'Size does matter' bellows the Great (or at least Thick) American Novel. 'Small but perfectly formed' squeaks its scrawny English counterpart, in vain. Feted US fiction of the forest-guzzling kind has started to thump heavily into these shores again. Last year, Thomas Pynchon's Mason & Dixon confirmed that some like it fat; 1998 opened with a critical swoon beneath the bulk of Don DeLillo's overweight Underworld. Later this spring, British fans of the big boys can watch the excellent Russell Banks - until now a master at enclosing infinite riches in a little room - break the 700- page barrier with his Civil War epic Cloudsplitter (or should that be Toecrusher?).

Fictional obesity survives as the only kind Americans can tolerate. So it came as a surprise when the 1997 Pulitzer Prize went not only to a shortish novel, but one that deals explicitly with 'a yearning for the exhaustive, which was the secret malady of the age'. Steven Millhauser's compact fable Martin Dressler: the tale of an American dreamer has now crossed the ocean (Phoenix House, pounds 12.99). Its triumph in the home of the Whopper should hearten all writers who mind the quality before they feel the width.

Ornate in its language but austere in its form, Martin Dressler traces the spectacular rise and fall of a vaultingly ambitious hotelier in New York at the last fin-de-siecle. As the tawdry Gilded Age unfolds, cold young Martin progresses from his father's cigar shop via a chain of lunchrooms to a succession of sumptuous steel-framed palaces, each a self-sufficient world unto itself.

Hubris, of course, climaxes in nemesis. With its 30 floors of themed environments above the ground and 13 more below (from a bosky labyrinth to a New England village), his 'Grand Cosmo' repels the public in its suffocating totality. First the boss has to hire actors to play the absent customers; later, to play himself. Finally, Dressler exits from his virtual universe, strolls into the real city and begins to re-invent himself.

His grandiose hotels do heavy allegorical work in the way that pompous buildings always have since the Tower of Babel itself rose and fell in Genesis. As in all such stories, Millhauser's unmasking of megalomaniac fantasy has its roots in theology. The master-builder blasphemes by daring to create a universe over again. Suitably enough, this cool exposure of the need and greed behind American excess takes shape in the lapidary prose of modern European, rather than US, literature. Seekers after a rackety period yarn of booming Broadway may feel frustrated. They should try Caleb Carr instead (see page 15).

Millhauser's critique of the urge to Build It Big also fixes on the postmodern passion to Make It Fake. Dressler's dreams prefigure those artificial paradises - the gated malls, the covered resorts, the walled theme-parks, the bouncer-patrolled estates - in which so many spend so much time and cash as our own century closes. I write this halfway up an ivory tower in the centre of a complex whose ostentatious scope and splendid isolation might have warmed the hero's frozen heart. Nearby, across the Thames, rises the latest sign of our collective rage to swallow the world and bring it up again in steel or stone. Dressler never planned a Dome, but those who do might spare a few hours for this cautionary tale.

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