In The Reign Of Harad IV by Steven Millhauser, 2006
The magic trick:
Using a creative disguise for writing about writing
Oh, it’s an age-old problem for writers. You want to create characters who are “normal,” characters who have jobs, who work for a living. But you as a writer haven’t had a real job in 30 years. So what do you do? You write about writers. You write about writing. But wait, you can’t do that. It’s embarrassing. Somehow it shows a lack of imagination or perhaps you feel guilty of narcissism. Maybe you get nervous when your fiction treads a little too close to memoir. Inevitably then the solution seems to be to write about artists, painters, sculptors. I guess writers figure we won’t notice. How many Lorrie Moore stories are about dancers and painters? She makes her protagonists college professors in the upper midwest but then has them teach not fiction but art history. Come on! You ain’t fooling anyone!
All of which leads us into today’s feature by Steven Millhauser, who is always coy to the point of obstruction about what he’s really talking about in his stories. This one, though, is about writing. It’s just gotta be. But the main character isn’t a professor or a dancer. He’s a creator of miniatures. So, there you go, that’s it – your gold medal award winner for disguising writing that’s about writing so that it isn’t embarrassingly obvious that it’s writing about writing. And that’s quite a trick on Millhauser’s part.
One day after the completion of an arduous and exhilarating task—he had made for one of the miniature orchards a basket of brilliantly lifelike red-and-green apples, each no larger than the pit of a cherry, and as a finishing touch he had placed on the stem of one apple a perfectly reproduced copper fly—the maker of miniatures felt in himself a stirring of restlessness. It wasn’t the first time he had experienced such stirrings at the end of a long task, but lately the odd, internal itching had become more insistent. As he tried to penetrate the feeling, to reveal it more clearly to himself, he thought of the basket of apples. The basket had been unusually satisfying to make, because it had presented him with a hierarchy of sizes: the basket itself, composed of separate slats of boxwood bound with copper wire, then the apples, and, at last, the fly. The tiny fly, with its precisely rendered wings, had caused him the most difficulty and the most joy, and it occurred to him that there was no particular reason to stop at the fly. Suddenly, he was seized by an inner trembling. Why had he never thought of this before? How was it possible? Didn’t logic itself demand that the downward series be pursued? At this thought he felt a deep, guilty excitement, as if he had come to a forbidden door at the end of a private corridor and heard, as he slowly turned the key, a sound of distant music.
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