Martin Dressler: Overview

Martin Dressler coveruh…huh.

Tl; Dr

A Dreiser-esque bildungsroman makes sense until about 80% of the way through, at which point it turns abruptly into a completely different novel written by R.L. Stine. At least, it’s what I imagine a Goosebumps to be like. I was always too chicken to read them.

That’s not a great summary.

Martin Dressler is an entrepreneur. We watch him grow from childhood, get his first job, and climb to heights no one could have predicted. He builds an empire of hotels, which ends spectacularly–in more ways than one.

Writing Style

I will say, the writer is consistent throughout. As I said in a previous post, he writes very much in the style of Theodore Dreiser. You’re really immersed in the world and mind of the characters, but it’s heavy on the facts and light on emotive elements. I love the style. It’s vivid in the way a good expose in Rolling Stone is vivid. And towards the end, even though the story goes full-on bat poop, the writing is the same. It’s just that, now, someone’s writing a good expose on a a circus-themed nightmare he had.

Characters

Martin is the main character, and he’s not likeable. You root for him anyway, because he’s a visionary. He also does some admirable things. His ambition causes him to aim high, and it’s hard not to cheer as he refuses to sell his ideas short. He ignores prejudices of his age and has a competent woman as his closest business confidant. But he’s unfaithful and a bully and entitled and, at the end, melodramatic.

Martin’s wife is also insufferable. She reminds me of Linton from Wuthering Heights–frail, waifish, self absorbed. I will say she isn’t whiny, though. Just a total waste of oxygen. Anyone around her has no choice but to make their lives about her or suffer the consequences. Now, you know I don’t mind unlikable characters, as long as they’re interesting. This one is not. And things end ridiculously with this character. Absolutely absurdly.

Anyway, characters are not the selling point of this book. The story is. Well, 80% of the story is. I don’t even know what the last 20% of this book was.

Highlights

I loved reading about the beginning of Martin’s life. As a bellboy, he notices details like the texture of luggage and the shine of brass, and the way he describes the bustle and brightness of the lobby is entrancing.

It was also great to watch Martin’s empire grow. You get to see the nuts and bolts of how he used new marketing techniques and how he found people with complementary skill sets.

There are good things about this book. I enjoyed reading it. UNTIL.

FWIW (My Opinion)

What in god’s name was this author doing. <– That was rhetorical.

The shift from a grounded, great-documentary-style to this starkly contrasting horror fantasy at the end was so utterly bizarre that I felt like my head was spinning, Exorcism-style (which would have been in place with this ending). Let me explain.

You’re just reading a story where Martin is building more and more experimental hotels, imagining whole villages underground with stores and themed activities and–kind of like one of the more over-the-top cruise ships, frankly. And then, all of a sudden, everything is totally out of control. But not in a way that feels like plot continuation. More like a way that feels like the author had a mental breakdown.

I won’t throw a spoiler out there, but Martin’s wife does something in contrast to every non-fantastic thing this book stood for until this point. After this, we’ll further see that all bets are off for realism. The new hotel Martin builds is like a freak show combined with a brothel combined with a nonstop pagan ritual. It’s like you’re in the casinos in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after taking everything potent in the suitcase and having it go very badly for you–in other words, totally incongruous with the rest of the novel. The switch happens without warning, for the most part. I was turning pages in total disbelief that this was the same book.

I cannot understand for the life of me what the idea was here. I mean, I read a bit about Millhauser, and it sounds like he was indeed trying to transition into the fantastic, but gradually and elegantly. That transition was about as gradual and elegant as slamming into a brick wall at 70 miles an hour. I’d say the ending is unsatisfying, but it didn’t even feel like I was the conclusion of the same story.

Guys, hard pass. Too bad. It was good reading until things went nuts.

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Martin Dressler, By Theodore Dreiser…No, Wait

I got a gorgeous new Kindle Paperwhite for Christmas. I think the things are a little overpriced and, with the Kindle app on the phone, they’re not really necessary. But oh my. It just feels so good to read on the Paperwhite. It’s an aesthetically delightful experience. I find myself picking up this beautiful device all the time, even when I really ought to be getting work done instead. I am having a great time, guys.

Martin Dressler coverIf you read my last post, you know I had it up to here (gestures) with American Pastoral. So I moved on to the next item on the Pulitzer list: Martin Dressler, by Steven Millhauser. I’m tearing through it. I wouldn’t call it engaging on a broad level, and I’m not even sure I’d call it good. But it feels like home to me. It’s right in the center of books I know how to read and know how to engage with, because reading this feels exactly like reading Dreiser.

A Bit About Dreiser

For all I’ve written about Dreiser (check out my tag cloud that hasn’t been cool since 2009 but that I still like anyway), I don’t know if I really ever explained him.  He’s a turn-of-the-century author, quintessentially American and Midwestern and highly sociological, whose novels were often bildungsroman-flavored and dealt with industrialism, urban development, and finding one’s way financially from the ground up.

He was a writer in a school called naturalism, which focused on realism (often the gritty, dark aspects of society) and nature vs nurture. Literary naturalists were fascinated by Darwin and the forces of nature. As they were often journalists, they had a detached but holistic view, seeing issues from many perspectives and reporting what they saw without moralizing. Though there’s a few things I think that keep Dreiser from being a spot-on naturalist, he’s got almost all the characteristics.

Also, here are some of Dreiser’s titles

  • Jennie Gerhardt
  • Sister Carrie
  • The Titan
  • An American Tragedy

Now for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. (See where I was going? It’s a very Dreiser title.)

Similarities Between Dreiser Novels and Martin Dressler

So, first, there’s the writing style. I can’t believe this is a book written in 1996. It is so convincingly turn-of-the-century in language and manner. (I’ve seen criticisms of its historical omissions, but I haven’t noticed anything obvious myself, and I’m fairly well-versed in general American history.) Also, it is so convincingly Dreiseresque, style-wise. There’s the same kind of dry, unemotional third-person storytelling Dreiser employs that allows no manipulation to stand in the way of analysis.

There’s also the bildungsroman aspect, the coming-of-age and discovery of the self found in Sister Carrie, The Genius, The Financier, An American Tragedy, etc. Martin Dressler follows Martin from childhood to success as a young adult. Much of this coming of age is concerned with capitalism and finding one’s way in their career, which is tre Dreiser. And there’s also a similar unflinching portrayal of era-appropriate gender dynamics and the injustices and abuse that male protagonists commit against the female characters. In fact, Martin is very like a Dreiser character in that he’s not quite a protagonist you want to root for. While you feel like you understand him and how he’s developed into this character, he’s moody and rude and unfaithful. Frankly, in many ways, he’s an ugly person. (Can we talk about that scene where he’s so moved by a ten-year-old’s affection that he promptly needs to visit a brothel to lose his virginity? Relevant: this tweet I just saw.)

That’s not all. The subject matter outside of the characters is all Dreiser, too. There’s the young person making their way in a big city, and that big city is growing and changing. There’s new building construction, profits and losses, innovation, industry. No detail is spared in discussing the ins and outs of daily business and the lives of those who run it.

This, too, is Dreiser-like: the level of detail and the inclusion of what we might, as students of literature, see as random scenes. These scenes only serve to help paint a picture of a whole without having any further relevance. I don’t know about you, but when I read, I’m always looking for patterns, foreshadowing, things to come back to later. You can’t do that with Dreiser, and I’m pretty sure you’re not going to be able to do it with Martin Dressler, either. It took me a bit to get used to this. I always remember the scene in An American Tragedy in which Clyde’s ride with his friends winds up in a terrible accident. I kept waiting for the consequences (or even relevance) of that scene to come back into play later in the novel, and it really never did. In Martin Dressler, there’s that aforementioned stomach-turner with the ten-year-old. I keep waiting for it to be relevant, but it seems to have just been thrown out there and never picked back up. Books like these often have elephants in the room that just hang out, waiting to be acknowledged so we can go about our literary business of treating everything that an author includes as if it has a greater purpose for us to uncover. But in Dreiser’s and Millhauser’s cases, I think it’s just there to be what it is. It’s one more thing to report, allowing us to draw our own conclusions from an assemblage of facts portrayed without the author’s leading or moralizing. It’s the journalism aspect of naturalism.

Anyway, the experience of reading Martin Dressler is so familiar. I feel like I know the book already because of what I think of as my Dreiser period. (You know, like Picasso’s blue period. Except no one considers my reading art. Sad trombone.) As I said, I don’t actually know if I like the book much or if I think it’s well done, but reading it feels second nature to me. It’s strange. Also pleasant. I’m glad to be reading again.