The Fantastic Realist

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

Steven Millhauser

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.

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.

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.

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.