and perversity. Ultimately, the revenge the widow takes isn't lethal, murder being too compassionate. It's no less chilling for its lack of gore.

"An Adventure of Don Juan" imagines the legendary rake in the throes of a genuine crisis: He has, inexplicably and to his great horror, fallen in love while vacationing in England. The object of Don Juan's improbable affections is Georgiana, the sister-in-law of his host, a classic British eccentric who has created a sort of proto-amusement park featuring elaborate tableaux inspired by the Aeneid. His wife, Georgiana's sister, completes a triangle whose dark geometry is warped even further by Don Juan's overtures. There are actually two ghost stories here: One is of a wife driven to madness by betrayal, and the other tells of a once-great seducer forced by his traitorous heart to live among the lovesick. Millhauser's Don Juan is nothing like Lord Byron's swashbuckling rogue; he's a man on the brink of genuine sympathy, startled by his capacity to feel something other than lust.

The last and longest novella is "The King in the Tree," a retelling of the tale of Tristan and Ysolt, one of the Western canon's oldest myths of infidelity. This version belongs to the King Mark of Cornwall, reduced in so many other versions to the underdeveloped, secondary role of Jealous Husband, a mere obstacle in love's unstoppable path. Here, the king is a proud and noble man: He sees what everyone in his court sees, but wants so badly to believe his wife and favorite nephew aren't carrying on that he tirelessly invents innocent explanations for everything. He's the kind of complexly anguished figure that Jack Lemmon used to play in Billy Wilder movies. His pathetic excuse-making would be comical were it not tempered by an undercurrent of bitter, knowing sadness. Tristan and Ysolt, for their part, come across as arrogantly self-righteous. Surely this is the most unromantic permutations ever spun of this romance.

In some ways, Millhauser is one of our greatest living 19th century writers. Coursing through these novellas are such literary ghosts as Byron, Wagner-as-librettist, Matthew Arnold and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (whose version of Tristan, like Millhauser's, was more sour than sweet). "An Adventure of Don Juan" even recalls Jane Austen, with its setting on a country estate and its characters' penchant for passing notes, taking turns about the grounds and gazing longingly at one another over the breakfast table. Then there's the matter of the author's gothicism -- his love of slow, torch-lit processions through hidden midnight corridors, right out of "Northanger Abbey" or "Frankenstein"; or his fascination with the same fantastic turn-of-the-century technology that so captivated H.G. Wells and Jules Verne.

But when Millhauser is plumbing the mysteries of the human heart, there's no question that he is writing after, not before, Sigmund Freud -- and Kate Chopin, and John Updike and the sexual revolution and the Me Decade. "The King in the Tree" is a moving, melancholy book about the unlovely toll exacted by love on those it has abandoned. The phantoms knocking on the walls of these houses where love once lived are ancient and modern at the same time.


From The King in the Tree

Listen. I'll tell you a story.

Once upon a time there was a woman -- just like me. She grew up in a small New England town, just like me. She was well loved and cheerful and fond of reading, just like me. She was good at school but not brilliant and went to a small college in Vermont, and at the age of twenty-four she fell in love -- just like me. She married

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