Michael Dirda reviews ‘We Others,’ stories by Steven Millhauser

Michael Dirda
Critic August 31, 2011

For almost 40 years, Steven Millhauser has been creating fables of identity, exploring how an irruption of the magical or inexplicable can unexpectedly transform a life or an entire society. In a loose sense, he is a writer of literary fantasies, belonging to that fabulist line that runs from the “Arabian Nights” stories through the unsettling tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann on to the magic-realist masterpieces of Kafka, Nabokov, Borges and Calvino. His work illustrates the very definition of the uncanny — that moment when the homey or familiar suddenly swerves into something rich, strange and menacing.

In general, Millhauser’s style blends a peculiar wistfulness with a fanatical attention to the particular: He has said that “one never forgives a work of art that is general and vague.” Like his illustrious antecedents (and such near contemporaries as Russell Hoban, Angela Carter, John Crowley and Michael Chabon), Millhauser calmly mixes fairy tale and literary experiment, surreal nightmare and ecstatic vision, gorgeous prose and sly humor. But he also adds a profound Americanness. Is there a better evocation of a middle-class childhood in the 1950s than his novel “Edwin Mullhouse”? Millhauser owns the smell of fresh tar on streets, the creak of gliders on wooden porches, the rivalries of the playground and all those rainy Saturday afternoons playing Clue and reading comic books.

Most impressively, though, he skirts the real danger of sentimentality through an iron control of tone: Millhauser’s voice on the page is cool, reserved, profoundly courteous. Unusually, he often employs the first-person plural, drawing his readers into a shared dream or nightmare. Take the opening to “The Invasion From Outer Space”:

“From the beginning we were prepared, we knew just what to do, for hadn’t we seen it all a hundred times? — the good people of the town going about their business, the suddenly interrupted TV programs, the faces in the crowd looking up, the little girl pointing in the air, the mouths opening, the dog yapping, the traffic stopped, the shopping bag falling to the sidewalk, and there, in the sky, coming closer . . . ”

Along with “The Invasion from Outer Space,” “We Others” contains six additional new stories, as well as 14 selected from “In the Penny Arcade” (1986), “The Barnum Museum” (1990), “The Knife Thrower” (1998) and “Dangerous Laughter” (2008). In an author’s note, Millhauser tells us that he has chosen the ones “that seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I had never seen before.” Sadly, he hasn’t reprinted any of his superb novellas from “The King in the Tree” (2003) and “Little Kingdoms” (1993) nor the novella-length tales embedded in his baroque extravaganza, “From the Realm of Morpheus” (1986).

One might argue with some of his selections and omissions — where is the gorgeous “Cathay”? — but I’m glad for the inclusion of his single most famous story, “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” which earned a World Fantasy Award in 1990 and later was made into a movie (called simply “The Illusionist”). It opens irresistibly:

“In the last years of the nineteenth century, when the Empire of the Hapsburgs was nearing the end of its long dissolution, the art of magic flourished as never before.”

If you can close “We Others” at this point, then Millhauser is not for you. Some of us, though, could no more stop breathing than stop reading him.

“Eisenheim the Illusionist” is only one of several stories that explore the conjunction of art and obsession. Other examples here include “August Eschenburg,” in which the title character creates astonishing clockwork automatons, and “The Knife Thrower,” which relates just one of the ­elegant Hensch’s troubling performances:

“He held the six knives fanwise in his left hand, with the blades pointing up. The knives were about a foot long, the blades shaped like elongated diamonds, and as he stood there at the side of the stage, a man with no expression on his face, a man with nothing to do, Hensch had the vacant and slightly bored look of an overgrown boy holding in one hand an awkward present, waiting patiently for someone to open a door.”

Illusion and reality, the power of the imagination, the nature of storytelling, childhood wonders, romantic yearning, a taste for the erotic and slightly perverse — these themes recur throughout Millhauser. “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad” neatly interweaves three story lines: a portrait of Sinbad in retirement in his garden, an account of his fabulous, hitherto untold eighth voyage, and a brief history of scholarship about “The Arabian Nights.” Sometimes, nearly all his signature motifs merge, as in the new story “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove.” Millhauser frequently riffs on earlier works of art, and this tale of obsession is, among other things, a variant of Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark.”

Through his penchant for lists and catalogues, Millhauser is also drawn to imagining vast, shadowy structures that seem to contain entire alternate worlds, such as the gargantuan buildings in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Martin Dressler” (1996). In “The Next Thing,” another of the new stories, he depicts an underground, Wal-Mart-like shopping paradise that insidiously destroys an entire town and turns its customers into brainwashed slaves. “We Others” also reprints his most famous example of a boundless cave of wonders, “The Barnum Museum.” Consider just some of the items available in its gift shop:

“Mysterious rubber balls from Arabia that bounce once and remain suspended in the air, jars of dark blue liquid from which you can blow bubbles shaped like tigers, elephants, lions, polar bears, and giraffes . . . boxes of animate paint for drawing pictures that move, lacquered wooden balls from the Black Forest that, once set rolling, never come to a stop . . . storybooks from Finland with tissue-paper-covered illustrations that change each time the paper is lifted, tin sets of specially treated watercolors for painting pictures on air.”

Of all the new stories, my favorite is probably “The Slap”: “One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face.” Soon afterward, the same handsome stranger, in a well-cut trench coat, strikes again. And again. Why? “We were peaceful, law-abiding inhabitants of a suburban town, trying to raise our kids in a difficult world, while keeping our lawns mowed and our roof gutters free of leaves.” By the time the reign of slapping ends, the townspeople have been irrevocably altered.

The longest of the new stories, “We Others,” is a ghost story told from the viewpoint of the ghost, who is haunted by his memories of corporal existence and by a yearning to connect with someone, if only a fat, middle-aged schoolteacher who lives alone. I thought it went on just a bit too long, but other readers may feel otherwise. What is beyond question, though, is that Steven Millhauser possesses the wand of an enchanter. In his books the wonders never cease.

Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Join his discussion at wapo.st/reading-room.


WE OTHERS

New and Selected Stories

By Steven Millhauser

Knopf. 387 pp. $27.95

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