Thursday, March 9, 2017

king in the tree

The King in the Tree: Three Novellas is a collection of short stories by Steven Millhauser; the last of the three lends its name to the collection.

If there is theme or thread that ties the three stories together it has to be that they are based on older stories or myths; re-told in a way the makes them both more immediate and more relevant. More importantly, perhaps, is that they all include complicated love triangle, or other polygon, as I describe below.

The first, Revenge, reads like something one might find in Esquire magazine. Its mainly a monologue, told by a middle age woman, to another woman who is viewing her house, which is currently for sale. As the narrator takes her guest on a tour of the home, she points out the things, the places, and the memories she shared there with her late husband. This one is a passive-aggressive crusher.

The second novella is titled, An Adventure of Don Juan, and it tells the story of the famous romancer and rogue, who strikes up a friendship with an Englishman visiting Venice, just as Don Juan begins to tire of the city, and he follows the Englishman and his family--a pretty wife, and her spinster sister--back to their estate in the English countryside, for an extended stay. Don Juan finds himself taken by the relaxed and homely feel of his stay, and quickly falls into a routine, of late mornings walks in the grounds, interesting conversation his his host, who is a gentleman scientist, and a bit of a dreamer, and chats with the wife and her sister.

The sister appears, at first, to be natural prey for the rakish Spaniard, but she is curiously aloof, while the wife, seems somewhat willing. A strange and stage-set-mythology stained love triangle (quadrilateral? rhombus?) soon erupts, bringing this story to a startling end.

The title novella, The King in the Tree, is a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde myth (often grouped together with the Arthurian Legends.) Tristan is a faithful and brave knight, and the nephew of the King (King Mark of Cornwall is not named in the novella, that I can recall), but he has, it appears at first, to have fallen in love with the King's young, Irish wife, Isolde. The King suspects something is up, but he trusts his wife, and he especially trusts his nephew. This telling examines what the breakdown of trust can do to a person, and how they rail against their misgivings, as much as the pain of what they know must be true.

I didn't love these stories but something about them sucked me in. The King was actually the long and repetitive, but I found that I could wait to see what would come next.

I wouldn't go out of my way but if you like the short story and especially if you like a myth retold, this one may be for you.

[I bought my copy without a book jacket... somewhere. I liked the above cover image best.]

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