Jan 152010

I’m reading Millhauser as part of my exploration of short stories that seem to disobey the rules.  My question–my thesis, perhaps–seems to hinge on the question, what is a short story?  In “The Barnum Museum”, the narrator appears to be a 3rd person plural, ‘we’, but at times the closeness of the narration feels much more like first.   Even though nothing about the narrator is ever revealed as a character, there is a strong sense of ‘voice’ about this narrator.  I think Millhauser in particular does this really well…hides his narrators without making them characters.  In reading James Wood’s chapter on narrating in How Fiction Works, I was struck by the idea of ‘free indirect’ narration, a concept akin (I think) to stream of consciousness.   This topic came up in Jess Row’s lecture at residency.  The thing is, I don’t think Millhauser is doing this even.  He’s almost using ‘close-omniscience’ as a narrative voice.  Speaking collectively for his village but not really allowing the reader access to this narrative presence.  Of course that’s just one aspect of this story that shakes it free of the confines of traditional short story structure.  I was also listening to a podcast of Jeffrey Eugenides reading the Harold Brodky story, “Spring Fugue,” in which Eugenides and Deborha Treisman discuss whether or not Brodky’s story is in fact a story, or a prose-poem.  Eugenides says that he doesn’t think it matters that much (though he does think it is a story.)  I wonder what others think about this.  When does a story stop being a story?  In the Millhauser story, there are no main characters, other than the invisible, plural narrator and the museum itself.  Yet it does move like a story.  There is tension, drama, movement through time.  I’m not looking for anyone to write the thesis for me, but I am interested to know what others thing about the weird stories out there.  I know these lines are getting blurrier with time, but is there still a line?   By the way, the NewYorker fiction podcasts are great, and free, on Itunes if you haven’t been there before.

—Richard Farrell

  No Responses to “The Barnum Museum”

  1. Wow, your post evokes all kinds of responses with me – I’ll try to sort them out (and keep in mind I’m seeing from a CNF sensibility):

    1) I’m doing my first critical essay on Woolf’s Death of the Moth, basically noticing that it follows a perfect plot arc, but only if you replace “plot” with “empathy.” She sets the piece in complete omniscience, then goes into the 3rd person intimate as she notices said moth, then finally goes into first person as she allows herself to be completely immersed in the death of this moth, making the death of the moth an epic struggle for both Woolf and humanity. I’m still developing this, but it’s worth reading if you feel like it, and the essay’s only 2 1/2pp long!

    2) The whole “close omniscience” thing makes me think of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories, where I always feel like I’m listening to some villager tell a story about the other villagers. Is this the kind of voice you’re talking about, or am I getting it all wrong (I haven’t read Millhauser)?

    3) Is “The Barnum Museum” about Barnum’s American Museum? I ask because Barnum figures prominently into Matthew Goodman’s book The Sun and the Moon (he was the visiting CNF alumnus this residency).

    4) I’m about to subscribe to the New Yorker podcasts. Thanks for the tip!

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