Roy Kesey Lingers in “The New Automaton Theater”

Roy Kesey’s All Over is technically the second book from new independent publisher Dzanc Books; the first was a reprint of Kesey’s novella Nothing in the World just a few months ago. Tonight he’s in New York, reading at the Happy Ending series with Ben Percy and Min Jin Lee, but before that, he wants to share with you his enthusiasm for Steven Millhauser…

roy-kesey.jpgImpossible thing, this thing about a favorite! Can other people do this? Who are these people, these favorite-havers, and with which sort of knife do they cut the list down to one?

But, okay. So. Speaking of knives: Steven Millhauser, The Knife Thrower, “The New Automaton Theater.” Because, how does he do that?

By which I mean: the story is a house of cards, but not the usual kind: it is a reverse pyramid balanced on a single card.

By which I also mean: this story walks blindfolded to the end of the gangplank, and we hold our breaths. The swords unsheathed just in case, the eye-patches and parrots and peg-legs, et cetera: the story wipes the sweat from its inky brow, and steps forward for the last time on earth. Except it doesn’t fall. Instead, it takes another step. And still doesn’t fall. Another step. Another. Still not falling, and now it starts to jog.

By which I really mean: this story, this new automaton theater, it expands and expands beyond its already ingenious premise until we almost (but never quite) want it to stop expanding so that we can get our heads around what just happened in that paragraph right back there. The narrator starts off talking about real historical objects that exist at the far edge of our capacity for understanding and wonderment–the mechanical songbirds of Hero (or Heron) of Alexandria, the mechanical duck (four hundred separate pieces per wing! Fully functional intestines!) of Jacques de Vaucanson—and then says that in his (the narrator’s) town, such things are small beer. Now, that is not a hard thing to think or write. But Millhauser actually imagines and describes these farther machines, and then farther, and then farther.

He also uses the three-way he has established (automaton-automatist, automaton-theatergoer, automatist-theatergoer) to explore a separate three-way that speaks both to the experience of the characters in the story and to the reader’s experience of that same story, and does so without ever descending into the didactic, the thin or the pre-thought. Simultaneously, he sneaks in an inspired defense of experimental fiction, which I’m not entirely sure needs defending, but it’s still fun to sort through. Within classic (as opposed to new) automaton theater, he says, “We are asked to share the emotions of human beings, whom in reality we know to be miniature automatons.” Put another way, “It is a mimesis of the fantastic, a scrupulous rendering of creatures who differ from real creatures solely by their quality of inexistence. (…) It (gives us) the pleasure of illusion fully mastered.” But then we meet the hero of the story, who, while still an apprentice, had “confessed to having improved the musculature of the hand beyond a merely human capacity; for this he was lightly rebuked.” And what does an artist do for fun once the perfectly real has been surpassed? Apparently this: “In the new automaton theater we are asked to share in the emotions of automatons themselves. The clockwork artifice, far from being disguised, is thrust upon our attention.”

And what is the effect of all this in the theatergoer/metaphorical reader/real reader? Millhauser’s narrator answers for all of us: “We seem drawn into the souls of these creatures, who assert their unreal nature at every jerk of a limb; we suffer their clumsiness, we are pierced by inhuman longings. (…) Is it that in their presence we are able to shed the merely human, which seems a limitation, and to release ourselves into a larger, darker, more dangerous realm? (…) Dying of a thirst we did not know we had, we drink from the necessary and tormenting waters of fictive fountains.”

Which is to say, Millhauser uses this art about the art of making automatons to explore the capacity of art to unmake us. And that, that, that is something else.

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24 October 2007 | selling shorts |