Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne"

Originally published in Little Kingdoms, 1993. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 92.

The animated cartoon was nothing but the poetry of the impossible -- therein lay its exhilaration and its secret melancholy. For this willful violation of the actual, while it was an intoxicating release from the constriction of things, was at the same time nothing but a delusion, an attempt to outwit mortality. And yet it was desperately important to smash through the construction of the actual, to unhinge the universe and let the impossible stream in, because otherwise -- well, otherwise the world was nothing but an editorial cartoon.

What is a novella? Too long to be a short story, but too short to be a novel, it leads a questionable existence: could it not be cut to a more precise conclusion? Alternatively, is there no further depth or dimension to which it might extend and blossom? I don't have the answer to that, but in Millhauser's hands, the format works -- at least with this, the five-chapter tale of a cartoonist -- for it mirrors the main character's own meticulous labors, the way in which he draws each frame of his animated hobby, choosing laborious repetition, rather than adapt to the technological advancements of the industry, for he knows that by using the cel-format, he will settle for a static and immovable background, and he wants the freedom of an ever-shifting, however slightly, perspective. So yes, it is perhaps too obvious that over the months spent drawing, his wife is growing a little too attached to his best friend, Max, and that his young daughter, Stella, is eerily growing to resemble her quiet and patient father -- that is, Millhauser could show us these things in fewer scenes -- but at the same time, each new scene has a different perspective, a different artistic metaphor saturating its sequences, and the rhythmic lapping of these moments has a cumulative effect that at last overwhelms and justifies the medium.

His father had once shown him what made a clock tick: it was the sound of a toothed wheel escaping from first one and then another little hook. The sound of time was the sound of a continual effort to escape from something that held you back. He replaced the key on the mirrory floor beneath the pendulum and the exposed gears and closed the glass door. The clock ticked, the pendulum swung back and forth. And he felt soothed, soothed deep in his bones, as the clock ticked and the pendulum swung back and forth. Slowly the pendulum swung back and forth. The clock ticked.

And one should have expected it all along, for it is impossible to briefly quote Millhauser: his sentences sustain one another, seamlessly hinging on one another, building and building to the most poetic of conclusions, each of which is, itself, only a part of something larger. Additionally, by filtering some of these stories through the lens of the past -- Franklin's memories of his father, who will turn up again as a ghost by the story's end -- we get character-building context, too. It becomes harder to tell what is "necessary," per se, to the fiction. It becomes harder, in fact, to tell what is fiction, and what is a bildingsroman, shifted across the genre of fiction to that of art, where Millhauser so often (and so comfortably) dwells, be it fashion, architecture, or low-brow cartoons. He recognizes that all art communicates something; it must, for it is a creation, no matter how poor.

This was the part Franklin liked best: the paper was blank, but as he watched, tense with expectation, he became aware of a slight motion on the paper, as of something rising to the surface, and from the depths of the whiteness, the picture would begin to emerge -- an edge here, a gray bit there, a ghostly arm reaching out of a shirt sleeve. More and more the darkness rose up out of the white, faster and faster, a great bursting forth of life -- and sudden he saw himself on the living room rug, reaching out to put a piece in his ship puzzle, but already he was lifting an edge of the photograph with his tongs, in order to slip the picture into the second tray, where the developer would be washed off and the picture would stop getting darker. His father had shown him once what happened if you didn't stop the action of the developer: the picture grew darker and darker until it was completely black. Black was nothing, and white was nothing too, but in between -- in between was the whole world.

This is where we all live: in between. There is life, and then there is death. There is creation, and there is destruction. And in between, there is everything else. Millhauser opens his story by having Payne open his window -- described as very much like a cartoon's frame -- and stepping outside of it, onto the roof, from where he has a miniature "adventure," his perspective shifted from being on the outside, his very nature transformed into that of "a dream." He has escaped the normal context of life, and from his garret studio, he attempts to do that with his own work, to find a release for that impossibility. It is work that, by the story's whimsical end, appears to have killed him: while showing his final film to his daughter, he is visited at first by Max and Cora, then by his newspaper boss, Kroll, and finally by his dead mother and father, and the story ends with their ceaseless applause -- an otherworldly send-off, perhaps, as he finally gives in to his tiredness.

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