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La Liberté

(Perhaps the dogs always told these stories and we could not understand them. Now they tell their stories here in North Park, as does the pack in Cruz Park a little to the south, and so across the world. The tales are not all the same, though there are similarities. There is no possibility of gathering them all. The dogs do not welcome eager anthropologists with their tape recorders and their agendas. (The cats after the Change tell stories as well, but no one will ever know what they are (278).

Kij Johnson’s “The Evolution of Trickster Stories Among the Dogs of North Park After the Change” is written like a dog’s version of the Bible in reverse, ending with their own book of Genesis with the story of how One Dog Creates the World. This story is half allegory, with the archetypal trickster character One Dog, whose stories are separated from the main action of the story, but fuel the overall message. Johnson appears to be commenting on and questioning people’s motives for abandoning their animals and also the way ‘civilized’ society has come to be associated with, and defined by, a spoken and written language. Enslaved cultures have generally been those without a written or spoken common language.  Language (in addition to opposable thumbs) is essentially what separates us from the animals; through language we are able to contemplate logic and pass on our heritage. Johnson is also drawing a parallel between the dogs “after the change” and cultures thought to be inferior and have been enslaved throughout history, specifically Africans and Native Americans. It was a common belief amongst some European slave owners that slaves were no more than animals, because they were of a different race, they were often illiterate, and they spoke a different language. If was widespread knowledge that these differences made slaves inferior and therefore naturally submissive to their owners. Johnson points out in an unorthodox way, that even though most slaves could not read and write, they passed on stories through oral tradition and had their own unique heritage. This mysterious change, in which all the animals are suddenly are able to talk, capable of processing human emotion and logic, frightens humans. In American history, because African slaves generally outnumbered Caucasian plantation owners, they lived in constant fear of mutiny. In order to keep rebellion down, some owners abused their slaves and if they rebelled, they were killed.  In the beginning, the dogs are still naive as to how “people are [both] nice and not nice,” but Linna understands this to mean “how can they stop loving” them (286). How can people be kind and generous one moment and cruel and dismissive the next? How can once race be superior to another? This question does not only apply to how people treat animals, but obviously to how people treat other people as well and it is so utterly complex that we have been trying to answer it for centuries. Maybe it will never be answered as long as humans have the power to choose between “nice and not nice”.

Millhauser’s story “A Precursor of the Cinema,” feels as if he combined his two other stories “In the Reign of Harad IV” and “Eisenheim The Illusionist” to create a larger story on motion, illusion, and advancement of technology. Millhauser seems to grasp two sides of man, the curious and those who want to go beyond the curious and create reality. For example in this story Millhauser takes a man who creates paintings that seem life like and the people who come to see these works are in wonder and awe. Another thing Millhauser does very well is he able to show how people can be cruel and unbelievers can cause grief to the artist/illusionist/sculptor. For example, Eisenheim’s tale, the investigator not only wants to know how Eisenheim does his illusion he is more than willing to arrest him so that he may plunder the illusionists shop. In this story it is the Media that becomes the enemy of the artist.  I believe that have a firm understanding of both the protagonist and antagonist creates the one thin line that makes all the difference in the stories we have read of Millhauser.

Long Story, Short

I will curse the stars and go down fighting. But it will still have been a wonderful thing, to cross the mist.

“The Man Who Bridged the Mist” Three things make this story eerie.

One. I feel as if I’ve read this story before, or had this experience at one point in time in my life. As a seventh grader we built bridges for one of our elective classes. They were made with toothpicks and glue, marshmallows, string, or some combination of the three. The day before we had to present our bridge (the test was to see how many textbooks they could hold) it collapsed in the night. Nobody knows what happened. It was tragic and we had to completely rebuild and our project ended up losing because we ran out of time.

But that’s not why it’s familiar. It must be the journey. The story itself follows a rather simplistic pattern, a crossing, some deaths, monsters but don’t worry the people you care the most about don’t die, and a happily ever after. I like happily ever afters.

Two. All I could think of while reading this story was a documentary we had to watch in the fifth grade while learning about California history. Watching this film always made queasy. When reading this story I expected the bridge to inevitably fall into the mist, probably killing dozens of people. I expected Rasalie’s mist crossing boat to be the safest way across. But it’s not and the bridge is great and I feel almost cheated because I wanted more drama and a less predictable and cheery ending.

Three. I do not understand why it is that this story follows “Spar,” or for that matter, why “Spar” follows “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles.” If “Spar” is about an abusive relationship like I think it is, then are the two stories on either side of it there just to cushion the blow of that story?

Lady Gaga’s Most Outrageous Outfits

“Women, it was argued, were never more naked than when concealed from view (174).”

When we consider the lengths in which a Muslim woman in Iraq, for example, might go to cover her body, this line is particularly intriguing. The implications of this line could be that a woman’s choice of dress speak to her physical as well as mental confidence. A woman who reveals more of her body through scandalous clothing, might be projecting a certain confidence in her appearance, though she is physically naked. Whereas a woman who is more covered up, might be saying that she is more uncertain of herself. Of course the opposite might be argued for either statement, but it is curious how a woman’s clothing is often seen as a reflection of her soul.

“Restless and dissatisfied, they grew in every direction; in some instances they exceeded the size of rooms and had to be worn in large outdoor spaces, like backyards and public parks (176).”

Many of Millhauser’s stories reflect a certain unrest within society. As seen in “The Tower,” human beings are never completely satisfied with what they have because there is always someone who can make an improvement, an adjustment, a suggestion for the next best thing. “A Change in Fashion” is essentially a commentary on consumerism: the selling of fashion to women and the selling of a woman’s body through fashion.

“With a single design, Hyperion had freed fashion from its long dependence on the female shape (172).”

It’s interesting that Millhauser chose to name his trend-setting fashion designer after the infamous titan, Hyperion, in his “A Change in Fashion.” According to the ancient Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus, Hyperion is the titan god of light and intelligence, who is one of the four to rebel against his father, Kronos, and is eventually restrained by Zeus. Hyperion is known for his attention to detail, especially regarding the rotation of the planets around the sun and also the changing of the seasons. He is, according to myth, the first to recognize that the change in seasons can be attributed to the rotation of the sun and moon. Millhauser describes the changes in fashion according to the seasons and the constant demand for something new and exciting.

It was as if, after half a century of reckless exposure, a weariness had overcome women, a yearning for withdrawal, a disenchantment with the obligation to invite a bold male gaze.  In every skirt fold and blouse button, one could sense the new longing for hiddenness.  

I’ve found that Millhauser’s imagined histories have quickly become my favorite set of readings thus far in the course.  The propensity he displays for creating this comprehensive detail is really admirable in these imagined worlds.  For example, in this specific selection, Millhauser not only is able to create and render these incredibly elaborate developments in fashion, but also their consequences on a social level.

Stimulated by the unseen, lashed by the unknown, sexual fantasies became at once more violent and more devious. 

The retreat and inevitable expansion that occurs with the more conservative forms of fashion, with conservative simply meaning concealment of the female form, brought about an interesting consequence in the form of increased sexual fantasies of a violent nature.  I thought this was particularly interesting considering that most contemporary arguments that urge for more conservative female dress, cite provocative dress as a significant factor in cases of rape or sexual assault.  Essentially, that dress of a more revealing nature instigates violent sex crimes.  Yet, Millhauser suggests through this work that perhaps even conservative dress would inspire the same result.  That the imagining of the female form produces an equally savage result as seeing a woman’s body in detail.

It’s really a fascinating suggestion, which I felt was entirely too short lived within the framework of the story, as it proposes wider social issues that extend far beyond the text.  What are the consequences of fashion in cases of sexual assault? Would conservative dress really prevent sex crimes? Is concealment actually more provocative?  In creating a sort of parelel historical development, Millhauser actually creates a social commentary on the nature of women’s dress and it’s criminal repercussions.

I just think this is really cleverly done on the author’s part, as it is neither overwhelmingly obvious or suffocating in its specificity of intent.  This is by far one of my favorite pieces from the semester, as I feel it is one of the most feminist pieces we’ve encountered, and feminist in a way that is thought provoking due to its lack of a conclusion on violent fantasies as they relate to dress.

It was titled Waiting for the Right Moment. One day, she explained, he’d pass by the window and, given the correct lighting, moment, and identical gesture, his shadow would match, for an instant, the painted one. His feet tingled as he stood uneasily at the edge of the flat, dark shape. “It’s only a matter of time.” she said.

The last lines of this story that related to the title threw me for a loop. It turned a could be romantic story into a nightmare. The story as a whole had me waiting for the moment that the woman in the story killed her boyfriend. Also, I think that the details in this story were the thing that made it so unnerving. They started off as normal, but throughout the story they got more and more complex. The more complex they got, the more I started to become freaked out by the woman. It was like Phillip Graham could have just wrote down the things she was making and I would have felt the same way the man did without being told that he was beginning to get freaked out by all the art she was making of him. I was really hoping along with the man that she would stop making the art because my heart was beating faster as I read it.

The way this was written is phenomenal. It keeps the reader enthralled without much insight into what the characters looked like. I found I didn’t care what they looked like or what it was like inside their heads throughout the whole thing. It was an interesting way to read something. I’m going to be reading more of Phillip Graham due to this story.

It started out as pasta…

Fashonistas

The new dress completed the urge to concealment by developing the bodice upward into a complete covering for the face and head. Now the Hyperion dress entirely enclosed the wearer, who was provided with artful spaces for the mouth, nostrils, and eyes…Women, who had gradually been disappearing into the hidden spaces of the new style, had at last become invisible. 

Millhauser’s story “A Change in Fashion” is fascinating to me, mostly because of its believability. Fashion, women’s fashion in particular, has changed much the way that Millhauser describes it. Seasons pass and bring new designs for the susceptible housewife or teen to imitate and enjoy. For centuries this phenomenon has happening over and over. His allusion to the three-foot wigs of the 18th century made me laugh because they were very much real. Women have been constantly trying to liberate themselves from the confines of the man-made world, emphasis on “man.” By the 1920’s this idea of visual liberation led to the shortening of everything: hems, sleeves, hair. What was acceptable as fashionable and appropriate changed from season to season, year to year, decade to decade. And what goes up must come down. Unless we want to end up in a world of “Edenic nakedness” (177). This is why I don’t believe this story to be one of the fantastic. This could most definitely happen. Yet it is the way that Millhauser writes his stories that makes this one in particular one that will stick with me.

Fashion is an expression of boredom, of restlessness, the successful designer understands the ferocity of that boredom and provides it with new places in which to calm its rage for a while.

Millhauser takes style obsession to the extreme in “A Change in Fashion” and comments on art in the process. Art, especially the fantastic, pushes people into novel situations, which are thrilling or mysterious, but can become so alien that people long for reality’s norms. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, the human element is lost entirely and the project develops purely for the sake of the art. However, art is originally a way of freeing the mind from the constraints of the world, cultivating one’s imagination, and synthesizing a meaningful existence. It starts with freedom and connection, but can fail if style becomes more important than connection and content.

Women, who had gradually been disappearing into the hidden spaces of the new style, had at last become invisible.

Dresses, freed at last form bodies, became what they had always aspired to be: works of art, destined for museums and private collections.

It was as if a superior race of beings had been inserted into the world: the race of costume. A tension was building; there were rumors of an uprising of women, who would overthrow the dresses that had rendered them superfluous.

Millhauser attributes aspiration to these dresses, an amusing detail indicating that women have lost all control of their apparel, and perhaps never had control in the first place.  As in other Millhauser stories, this story contains the longing for new exciting things following a wild fad, and a vividly detailed, cerebral examination of art.

Her bare feet were fit into a pair of her dancing shoes, opposite one 0f his empty pairs. Her eyes were closed and she was smiling as her shining body swayed before an invisible partner. He returned to bed unseen and so disturbed that he didn’t notice when she came back to lie beside him. When his feet finally stopped twitching he fell asleep–with his fist in his mouth, afraid of what he might reveal of his dreams.

The story “Waiting for the Right Moment” by Philip Graham is a haunting one. It is explicitly about art, yet carries tones of obsession and desire that make this story so carelessly terrifying. At first, when the protagonist is charmed by this woman and her fanciful art projects centered around him and their relationship, the reader is charmed as well. She seems only to adore him and want to make him happy. Not that she seems to want any less by the end of the story. But the way he reacts to each encounter with her work seems to slowly grind him down to a breaking point.

To see him at this breaking point shows just how much human interaction can break us. The artwork that is produced become pieces of this man. When they are slowly auctioned off they tear at the fabric of the life he has come to know. This tearing began the moment they met, and will not cease. When he breaks and returns to where they met, he seems to gain his composure. The insight that has been given leads the reader to believe that this is a moment of resolution. But by the end of the story, it is not. At one point, he will really be torn apart. It is only a matter of time.

The fantastic element of this story seems to follow the pattern of much of Millhauser’s work in that it contains a plausible attempt to explain scientifically or logically something that doesn’t actually exist. Rather than introducing the fantastic without explanation but with enough surety to keep readers from questioning it, Millhauser spends a great deal of time examining how such things could come to be. In “The Wizard of West Orange,” he carefully creates as the setting this sort of invention factory, similar to Roald Dahl’s chocolate factory except for machines, presided over by the Wizard, who is a technical genius but seems to possess no powers we would call magic.

I’m having trouble identifying, or at least describing, the human element. The writer of the diary experiences a kind of divine bliss in the haptograph. Why is he so taken with these touches that are not based in experiences of the real world? The realm of the story is mechanical and businesslike – does the writer yearn for human contact, for intimacy? Or is the human element, rather, that he has to learn to live without the bliss once the haptograph is smashed? Is the story about the transience of happiness and learning to live without it? I will keep thinking.

I loved this story. The characters emerge from Johnson’s prose fully imagined and engaging. The world is fascinating and weird, but Johnson was so sure of it that I never questioned mist solid enough to support a boat through which swim monsters. The story stayed grounded in real problems, starting with the need to build a bridge over a river (of whatever) and including all the challenges inherent in such a project.

I read “The Man Who Bridged the Mist” before I turned in my second story, but I have since thought about it in the contexts of world-building and of length. Despite the alien landscape in which the story takes place, Johnson keeps it rooted in the human significance of what happens. We learn about the quirks of this society only as that becomes necessary, and though Kit sometimes thinks to himself things about relationship contracts that he probably wouldn’t need to be so descriptive about, we don’t notice because Johnson doesn’t break the flow of the narrative in order to impart such information. Johnson also kept her story from becoming about the world. It is tempting for writers like me who enjoy describing things to get lost in imagining the place of the story and let the story stagnate. Johnson used the world as the backdrop to Kit’s discovery of a person who won’t become part of the regular ebb and flow of his life.

I loved this story, but, especially toward the beginning, I found it somewhat unwieldy. Having finished it, though, I realize that all of it was necessary to the power of the ending. Johnson had to take the time and the care that she did in showing us what Kit’s life is like so that we understand how unusual it is for him to say he will accompany Rasali on her journey across the Mist Ocean and what it says about his process of self-discovery that he does so. Johnson made the length of the story tolerable by filling it with rich and satisfying detail about the characters (once we got to know them).

What’s so fantastic about a man falling in love with a woman and finding out she’s crazy? Nothing. Does Graham’s story have fantastic potential? Well, I thought so at the point of the story where she is dancing in the shoes that are glued down, but Graham’s ending had me not seeing where that one scene is supposed to play a part. I feel that it’s all a perfectly normal thing. The meeting of the two is nothing out of the ordinary, they move in together and that seemed quite fast to me, but hey that happens in life. His reaction to her art was exactly what I was thinking as time rolled on– he wasn’t her lover, but her inspiration. Is that wrong of her? Well, of course, but artists do that. They thrive off their inspiration whether it’s a person or not. He was annoyed, on edge by her art work of his every hand gesture or eye blink. That’s normal. I would have kicked the girl to the curb, but he stayed with her. Did he love her too much to let her go? Or was he enjoying the attention that every human yearns for? I’m curious as to which is more weird. The guy who continues to put up with the girl or the girl who does these things. Graham hits a really good point in his story about the human need to feel wanted, what kinds of things we do for people we “love”, but there are some crazier things that have possibly happened in the events of pursuing love.

I do believe, however, that the girl shows more loneliness than any character normally shows. With the dancing scene, she appears to me to be entranced. I think maybe she had lost another lover or there’s some cheesy idea that all she ever wanted to do was dance with her lover. It’s best not to read outside of the story though, work with what you’re given and if I were to do that, my diagnosis would be that she’s simply a crazy fool in love with the ideas behind her artwork. Now the man, he seemed to just be a fool. As I said before, who would allow such weird insanity to take place in their life? Him. Is it wrong? No, because he could just be foolishly in love with this woman and we do what we can to keep our love, but he could also be just as lonely as she and so he lets her continue her train of crazy so he won’t have to face the world alone. In the end, people do crazy things when they’re in love.

“Waiting for the Right moment.” I enjoyed the flow of this story. Graham seems to have a firm grasp of each of his characters. As the story continues from their first meeting until the ominous end, we see something else in Graham’s story, momentum. His pacing is really well thought out. I have one complaint  I did not see enough of the fantastical to really grasp the ending. For example, the man is having a normal reaction to the apartment being filled with art, he shows a slight relief when she says she is going to have an art show, but once the art is sold their is no time for him to feel sorry for the loss of art for she continues on to the next project. I feel Graham should has spent more time in that moment, and perhaps use that for some fantastical element, such a deep sense of loss, or feeling that he has been picked apart. What I mean to say is the shoes and the tingling feet was not enough for me to buy into the fact that this is a fantastical story, nor does it prepare the reader for a shadow at the end. I just did not understand it.

“She could teach them her fudoki and they would become her family. She would have a home again.” 

“People have their own fudoki, Small Cat realized, though there seemed to be no order to the stories and she didn’t see yet how they made a place home.” 

“Everyone wanted to tell their stories and to know where they fit in their own fudoki. She was not that different.”

Kij Johnson’s “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” was refreshingly light-hearted and innocent. The short chapters, easy vocabulary, happy ending, and embedded moral all led me to conclude that this story is essentially a children’s story. Because I understood that the intent was not to be “literary” it was easy to let things go that I would normally consider flaws. For example, many of the descriptions and jokes were juvenile such as, “North was turning out to be a long way away” and “After the first time, she never forgot to pull off the feathers before eating!” If Johnson wanted the reader to take the story “seriously,” she would have used better descriptors than “big” and “little” and certainly avoided corny jokes ending in exclamation points. Her other stories have demonstrated this ability time and time again. She still gets an important message across, as many fables and children’s stories do. Small Cat comes to understand that the stories we can share define us, she “comes to age” over the course of her journey, and learns to respect differences. The depth of the ideas presented, particularly those about what stories mean to individuals, is easy to understand because of the simple language and format of the story. There’s no need to hide the morals in thick metaphor because the intent for a child to be able to understand. “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” is evidence that you can successfully break the rules once you know them.

While I understood how to approach “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles,” I had no context for which to interpret the story that (bizarrely) followed, “Spar.” I found a great interview with Kij Johnson in which she discusses the story a little bit here. From the interview, I gather that she was toying with unconventional story-writing. For example, she practically eliminates the plot and scarcely characterizes the protagonist. My best interpretations after sifting through the slime were 1) the irony of a woman who wanted a physical relationship with Gary and ended up in a terrible sexual situation after all 2) a metaphor for an abusive relationship in general or 3) understanding one’s place in the minds of others. Maybe. It’s hard to interpret. One thing’s for sure: “Spar” is not a children’s story.

 

-Ashley

Ponies

At first, I didn’t think Kij Johnson’s “Ponies” was a story about peer pressure. Honestly, I didn’t think this was anything but a nightmarish Nick at Nite special. It wasn’t until Jenny and I were having lunch that I saw the light.

“So that was pretty awful,” I’d said over my chicken.

“Peer pressure stories always are,’ she’d said over her hummus.

A peer pressure story? No. Yes?

Johnson creates the story of Sunny and Barbara and their relationship in a setting that, initially, seems to be anything but a cover for the cruelty on display.  Barbara starts the story being defensive when the awful TopGirl is mean about Sunny and questions her beauty, but eventually ends up destroying her friend for the simple reasons that others tell her to.  It was an interesting choice that the horses all started out as unicorns, or some other form of winged magical creature, before being cut down into wordless, and typical, horses. Once it became clear, the metaphor for peer pressure and bullying almost becomes too much in the story. Sunny’s blood smells like cotton candy, so it’s alright that she’s having her wings and horn cut off and being left to bleed all over the paddock. It’s alright that Barbara is initially resistant, crying out “I can’t!” when she is told to cut out Sunny’s voice, only to make the non-verbal decision to harm her pony anyway!

“But even as she cries until her face is caked with snow and tears, she knows she’s going to. When she’s done she picks up the knife and pulls herself upright” (161).

Johnson’s choice to leave Barbara’s decision-making process silent was understandable, but a little bit disappointing. At no point in the story is Barbara anything but a deeply shallow (get it?) character, and this would have been a good place for her to liven up and stop being such a useless loser.

The most compelling line in the entire story, in my opinion, is when Sunny says, “Not even for friends. Not even for you” (161).

Sunny finds the strength to stand up for herself in a way that Barbara was never able to. She’s killed because of it, of course, but it’s there. All memorable hazing stories, the kind that makes parents to go from high school to high school warning of the dangers of peer pressure and hazing, seem to end in death. I would be able to reconcile this story if it had changed Barbara, but it didn’t. She stumbled in after TheOtherGirls, looking to play a game. Sad.

 

Legends and Journeys

The fudoki was the collection of stories about all the cats that had lived in a place. It described what made it a home and what made the cats a family. Mothers taught their kittens the fudoki. If the mother died too soon, the other cats, the aunts and cousins, would teach the kittens. A cat with no fudoki was a cat with no family, no home and no roots. 

Kij Johnson’s story “The Cat Who Walked A Thousand Miles” was a delightful read. It reminded me of two other stories in her collection, “Dia Chjerman’s Tale” and “The Empress Jingu Fishes.” These three share the idea of legend and tradition that Johnson seems to favor, and these aren’t the only stories that have this idea ingrained in them. That they follow this strain is very appealing to me because of the believability that is almost immediately given to them. Writing  something as a history or a legend lends a religious and traditional aspect to the narrative. That is what is so wonderful about this specific story. Johnson’s ability to make an imagined and beautifully written history is admirable and enviable.

That being said, I don’t like how this story ended up so resolved. I think Johnson was looking for a way to end it how she wanted it to end and not how it may have ended had she not been so intentional in her message. It ends on a note of “it’s about the journey not the destination” and is wrapped up in a nice bow. I’m not objecting to this; I just dont like it resolved so neatly. It doesn’t seem to fit the style she has established throughout her collection so far. I can’t wait to read more of her, though. I really do enjoy her choice of writing material.

Crossroads

There is also a third way, which is the one I like best. That’s when you can stop for a moment, midway along the path, and turn your head in both directions: toward the other town, which shimmers through the thick branches of oak and pine, and toward our town, almost obscured by the woods but still showing through. Exactly where I am, when I stand there and look both ways, who can say?

In Millhauser’s “The Other Town,” it’s impossible to escape the author’s metaphor for art. Just replace any instance of “the other town” with the word “art” and you have arguments for why art is important, immoral, economical, or wonderful, descriptions of people trying to escape reality, the degrees of the fantastic, and the beauty of imagination. I love this story.

Although most of us simply enjoy visiting the other town without thinking very much about it, there are those who can’t help wondering why it is there at all. Some say the other town serves as a welcome distraction from the cares of our town…Such arguments, others claim, are suitable only for children. The real value of the town, in their opinion, lies in the way it permits us to see our town more clearly or completely….we feel compelled to look at things closely, to linger over details that would otherwise fail to exist at all…it offers us freedoms unthinkable at home…Voices are regularly raised in opposition to the whole foolish enterprise, despite the sense shared by most of us that life without the other town would be unsatisfactory, in some way difficult to explain.

The town and the other town are reality and art, and the middle ground the narrator loves is the imagination. Millhauser describes the other town, the townspeople, their arguments and obsessions so vividly and believably, I was quickly reminded of similar arguments about art in our society. The in between realm is, of course, an artist’s favorite spot. The choice to borrow from the real or the fantastic can only be made at the intersection of the real and the fictitious. Millhauser is truly marvelous.

“Crossroads” by István Orosz

 

In “The Tower,” Millhauser revisits the idea of obsession and search for an unattainable or unsustainable euphoria.

The other Tower – the striving Tower, the always rising and changing and ungraspable Tower, retreated into the realm of hearsay, of legend. Now the new Tower was the stuff of daily life: an immobile Tower, rigid with completion. Though not without splendor, it lacked the sharp mystery of unachieved things. Even the ascent to heaven no longer seemed remarkable, though travelers still returned with tales of dazzling radiance.

The imaginary heaven proved far more compelling than the reported one, which was difficult to visualize and in any case had become half dream by the time it reached the lower regions of the Tower.

Imagination, though wonderful, can create expectations too wonderful for reality to meet, and any reality, no matter how fantastic it once was, soon becomes commonplace once it exists. Millhauser indicates several times that the Tower is not entirely structurally sound. It grows too quickly without enough care and it collapses like an impossible theory. It seems that there is also some political/social commentary present in this story concerning classes, perhaps immigration, and the dangers of idealism and stagnation. This is a complex and nuanced story that brilliantly leaves you waiting for an inevitable crash.

As we worked through A Life on Paper, I noticed that I began to recognize many of the names of minor characters the narrator mentions in passing. Chateaureynaud references characters from other stories throughout this collection. Even Blandeuil the insignificant dolceola virtuoso and Guardicci and his cousin make cameo appearances in other characters’ stories, which makes Chateaureynaud’s fantastic universe delightfully cohesive. I’m inspired to find his other stories and track the interactions of disparate characters.

While reading “Another Story,” I couldn’t help but think of “The Excursion.” The former seems to be the inspiration for the latter, if the reader wishes to take the narrator’s tale as truth. I’d love to know whether these two stories were intended to go together, despite the three year gap between their dates. If they weren’t, they are utilized excellently in this collection.

Even among people who believed firmly that the Tower would one day reach heaven, the early expectation of a rapid and almost miraculous success had long been abandoned. It was therefore natural enough to feel that the rise toward heaven was, in a sense, part of the unchanging essence of the Tower, that the act of completion belonged to a different tower, a dream tower, a tower out of childhood stories, and was in any case so far from the future that it no longer had a direct force in the lives of any but a handful of fanatical believers.

At this point in Steven Millhauser’s “The Tower” I began thinking about modern society and how Millhauser essentially uses the Tower as a analogy for the way humans have always thought and existed for thousands of years. As the story continued, I became more convinced that my first assumption had been proven true. Millhauser gives tons of examples throughout his writing that serve as descriptions of the rise and fall of society throughout history. The Tower is also a play on the rise of religion as well. Faith is put into the Tower in the beginning, and then when I got to this part of the story, I was left thinking that this is what every Christian, Buddhist, Jew, Islam, etc. has probably gone through in their life at some point and time.

Was it possible that the great Tower didn’t actually exist? After all, no one had ever seen the entire structure, which kept vanishing from sight no matter where you stood. Except for a handful of visible bricks, the whole thing was little more than a collection of rumors, longings, dreams, and travelers’ tales. It was less than a memory. The Tower was a prodigious absence, a soaring void, a pit dug upward into the air. It was as if each part of the visible tower had begun to dissolve under the vast pressure of invisible parts, operating in every direction.

The Tower itself represents the question of faith. After a while, when we have faith in something great and powerful, we expect to see results, something tangible in this world that proves to us that we were not believing in nothing the whole of our existence, that our lives actually mean something. When the people start to doubt that the Tower actually exists, the way they all start to live as the story progresses is astoundingly close, if not the same, as how the human population feels after they have stopped believing in a higher power. This passage also foreshadows the inevitable fall of the Tower and, in my opinion, the fall of human existence. Which is bound to happen.

It is not a coincidence that the Tower is “extremely high.” This is Millhauser using the Tower to represent high expectations. We all have high expectations and hopes that all of our goals will be achieved. This story brings the expectations back to a level of deep understanding. Sometimes high hopes and expectations are not all they are cracked up to be. Not everything in life will go as smoothly as you plan, and you must get up and “rebuild” the expectations and hopes that you strive for in everyday life.

The Tower also represents the fickleness of people as a whole. We lose interest in things that we accomplish and try to fill that void that we are left with, with something different. When the Tower’s inhabitants grow tired of always looking up to the sky, they decide to dig into the ground, but only make it two hundred feet, before abandoning that project and returning to the surface of the earth, to once again try to fill the void of boredom with something else. Something miraculous will never be enough for the human race, we must always have something more.

 It lacked the sharp mystery of unachieved things.

He couldn’t have said it better.

 

 

 

Ponies and Cats

So you’ve got some “Wolf Trapping” and then you follow that up with “Ponies” and by then I’m pretty sure Johnson only writes terribly sad stories about animals dying. But then you’ve got “The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles” and that’s sort of a happy story about a cat finding a family. You’ve got a human who might be a wolf (werewolf?), a pony with a voice, wings, and a voice, and then you’ve got a cat with a story and a whole lot of rational thought. So, are animals fantastic? Or, can’t they be?

Especially in children’s literature there always seems to be a talking animal. One who is a very good friend to a young child who’s incredibly bright. I think that probably has something to do with the relationships we experience with our animals. I was discussing with my parents today about the fact that my 12 year old dog was diagnosed with Cushings. Her strange behavior is what lead my parents to bring her to the vet’s office. So it’s about that bond, and the relationship between people and animals.

But it also probably has a lot to do with the fact that animals seem so human at times, but yet so distant at others. They can’t speak, but they’re insanely good communicators. You know when your dog wants out of the house and you know when your dog is cold. There’s a saying that floats around in the horseworld, “I’ve never met a better person than my horse.” Animals exhibit so many of the characteristics we idealize in people. They’re loyal and determined, forgiving and gentle. They can also hold grudges and become fearful of certain people. They can offer comfort when you need it most, yet the greatest dog you know won’t tell you when something’s wrong with their own body. Animals are fantastic creatures.

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The In Crowd

Sunny shivers, her eyes shut tight.  Barbara cuts off the second wing and lays it beside the first.”

“Ponies” left me with a feeling of uncertainty.  I had to read it a couple of times to truly grasp the concept of the four page short story.  At first, the fable felt colorful and girly, with ponies that had horns and wings, but it turned dark quickly.  I didn’t quite understand the meaning of a “cutting-out party”, but once I grasped that concept, I realized how complicated Johnson had made this story.  The idea that in order to fit in with “TheOtherGirls”, your must pick two out of three things that your pony will have to loose; horn, wings, or voice.  In the end, it was revealed that they would have to cut out all three in order to truly fit in.

Johnson is relating this story to the characteristics that people get rid of in order to conform to society.  Conformity allows people to change, and with that change they lose qualities that had once made them interesting.  “Ponies” portrayed the  extent people will actually go to in order to be apart of a group, no matter who they have to become.  This story was sad and enlightening to how some people struggle to find their place in society.  “Ponies” was especially heartbreaking, since it was about little girls, and in reality, children do lose the characteristic that make them different and special in order to be popular.

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