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The King in the Tree by Steven Millhauser


Rating: (Recommended)


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It’s hard for me to decide what I like most about Steven Millhauser’s writing. In his new collection of three novellas, The King in the Tree, titled for one work, Millhauser returns to his theme of betrayal and mines it more deeply than ever before. In each novella, he explores the dimensions of love, loss and betrayal with care, fine language, and tense emotion.

Here’s an excerpt (pp. 8-13) from the opening novella, “Revenge”, in which a betrayed wife, the narrator, shows her house to her husband’s lover:

But—good lord—can you believe it? All along I’ve been holding this envelope. You must have been wondering. Why didn’t you say something? It's the appraisal. As I said on the phone, I’m selling the house myself. I have no use for realtors—or reelators, as everybody says these days. God, how Robert hated that. Put some water in the perculator for the reelator. Then we can discuss nucular war. Anyway, I had the place appraised, and here’s the report. I won’t ask a penny more, but I also wont take a penny less. That keeps it nice and simple.

Now if we step around this way. . . . Door to the cellar. Back porch. I want to show you the back porch. But first the kitchen. That door?




The downstairs bath. Half bath—tub and no shower—newish WC—everything in fine working order. Please note the bookcase. I promised you a bookcase in every room and, by God, girl—as my grandpa used to say to my grandma—you’ll get a bookcase in every room! I mean, what with Robert’s books and mine. Will you just look at these things. A real mishmash. Wealth of Nations. Jane Eyre. Wizard of Oz. We knew where everything was, it just wasn’t in any particular order, except of course in Roberts study. The Guermantes Way. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. Now there's a title I’ve always liked. Screw's coming out of that towel rack. The paints cracking over there; you'd want it redone. When I ordered the new toilet—I was the one who took care of things like that—the man said they came in two sizes: a short one, and a longer one. So I ask him what the difference is. He looks embarrassed, lowers his eyes. "Well, ma'am," he says, "the longer one is . . . sometimes it's more comfortable for. . . the gentleman." Can you believe it? I practically bit my tongue off, not to laugh. "More comfortable for. . . the gentleman." Robert and I howled over it. Of course I ordered the larger one. We called it The Gentleman. Permit me to introduce you. Lady: Gentleman. Ahm right proud to make your acquaintance, ma’am. To the Lighthouse. Tristes Tropiques. Good God. I spent one night lying on the floor of this room, right here on this old linoleum. Can you imagine?

It’s hard to see how anyone could fit.




Lots of sun through those windows. Kitchens should be bright, don’t you think? You ought to see the light coming through the window onto the table, on a good summer morning. Of course it’s terribly old-fashioned. Not nearly enough cabinet space. I know, I know. And 1m the only woman in America without a dishwasher. But really, where would you put it? I refuse to give up my sunny table. I could put on (- there—and cramp up the whole room. No, let it go. Besides, what would my friends do if they couldn’t say: Oh, you poor thing\ You’ve just got to redecorate. Of course I understand a new kitchens a selling point. But I’ve told you about that. I’m sticking to the appraisal, no matter what.

You see up there? On top of the cabinets? Complete works of James Fenimore Cooper. Library sale. They were practically giving it away.

I could use a cup of tea. Would you care to join me? Oh, good. Good. I’ve been talking a blue streak, haven’t I? And that’s strange, because 1m known as a more or less quiet person. I calmed down after a few years of marriage. As I say, I was happy. It quiets you down. So: Robert’s quiet wife. And now, isn’t it odd, I have a desire to talk. Of course I don’t talk to just anyone. But there's something about you . . . a sympathy, I think. I could sense it when you first entered the house.

Milk? Sugar? I’m afraid I’ve only got whole. I can’t stand that two-percent stuff. Tastes like bad water, if you ask me. They say it isn’t much different from whole anyway, you have to have one percent to accomplish anything. Accomplish what,

I'd like to know. Of course someone with your figure doesn’t have to worry. But I suppose its always the ones who don’t have to worry who do. No milk? I hadn’t thought of that. Solves the problem nicely, doesn’t it?

Mmm, that’s good. That’s very good. Tea calms me. Selling this house rattles me—it's like stirring a pile of leaves with a stick—you never know what’s going to come slithering out—but tea, now. Tea calms me. Especially on an afternoon like this, the sun in and out—a little on the cool side. I do worry about my jonquils. Last year I lost half my forsythias. Just look at those clouds. Well. After that evening I told you about—the evening when a doubt crossed my mind—things continued as usual—except that they weren't as usual. I knew something was wrong. Believe me, I knew. Robert was withholding something from me. You have to understand that Robert was a secretive man. I mean, he was a combination of secretiveness and . . .openness. Its one of the things you get to know about a man. But this withholding, this, this awkwardness—well. It was new. Something had changed. It upset me. He knew it did. I still thought it was the book that was harming him. He'd taken a semester off, he was putting tremendous pressure on himself, and it wasn't going well. He told me very little about it. Typical Robert: bottle it up, fight it alone. Be a man! I knew it had to do with things, American things—I think he was even planning to call it American Things—familiar household objects that were supposed to reveal something about American life in the late nineteenth century. Robert taught history and American studies at the community college. Have I mentioned it? They paid him nothing. It was a crime. Anyway: things. Fountain pens, tin cans, bottle caps—he kept reading about these things, searching for something deep. He wanted everything to mean something. So of course I thought it was that. I wanted it to be that. I could hear him scraping back the chair in the study, pacing around. Sometimes he left the house on long walks, or rode to the supermarket late at night, where he'd spend hours studying boxes, cans—or so he said. I felt estranged from him. And, funny as it sounds, I began drinking a lot of tea. I liked the ritual, I suppose. One evening last summer I was sitting right here at this table, alone, drinking tea. Iced tea, it was, with a slice of lemon. I heard Robert's footsteps coming down the stairs. He came through the dining room into the kitchen and sat down, right where you’re sitting now. He had his sad, doomed look but also something else, a tension, an energy. I had the impression of a dangerous electrical wire—touch it and you’re dead. In a clipped, haughty way, angry and cold but weary, broken—oh, who knew what it was—he told me. He confessed. It was a withheld kind of outpouring, a strangled eruption. But he confessed. He'd been seeing someone. You won’t believe this, but I thought he meant a therapist. A shrink. Robert? But of course he meant a woman.

More tea?

Now this, too, may surprise you. My first thought was: Oh, no! Poor Robert! Not him\ I mean, Robert, whose harshest word after amateur was banal---accent on the last syllable, to give it the true French stink. I could hear him mocking it all, in that way of his. Adultery, for Chrissake, in suburbia, for Chrissake. Doesn’t the poor sap have a sense of style? Pure kitsch, kiddo. Right up there with busts of Beethoven and bookmarks with

Emily Dickinson poems printed on them. And so forth. Poor Robert! What a sad falling off. And so, creature of habit that I was, I wanted to comfort him, the poor man. I mean there he was, sitting all doomed and sort of crumpled and . . . and banal, so of course the only thing you want to do is reassure your husband, while at the same time its dawning on you what he's actually said, and there's a panic starting somewhere because this handsome man with his doomed look has gone and done something bad to you, if only you could stop comforting him and start concentrating long enough to figure out just what it unbearably is.

I suppose I should have told you the house is haunted. Well, of course. All houses are haunted. It's just that some are more haunted than others. Roberts ghost is sitting right there, where you’re sitting now, and my ghost is sitting here, listening to his strangled confession. The air is full of ghosts. At night you can hear them: sifting through the house, like sand.

I said nothing. I think he wanted me to say something—to scream at him, to burst into tears. I felt he wanted drama. I lowered my eyes. I could tell I was disappointing him. At the same time I felt threads of fire shooting through me, a wondrous fiery piercing, a kind of . . . a kind of exhilaration of misery. I thought I might die, and that dying might be a strange, exciting thing to do. And you know, I felt almost soothed, almost comforted in my private fire, because it protected me from him, from the words he had spoken.

I think I exasperated him. The poor man needed something from me, blame or forgiveness or . . . drama, and there I sat, exalted in misery, a saint of suffering. Who knows? When the living have become the dead, who shall speak? There was too much silence in the room. The kitchen vas no longer large enough to contain all that silence. It was pushing against the walls, cracking the plaster. I don’t think he intended to say more, but the silence was choking him. He spat out some words, the way you do when someone's hands are around your neck. He told me things. I said nothing. He told me her name. That’s when I learned it was you.

You seem upset. Of course you ought to be. Of course Robert would have sworn eternal secrecy). I wouldn't be surprised if he made you prick your finger with a needle and sign a document in blood. Secret love! What could be better? What you failed to understand was Robert’s loyalty. Its true that by taking you as his—do you mind the word mistress—he had been disloyal to me. That’s what confused you. Your mistake was to assume that there were two separate facts: a disloyalty, to me, and a new loyalty, to you. No, whatever his feelings might have been for you, his disloyalty to me simply stirred up and even strengthened the old loyalty. He confessed to me because he was loyal and couldn’t do anything about it. He was stuck with it. Robert betrayed you. I want you to know that. Its something we have in common.

Do you know what else he told me? He told me you were nothing to him. Don’t you say anything. He told me you were a body, just a body. If he was trying to soothe me, he was failing brilliantly. But I want you to know what he said, sitting right there. Just a body. Men can be a little thoughtless sometimes, don’t you think? Of course you can choose not to believe me, if it makes you feel better. Or you can believe that Robert was lying. A good man, lying to spare the feelings of his wife.

But lets adjourn to the porch, shall we? There’s so much more to tell.

Millhauser plays with language, capturing the “reelator” and “nucular” that we all hear regularly. Revenge takes many forms, and Millhauser explores all of them, using the rooms in the house as a backdrop. In my judgment, Millhauser gets better and better, and The King in the Tree shows him in all his splendor.

Steve Hopkins, March 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the April 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: King in the Tree.htm


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