BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Steven Millhauser
Filed Under: Literary, Short Stories.
It’s been a few years now since Millhauser’s excellent Dangerous Laughter came out, so I was definitely eager to get my hands on this book and read some new stories by one of my favorite authors. We Others only contains 7 new stories, but this was hardly a let down. The new material is substantive and the 14 selected stories form a very fine compilation of stories I was happy to read again. Both new readers and his fans alike should be satisfied.
Millhauser often builds scenarios in commonplace settings, but somehow manages to give them the aura of a fairytale world (without the fairies). He is a fabulist, and for many of his stories his trick is to impose our real world, or some bastardization of it, upon that skewed reality.
Sometimes, stories like “The Invasion from Outer Space”–in which a yellow space dust made of single-celled organisms blankets the earth but doesn’t seem to cause any harm–pull this off through the first person plural, a tough voice to write in successfully. Through this lens readers can take in the oddity of the broad world before them and compare it with their own. Millhauser doesn’t need to set the stage in these stories, because the stage is his story. “The Next Thing” has a singular narrator but accomplishes a similar type of storytelling. It begins as a Wal-Mart-like megastore, evolves into underground habitations, then an entire corporatized town, and eventually an authoritarian government of a sort.
Of course, not every piece is structured like this. But the setting is always carefully and cleverly created through his sharp, selective imagery: a broken escalator collecting dust in “The Next Thing,” a bowl of malted milk-balls in “We Others.” Millhauser’s one of my favorites for many reasons*, but most of all, because he’s a wizard with words. Unlike some of his plots, his descriptions are rarely large in scope. Instead they tend to focus on a few select things placed precisely around his scenes. The result is imagery as potent as any writer can muster, at once lush and sparse. He renders his worlds in sepia hues, and like an old photograph or a memory of a far-away place, some things are in sharp focus, while the faded background exudes feeling more than detail:
Ancient wallpaper showed faded scenes of some kind repeating themselves all over the room. Albert, who seemed more and more excited, led me up the creaking worn-edged stairs to my room–a bed with a frilly pink spread, a lamp table on which lay a screwdriver with a transparent yellow handle–and quickly back down.
This comes from my favorite Millhauser story–indeed one of my favorite short stories by any author–titled “A Visit,” and included in this collection. That relatively short description of Albert’s tour of his house tells you more about Albert than pages of exposition and backstory could. This is the tale of a man who travels to the New England woods to visit his former college roommate (Albert) and meet his wife. Albert’s wife, it turns out, is a two-foot bullfrog named Alice. Alice doesn’t talk, or wear clothes, or do anything a normal bullfrog wouldn’t do. Still, their grotesque relationship affects the befuddled visitor, touches him.
The strongest of the seven new stories, “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove,” reads a bit like Henry James writing the kind of pulp horror the title implies. A teen boy’s closest friend begins wearing a white glove on her left hand, covering something that clearly makes her itch, and reduces mobility. But she won’t talk about it, or remove the glove to reveal her ailment. He becomes increasingly preoccupied with the glove, beset with a desire to undress her hand:
The glove sat there, exposing its two buttons. They were looking at me. They were daring me, with little white smiles, to get on it with. And an anger came over me–at the grinning white buttons, and the smug little white glove, and the fat white moon, and the careless house, which entrusted itself to the night, and at innocent Emily, lying there too peacefully, though with a slight look of strain between her eyebrows, and at the sky, and the stars, and the rushing-apart universe, and the vain fool who stood in the dark bedroom like a killer with an upraised knife–like a strangler with a cord in his hands–like a boy lost in a forest.
The story is a wonderful exploration of obsession, and pairs very nicely with another of the new works. “Getting Closer” is a short, bittersweet depiction of the clash between sentimentality and emotional maturity. It concerns a young boy headed to the river with his family for a summer day full of swimming and picnicking. He pauses to contemplate the happy day before him, and finds himself paralyzed with a dread of shattering the halcyon moment; by taking in the day, he realizes like Adam eating fruit in Eden, the day will be gone forever, and, one can infer, his innocence with it.
Of the previously published stories in this collection, Millhauser says in his author’s note that he “chose stories that seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I’d never seen before.” I like that. But he still managed to collect here a pretty representative exhibit of his excellent work in short stories. If you’ve never read Millhauser before, this new collection is the perfect place to start.
Similar Reads: The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (Millhauser), Like You’d Understand, Anyway (Shepard), Museum of the Weird (Gray).
[A review copy was provided. *Disclaimer, Stephen Millhauser was one of my college professors so I’m admittedly a little biased.]