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Steven Millhauser the Illusionist: 'We Others'

Conjurer Steven Millhauser is a master who has been mining the spaces between the kitchen sink and the outer limits of our knowledge for decades.

We Others: New & Selected Stories

Publisher: Vintage
Length: 387 pages
Author: Steven Millhauser
Price: $16
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2012-09

There’s a line from Steven Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”, which is collected in We Others: New & Selected Stories and was the loose inspiration for an Edward Norton film called The Illusionist in 2006, that goes: “Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams ... .“ It’s a poetic, adequate line, for Millhauser is a bit of a conjurer himself, blurring the real with the imagined in extraordinary ways. In a sense, considering that his career goes back at least four decades, Millhauser is a forerunner to the fabulist fiction imagined by the likes of Jonathan Lethem – and the comparison would be apt as Lethem actually supplies the pull quote on the cover of this 2011 collection, now published in paperback.

However, Millhauser is a different beast than Lethem. While Lethem makes the extraordinary seem out of bounds with reality, Millhauser writes about the general goings-ons of his small town New England neighbourhoods with a sense of something hyper-real going on, except that it's presented as being absolutely plausible and in no way different from anything that you may read in the newspaper. In that sense, Millhauser is a master when it comes to shuffling details of the clearly fantastic into the realm of the human and mundane.

Millhauser has been writing his offbeat fiction since the '70s, and probably doesn’t get the recognition and acclaim that Letham does, simply because he tends to write in the short story and novella ghettos, which are widely disregarded in American letters. (As a writer of short stories myself, I’ve been encourage to write a novel by other authorsm as those are much more saleable than short story collections, which makes Millhauser a marvel, as much of the material that comes from We Others is culled from no less than four previously published story collections.)

However, the fact is that while Millhauser doesn’t exactly have the name or brand recognition he should have, he has racked up the accolades in spades: his novel Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 and We Others won the Story Prize – an annual book award established in 2004 that awards an outstanding collection of short fiction with a $20,000 cash award – for books published last year. Millhauser was also a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for We Others, as well. His previous collection, Dangerous Laughter, of which We Others swipes four stories from, was a New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2008. If there’s anything that Millhauser is no stranger to, it's literary awards and applause.

We Others is a baffling collection, as it introduces a series of new Millhauser stories alongside some old favourites, which would ideally position it as a book best for either Millhauser completists, who must have absolutely everything the author has written and, more to the point, the uninitiated, who may be wading into the Millhauser oeuvre for the very first time. In a way, We Others is a much more successful work for those who have never come across the author, for only a scant 150 pages or so of the collection’s nearly 400 pages comes from works that haven’t been published in book form. (I would imagine that everyone else might feel a tad ripped off at the inclusion of the older material.)

However, We Others is not a work presented in chronological order, ranging from Millhauser’s work in the early ‘80s to the present time. Instead, the most recent or “new” work is presented first, then his “selected” work is then presented in order from the early ‘80s right up to 2008 or his Dangerous Laughter period.

If anything, We Others is an interesting collection for it shows that, even over a 30-year period, Millahuser has a certain everyman style that is evident in the vast majority of this work, with some overtly naturalistic stylistic tics or flourishes that crop up from time-to-time (this is likely most evident in the work’s final piece, “The Wizard of West Orange”, which is written in an abbreviated form of journal writing). The stories that make up the bulk of the bulk, if you will, are particularly intriguing, in that they tend to be more focused on the after-effects of terrorism on the small town psyche. Opening story “The Slap” is about a nameless perpetrator who goes about slapping people in various locales of a sleepy Our Town, causing much panic and consternation amongst the residents. Tthe four-page “The Invasion from Outer Space”, the shortest story in the volume, is about a benign invasion of an alien yellow pollen that nevertheless may have readers drawing comparisons to the anthrax scare of 2001, despite the story’s entreaty that the invasion is “really quite peaceful, in its way.”

Where We Others works best is in its renderings of the quaint peculiarities of its characters, and the ebb and flow of life in New England. My personal favourite story in the collection comes early: “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove” is largely built on high school puppy dog love – a kind of sexless or amour-less infatuation of a boy who simply goes over to his girlfriend’s house to play Scrabble with her and her parents, despite the fact that he grows more and more curious about what’s hidden under a white glove covering one of her hands. It feels like a metaphor for the unknown plunge adult world of sex: the male narrator wants to know what’s underneath that glove, but feels repulsed at the thought of actually knowing what is, indeed, actually there. Or, you can take it as a modern updating on the darkly hued works of Poe, or maybe even a Ray Bradbury.

Another story that really worked for me was “Snowmen”, in which snowmen built after a fresh falling of snow take on particularly complex characteristics in comedic ways: “They were not commonplace snowmen composed of three big snowballs piled one on top of the other, with carrots for noses and big black buttons or smooth round stones for eyes. No, they were passionately detailed men and women and children of snow, with noses and mouths and chins of snow. Their shoes of snow were tied with snow laces. One snowgirl in a summer dress of snow and a straw hat of snow stood holding a delicate snow parasol over one shoulder.”

If there’s any flaw to be had in We Others, it lies in its not-so-subtle repetition. “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad”, with its One Thousand and One Nights-themed tale of flying carpets, gives way later to a more conventional story about flying carpets as a metaphor, perhaps, for the seemingly magical introduction of television to households in the '50s in the eyes of youth called, no less, “Flying Carpets”. “The Next Thing”, an engaging and hilarious story about the absurdity of a superstore/living complex that mimics Wal-Mart in its expansionist world-view, seems similar to the later “The Barnum Museum”, about an ever expanding museum of worldly delights (and not-so-worldly delights).

And yes, there’s the odd dud that is included here, making the case for the possible judicious pruning of the odd story or two (or three): I really have no idea what “People of the Book” is supposed to be about, and I found the story “Clair de Lune” to be rather slight and uninvolving. In a commonality with Lethem, women tend to get the short shrift in these stories: they either are seen to be some kind of obstacle in the way of the pleasure of the male protagonist, or are presented as monstrous creatures of the night in their ordinariness.

Still, We Others is a lively collection of stories that, at once, feels too short and too long. It serves as a primer for the Millhauser back-catalogue, and may send readers backwards into previous collections to see if the stories that didn’t make this “greatest hits” compilation are just as worthy of being included. However, the repetition and overarching similarity of tone suggests that perhaps its a good 50 pages longer than it needs to be. In the end, I was pushed and pulled between the two distinct poles: wanting the stories to continue into infinity -- and wanting it to be finished, darn it, already.

Despite all that, this collection shows that Millhauser is an author that is kind of off the radar of most readers, which is odd given the success of latter-day fabulists such as Jonathan Lethem and Jonathan Carroll, but that might be because his approach and style is a little more literary in convention, and a little less focused on the outright fantastical. Or, put another way, in Millhauser’s hands, the outright fantastical becomes as common as ordinary, every-day things. That might make reading him a tougher act to swallow in some regards, but it also makes his work highly unconventional, and that leans a lot less on fantasy, science-fiction or horror tropes. Sure, those elements are there, but they seem muted.

We Others is a fantastic exposé of the fantastic by one of America’s most inventive writers, who shows us how it has been done well beyond the likes of the more recent day and popular slipstream writers of some level of popularity. If you’re already well read on Millhauser, reading these stories again is ideal: many of these pieces are open to multiple readings and enjoyment. For those new to his work, Millhauser is simply a genius who has been mining the spaces between the kitchen sink and the outer limits of our knowledge. He's worth reading to see how the two can be married without a sense of being overly spectacular or showy in fireworks. We Others may not be altogether a perfect read, but it's a nearly perfect introduction to the worlds within worlds that Millhauser conjures and bravely explore.


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