Short story: “In the Reign of Harad IV”

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“In the Reign of Harad IV,” by Steven Millhauser

From the April 10, 2006 New Yorker (read online here) and the December 2010 New Yorker Fiction Podcast (listen here)

2,809 words

I’ve only read two other stories by Millhauser that I know of, “The Knife Thrower” and “The Wizard of West Orange,” and I’m already getting a taste for his style, which reminds me of Borges and Kafka. This one explores a man’s obsession with a goal (the potential infinite smallness of miniature art objects) so abstract and so unattainable that it cuts him off from his society, from his art’s audience, and possibly from his art itself (he can no longer see his creations even through a powerful magnifier). It’s the kind of parable-like story where the characters don’t need names. (Although for some reason the king is named in the first line, which furnishes the title—for the record, I don’t understand why the writer chose this title instead of something descriptive, like “The Maker of Miniatures.” Maybe to emphasize the faraway setting.)

On the New Yorker podcast, Cynthia Ozick and Deborah Treisman spend some time discussing the story’s last word, “forgiveness.” At first I read the word without moral overtones, vaguely associating it with the impersonal sense of forgiving, which can describe a landing surface or a budget (the dictionaries don’t agree with me), but then there’s the character’s “deep, guilty excitement” early in the story, and later, the words “confessed” and “temptation.” This guilt has nothing to do with crimes against society or against other people as such; his employer, the King, is contented with the cruder work of other artisans and leaves him alone. Ozick and Treisman suggest that it’s more like the guilt of a masturbator or a junkie,  preferring his own private pleasures over the kind that can be shared, or possibly a quasi-religious guilt that he is going where humanity was not meant to go.

Edited to add: It turns out I have read at least one other story of his, “The Tower” (in McSweeney’s 25), and I just read “Cat ‘N’ Mouse” in the New Yorker here.

Edited to add: WordPress (or the theme I’m using) won’t let me add apostrophes around the “N.” It treats them as single quotes. That bothers me inordinately.