The Fantastic Realist
In the realm of the absurd, Steven Millhauser explores real feelings.
We Others: New and Selected Stories has made me cross, and for reasons you might not expect. The collection is all the things a person wants a Steven Millhauser book to be: lapidary, disturbing, mandarin, brilliant, perverse, and funny. As befits a book whose very title is given in the collective first person, it contains a teeming multitude of strange voices. There's not a dog in the bunch. A new-and-selected-stories collection is an invitation to look at a writer's career, and Millhauser's has been a long, strange trip. It's not his biography that's been weird, but his work—and weird in the old-fashioned sense.
Millhauser has refused pure realism from the start, but he's not a formal gamesman like Donald Barthelme. His narrative structures are usually old-fashioned. It's what he does with them that's surprising. He uses comfortable story, novella, and novel forms to take us into the realms of the fantastic and the absurd. For many writers this would be—has been—enough. But Millhauser goes a further step. As strange as his characters' experiences may be—watching a friend fall in love with a giant frog; telling us what it's like to live as a ghost; flying around the backyard on a carpet—he always delivers us eventually to felt human experience. He uses these odd situations to try to get at subtle, hard to pin down, and very real human feelings.
It's difficult to give an overview of Millhauser's work because it's so varied. But a close look reveals that within his wide horizon of subject matter, there are certain forms of storytelling he elects to revisit again and again. The first form is the purely absurd, which has fueled his short fiction in celebrated collections starting with In the Penny Arcade (1986) up through Dangerous Laughter, his euphorically reviewed collection from just a couple of years back.
Millhauser also specializes in stories that try to get below the surface of ordinary life. He probes hard at tiny moments—such as a character's anticipatory approach to the first summer dip in the lake in the story "Getting Closer." At the opposite end of the spectrum, Millhauser is a master of the purely fantastical—stories that feel witty and contemporary but also make gemlike little fairy tales. His astounding novella collection, The King in the Tree, falls into this category. Millhauser shows in this work that he can write with a hard, glittering beauty.
But he is probably most famous for his rarified and unusual historical fiction. He repeatedly explores the technologies and art forms that were new in the 19th century, wondering and worrying over the birth of the modern. This obsession—a word I think it is fair to use—informed his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Martin Dressler(1996).
All of these seductive forms are found in We Others—except, interestingly, the beautiful fable, of which more in a bit. The book opens with seven new stories. A longtime master of the short form, Millhauser shows in these new pieces that he has somehow managed to improve what was already very good, writing with increased clarity, power, and emotional heft. The opening story, "The Slap," is told from the collective point of view of the townspeople of a smug commuter town where an unknown assailant has taken to slapping random victims. The story manages to indict elite complacency without slipping into sophomoric American Beauty-type cliches.
The slaps force the townspeople to reassess their comfortable lives:
Most of us know we're lucky to live in a town like this, where crime is low. … We also understand that to someone from another place, to someone who is disappointed or unhappy, someone for whom life has not worked out in the way it might have, our town may seem to have a certain self-satisfaction, even a smugness. We understand that, for such a person, there may be much to dislike, in a town like ours.
This is a neat trick: Millhauser makes us sympathize with the outsider, the slapper, through the words of his victims. This displacement of sympathy is typical of his stories; you as a reader often find yourself on the wrong end of the stick, or, if not the wrong end exactly, then at least the poky, awkward one.
My favorite piece in the book, and one of my favorite Millhauser stories ever, is "Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove." A young man in his senior year of high school befriends a beguiling, calm girl named Emily who keeps her hand mysteriously encased inside a glove. The story leads up to a climactic moment when Emily's glove is removed and our hero sees what lies within. Millhauser uses the conventions of horror to reveal a lot about adolescent anomie and the difficulty of knowing another person.
Claire Dederer is the author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-three Yoga Poses.
Photograph of Steven Millhauser by Michael Lionstar.