Monday, May 17, 2010

Public Anonymity

I've just read Steven Millhauser's novella Enchanted Night, in which a handful of characters, all of whom are awake during the course of a single evening, cross paths and narratives, without knowing much about the others. It's a bit like Midsummer Night's Dream, in that there are appearances from goddesses and satyrs in highly poeticized moments, and there are instances when dolls come to life, when a mannequin comes to life, and humans and inanimate objects interact.

Enchanted Night--which I read on the Amazon Kindle--strikes me as putting in words the dilemma of city living. Millhauser writes in Enchanted Night, "Because when you are known, then you lose yourself, but when you are hidden, then you are free."

Living in a crowded, public setting--one in which you brush elbows with people on a daily basis yet continue to know nothing about them--seems the answer to the question of how to maintain your own personality while still fulfilling the minimum requirements of the human need for socialization.

Or does it? The notion of the individual in the city isn't unique to Millhauser's novella, and it's certainly not new to contemporary fiction. The city figures this way in the fiction of James Joyce, where characters cross paths and lives for a moment, although they remain distanced from each other psychologically and emotionally.

And this sort of living actually turns out to be incredibly lonely, incredibly suffocating. In Millhauser's book, one character--a woman who lives alone--ends the long night by entertaining a group of young girls who rob houses by night. She serves the girls lemonade, coaxes them to stay, and does not ask them to remove their black masks that conceal their identities. And this woman who lives alone thinks that she's clever, with how she plays hostess to these girls and learns their nighttime names, and she believes that she has kept herself safe from any interpretation because she doesn't allow the girls to pry into her life.

If this is freedom, though, it's an incredibly restricting kind, and it's not the woman living alone who has any sort of livelihood. She traps herself within her house, closes herself away from that sort of public anonymity, while this gang of girls gets itself in newspapers and lives out a sort of vigilante existence. Aside from their discount superhero names (such as "Summer Storm"), the girls have other lives--as daughters, students, friends--and so there remains something unknown about them.

It's this private-concealed-in-public that I find interesting about characters in Joyce's works, and for Millhauser--though the novella has its moments of inconsistency--night in a city works much the same way, as the narrative winds through these characters lives and, through glances and shadows, covers and reveals.

And watch those girl gangs. They can be dangerous.


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