BY SEAN CLARK
Put aside everything you’re doing and read The Knife Thrower and Other Stories, by Steven Millhauser, immediately. (See the other entries in this series here.)
For the record, my favorite, favorite book ever and a book I truly think any reader should drop everything for is Lolita. But I’ve harped on it on this site again and again already. I read a lot of books, though, and there are a ton I think every reader should read. Steven Millhauser has written a number of these and The Knife Thrower and Other Stories is my favorite of his. Read it now.
Millhauser was one of a handful of excellent professors I had in college, so I’m a little biased. If you’re reading this site, I’d be a little surprised you’ve never heard of him. But if somehow you haven’t read him, you should. He is undeniably one of the most precise and imaginative writers writing today. He is a fabulist and a natural storyteller with a knack for writing stories that are at once cerebral and accessible.
The stories in this book cover a range of themes and styles. The opening number is written in the first person plural–keeping a story with a faceless “we” narrator contained is no easy task–and Millhauser handles this mode with as much confidence and finesse as Eugenides in The Virgin Suicides. He uses this perspective in a few other stories in this collection as well. In fact, one of my favorite stories, “Beneath the Cellars of Our Town,” is told from the collective voice of a town that decides to relocate itself to a series of underground passageways and become mole people.
That’s one of the zanier premises in the book. The zaniest story of all, “A Visit,” also happens to be my favorite. How out there is it? Well, it’s about a guy who drives to New England to stay the weekend with his old college roommate and his friend’s new wife, who happens to be a two-foot-tall bullfrog.
These stories are so great not because they are wild and out there, but because of the tremendous restraint Millhauser shows while working within the fantastic. He writes in a serious tone always: his narrators don’t spin yarns, they put their lives to paper. Millhauser makes sure the perfect details are captured in every story (but this doesn’t mean every detail: look for the screwdriver with the yellow handle in “A Visit” and you’ll understand what I mean).
Not every story is as on the fringe as these. Millhauser’s most identifiable stories feature realities that subtly diverge from our own. A dedicated master, such as Heinrich in “The New Automation Theater,” creates the impossible, or a group of characters, like the audience in the eponymous story, experience–and accept–something beyond the normal boundary of reality.
Any reader who enjoys short stories and literary fiction has probably come across Millhauser at some point. If you haven’t, get on that now, starting with The Knife Thrower. His other books are great too (all of them), so any is a great place to start reading this American master. Read this book now.