Steven Millhauser's We Others: Why a sampling of his amazing stories makes you want a full collection of them.

Reading between the lines.
Sept. 14 2011 10:16 AM

The Fantastic Realist

In the realm of the absurd, Steven Millhauser explores real feelings.

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The story is a keen example of his work. He eschews realism for the fantastic, but his object is to show how real human hearts operate. The glove becomes a wedge, holding the narrator and Emily apart. In the hands of a less confident writer, the glove would become overtly symbolic, but Millhauser is more interested in story than in symbol. He is interested in the glove qua glove. The narrator is exquisitely tormented by this object:

Ever since I'd become friends with Emily, I had felt an easy flow between us, an openness, a transparency. This restful merging, this serene interwovenness, was something I had never known before. … The glove was harming that flow. … It occurred to me that the glove was changing her—turning her into a body, with privacies and evasions.

What we have here is clearly a young man discovering the ineluctable otherness of women, but Millhauser doesn't dwell on this stuff. He knows we just want find out what's under that glove. That's great storytelling—where there's meaning to be teased out, but we hurtle instead in to plot and hot emotion.

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Among the older stories, brainiac standouts include "The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad," a bit of postmodern pastiche (remember that stuff?) that makes for surprisingly good reading. It recalls the off-kilter narrative pleasures of Millhauser's first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, the Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwrigh t, where problems of authorship are evoked in the very title. Millhauser's characters are often dealing with the challenge of representing experience in a meaningful way. The maker of automatons in "August Eschenburg," the inventor of a machine that recreates the sensation of touch in "The Wizard of West Orange"—these characters are troubled by their inability to capture reality fully. They often speak of doomed fate, as though they know their efforts will be failures but can't help themselves. It's not a long leap to read these stories as an acknowledgment of the difficulty of storytelling itself.

Steven Millhauser's book "We Others."

The book is full of gorgeous writing about seriously entertaining characters. Why then has We Others left me feeling crabby? Because of its very form: new and selected stories. As a reader and buyer of books, I find the genre to be a puzzling and even disappointing publishing convention. Neither fish (new stories) nor fowl (collected works), these books give longtime fans a pain: To get the new stories, we have to pay for the old stories.

The format is designed to attract new readers to an undiscovered writer, and in Millhauser's case that's a very worthy idea. At the same time, Millhauser's work is so odd and capacious that it doesn't quite seem to fit into this limited kind of book. Millhauser himself seems to find the format odd. He chose the stories, and he says in an author's note that he soon gave up trying to find stories that were representative of his work and chose instead pieces that "seized my attention as if they'd been written by someone whose work I had never seen before."

He goes on to invoke the "mysterious" nature of what makes a story work: "What makes a story bad, or good, or better than good, can be explained and understood up to a point, but only up to a point." He seems to be saying that from his standpoint, critical assessment isn't useful—he can only intuit, not define, what is his best work. Think back to the story of the glove. It works because it's not just driven by an intellectual idea of what the glove means—it's driven by plot, character, emotion. Millhauser knows that intuition and feeling are his strengths, even though his writing is adamantly intelligent and prodigiously researched.

Hardcore fans will nonetheless be curious to see what the master himself has chosen. There's a focus on the eerie, rather than the beautiful. He has leaned toward the disturbing, and left aside the shimmeringly lovely prose he is also capable of producing, such as the title novella from The King in the Tree, a retelling of the Tristan and Isolde myth that is almost frightening in its beauty. I would have liked to see more of this.

Greedily, I would have liked to see more in general. Instead of this "new and selected" business, I wish I could have had all the stories gathered into one place. Why not a collected stories of Millhauser, and soon? He deserves such a treatment, and not just because his stories have been so thoroughly imagined and carefully written since the very beginning of his career. The collected stories would be a major joy, a gorgeous rummage, because of the way Millhauser returns repeatedly to his eccentric obsessions. These concerns—with technology, with magic, with ghosts, with the problem of reality—lie like glittering threads across We Others. I'd love to see them writ even larger.

There's something moving about the idea of this man, now growing older, returning over and over to these ideas, reworking his most fruitful ground. It takes a kind of stamina to explore the meaning of things so relentlessly, and a kind of humility to admit you haven't pinned it down entirely. We Others begins to show us how these obsessions have spanned Millhauser's lifetime, much the way his characters' obsessions span their own lifetimes. It's like watching a man live out his fate, a favorite Millhauser word.

Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.

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