Deal Me In, Week 47 ~ “The Invention of Robert Herendeen”


Hosted by Jay @ Bibliophilopolis

“The Invention of Robert Herendeen” by Steven Millhauser

Card picked: Nine of Diamonds

From: The Barnum Museum by Steven Millhauser


According to Amazon, I purchased The Barnum Museum on December 21, 2011, probably with birthday money. I bought it for “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” This was a bit before my interest in magic was completely aflame. I had enjoyed the movie The Illusionist which came out in 2009 and I remember being happy that I could finally read the source material.

According to Goodreads, I started reading The Barnum Museum on April 17, 2012. I had intended to read it during the spring edition of Dewey’s Readathon, but I didn’t get to it. Honestly, I don’t remember when I finally read “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” but I loved it. And then of course, I put the anthology aside, as I often do with anthologies. When I picked it up again, I started at the beginning. The first story is “A Game of Clue.” I could not get into it. And I put the anthology aside again. I was a little disappointed. One story was *so* good. The other…not so much. My enthusiasm for Millhauser waned. Part of the reason I joined Deal Me In was to get through The Barnum Museum, hell or high water.

And that is pretty much a boiled down version of how I feel about Millhauser’s stories. There are a few that rank as some of the best I’ve ever read.  And some go down that road of vague literary fiction that makes my head hurt from frowning too hard. “The Invention of Robert Harendeen” kinda straddles the line for me. The story is narrated by Robert Harendeen, a man with an extraordinary imagination who can’t settle on finishing a project or sometimes even beginning one. No profession suits him and his parents are getting a little tired of him living at home. So, Robert decides to test the limits of what his imagination can truly invent. It’s much more than he expects… The story, especially the beginning, is full of the rich, baroque details that I love from Millhauser. Unfortunately, the end veers into a surreality which weirdly doesn’t work for me after the solid, visual reality.*

* This will now lead me to internally debate why grounding in reality is necessary in a supernatural story, but I find it off-putting when reality meets the surreal. And where does magical realism fall in all this? Something to chew on in the New Year.

2 thoughts on “Deal Me In, Week 47 ~ “The Invention of Robert Herendeen”

  1. Jay

    Your asterisked point is indeed interesting to ponder. Grounding in reality – or at least ‘the familiar’ – I think does help propel the reader in in supernatural or fantastical stories. Writers “putting ordinary people in extraordinary situations” is probably a variation on that theme.


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