Short story: “Paradise Park” or “The Dream of the Consortium”

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“Paradise Park,” also written as a totally different string of words titled “The Dream of the Consortium,” and probably other versions as well, by Steven Millhauser

“Park” appeared in Grand Street (now defunct); “Dream” appeared in Harper’s in March 1993 (subscribers can download it here); both, perversely, are collected in The Knife Thrower

“Park” is about 40.5 pages in my copy, or roughly 12,900 words; “Dream,” at 18.5 pages, is more like 5,900

I have a feeling I’m being unfair to Millhauser, but the guy seriously repeats himself all the freaking time. These two stories are ostensibly completely separate works. They just happen to have practically the same plot and themes and atmosphere. A somewhat mysterious business/businessman creates a bizarrely elaborate and beautiful place (amusement park, department store) that takes the idea of commercial entertainment/consumerism to sinister extremes. The result is an ambivalent, mildly satirical commentary on the nature and perils of commercial entertainment/consumerism.

With the instinct of a true showman, Sarabee understood that the fatal enemy of amusement is boredom, and he was tireless in his search for new mechanical rides, new spectacles, new thrills and excitements.

The consortium was determined to satisfy the buyer’s secret desire: to appropriate the world, to possess it entirely.

In one version, an amusement park keeps pushing the boundaries of amusement and the boundaries of parkness until finally, when it burns to the ground, the conflagration seems like one last fantastic spectacle. The other version is less flashy: a department store offers such a rich cornucopia of displays and goods and services that it blurs the boundaries between itself and the real world, and its addicted shoppers learn to prefer it to the real world. Until rereading, I actually forgot which version went with which ending. Both seem like logical conclusions.

Millhauser is really good at evoking the window-shopperish pleasure of stuff: artifacts, gadgets, oddities, spectacles, luxuries, rides, on-demand entertainments, things that are incredibly detailed and authentic replicas of other things. He’s good at making kitsch intensely atmospheric. He’s good at lists, I think. Lists are hard to do well in fiction. He uses them to develop the texture and atmosphere of his settings, and to make surprising juxtapositions. I guess my beef with him is that he has a small number of tricks and he uses them again and again with little variation.