Sunday, January 10, 2010

`To See In Them a Deeper Meaning'

Who has limned the avarice of children? Their greed is innocently relentless. More than adults, children are mouths and grasping fingers. For Christmas the boys got their first Monopoly set and since then we’ve played at least one game every day. My brother and I were the same, staging marathon sessions, unleashing our inner capitalists. As adults, neither of us is acquisitive or a tightwad. We’re indifferent to the accumulation of stuff so central to the lives of many. Perhaps, after hundreds of hours spent arguing over the board as kids, we got it out of our systems.

Who has limned the lives of American children, their sensibilities, their “material culture,” as the professors say? Steven Millhauser has, for almost 40 years. He’s a fantasist with an obsessive eye for details of American life. In his second novel, Portrait of a Romantic (1977), probably his least-read book (if not From the Realm of Morpheus, 1986), his narrator is a dreamy, yearning adolescent, Arthur Grumm. Among his friends is William Mainwaring, an obsessive game-player and record-keeper. Grumm describes Mainwaring in a way that recalls Michael, my 9-year-old:

“Like myself [he] played to win, and an eager rivalry soon sprang up between us. But there was this difference, at least to begin with, that whereas my passion was solely for the sake of the game, and was always in danger of collapsing into indifference [a quintessential Millhauser observation], his was part of his very nature, and flourished in the empty spaces between games.”

Mainwaring, like Michael, is an inflexible stickler for the rules of any game:

“When playing Monopoly, for instance, father and I had always put the money owed to Chance, Community Chest, Luxury Tax, and so forth in the center of the board, where it was collected by anyone who landed on Free Parking. But William insisted that you had to pay it to the bank. `Show me,’ I demanded, rapping the instructions with my forefinger. At once William snatched up the folded sheet, opened it eagerly, and began scanning the lines in hungry haste. `Here it is,’ he said, thrusting the sheet before me and holding in place his infuriating forefinger.”

Out of love for the game, Grumm concedes, and Mainwaring gets his way:

“`You sound like my mother,’ I said, as nastily as possible, and he looked at me with hatred. But I wanted to play Monopoly. We paid the money to the bank.”

Michael hasn’t reached the depths of Mainwaring’s mania:

“[He] was an avid keeper of records, and one day he brought with him a special two-ring notebook divided into numerous sections by white tabs on which were neatly printed the names of our various games: Boxes, Canasta, Checkers, Chess, Ghosts, Gin Rummy, Monopoly, Ping-Pong, Salvo, Scrabble, Tic-tac-toe,” and so on.

Millhauser’s tone, unlike any contemporary’s though somewhat like Nabokov’s, mingles comedy, nostalgia and ineffable sadness – the tone of childhood recalled. In the title story from his 1990 collection The Barnum Museum, Millhauser writes:

“Among the festive rooms and halls of the Barnum Museum, with their flying carpets, their magic lamps, their mermaids and grellings, we come now and then to a different kind of room. In it we may find old paint cans and oilcans, a green-stained gardening glove in a battered pail, a rusty bicycle against one wall; or perhaps old games of Monopoly, Sorry, and Risk, stacks of dusty 78 records with a dog and Victrola pictured on the center labels, a thick oak table-base dividing into four claw feet. These rooms appear to be errors or oversights, perhaps proper rooms awaiting renovation and slowly filling with the discarded possessions of museum personnel, but in time we come to see in them a deeper meaning.”

As I play Monopoly with my sons I’m aware of being present at the creation of memories that will outlast me. Nabokov writes in the final sentence of “A Guide to Berlin”:

“How can I demonstrate to him that I have glimpsed somebody’s future recollection?”

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