Reviewed by Rima Walker
Millhauser’s luminous yet dispassionate prose style adds to the idea that we are reading a true story about a shop-keeper’s son, a young man at the turn of the 20th century in Manhattan, who goes from rags to riches, or so it appears on the surface. The reader couldn’t be more wrong. The novel begins with a fairy-tale-like opening, and in the first few pages we learn everything about Martin’s journey in which he gets his “heart’s desire”. But, as Millhauser warns us, . . . “this is a perilous privilege, which the gods watch jealously, waiting for the flaw, the little flaw that brings everything to ruin in the end.”
Martin is an entrepreneur, inventive, well liked by everyone (especially women) whom he can win over because he has an ability to know what each individual wants. He climbs the business ladder successfully because after he has completed each project to his satisfaction and for the satisfaction of others, he becomes restless, dissatisfied, “as if he were supposed to be doing something else, something grander, higher, more difficult, more dangerous, more daring.”
Martin goes on from building great restaurants to building great hotels, and Millhauser’s lush descriptions of the details almost become an end in themselves, an almost Disney-like series of epithets that one would expect in a tale of fantasy. Along the way, Martin falls in love with and marries Caroline Vernon who turns out to be one of his great failures, just as he succeeds in the world of business with her sister Emmeline, an organized, smart realistic woman who tries to ground him as best she can. But Martin is obsessed, and wants to go on to greater heights, culminating in the building of a fantastic hotel that offers everyone everything to such a degree that the outside world is no longer needed. Whether or not he succeeds in this creates one of the novel’s great conflicts.
The book is rich in phantasmagoric imagery and has multiple themes. One consists of Martin’s ability to use the new inventions of the time, the rapid changes that made so much obsolete, transforming the face and lifestyles of New Yorkers; yet the old somehow had to be merged with the new as a transition so that people could be comfortable.
And of course there is always the premise of love, marriage and sex and how Martin is entangled in the dream world of women, some of whom seduce him and one of whom he loves, but he is also caught up in building the Dressler Hotel which is a “fever-dream of stone.” Martin thinks that it “was as if he had three wives”: Maria his mistress, Emmeline his business partner, Caroline his unsubstantial, remote and inaccessible “ghost wife”, a young woman wholly innocent, who is evocative of some we read about in the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Martin feels “married to all of them, or none of them, or some of them”. He is also married to his dreams which he ambitiously turns into reality.
But where there is great ambition there is also the danger of falling into the sin of pride as Martin reaches the height of his obsessive yet charismatic abilities to build a world unto itself, and he wonders if this is an act of disobedience. If it is, he believes that it is “proper” to be punished for it. Martin Dressler is a dream-book that reveals a dream world, and a fascinating main character who strives compulsively to attain in reality what his imagination tells him he can achieve. ~