Saturday, August 31, 2013
Review: We Others – New and Selected Stories, by Steven Millhauser
Steven Millhauser does something curious with this, his 2011 collection of new and selected short stories: he puts the newest pieces first. Perhaps this is a nod to his still-growing stature within the firmament of American fiction, a way of bypassing the presumption of familiarity. Despite having published numerous books since his debut in the early 1970s, getting his later stories regularly printed in The New Yorker and Harper’s, and winning a Pulitzer Prize, there are still many readers—extremely well-read readers—who have no idea who he is.
We Others aims to alleviate this by providing a deep dive into Millhauser’s oeuvre. The book, which clocks in at nearly 400 pages, is nothing if not thorough in its exploration of the author’s themes and preoccupations. Clear patterns emerge, story after story: tales about the disruption of normality, the lure and tyranny of progress, the odious effects of commerce on creativity. The pieces show a range of versatility, moving from a realist mode to an almost surrealist one, displaying an adeptness at traditional allegory as well as the ability to subvert narrative convention.
The collection opens with “The Slap,” a piece about an ordinary bedroom community to a large metropolis that becomes terrorized by a shadowy figure who goes around slapping people at random. This was actually one of my favourite pieces in the book. Despite being a rather obvious allegory for senseless 911-style terrorism, “The Slap” possesses a off-kilter compulsion that keeps the pages turning. I not only wanted to know how the story would end, but also how far Millhauser could stretch his parable without breaking it.
One of Millhauser’s great talents is his ability to marry the strange and the tender in a single story. Examples of this from the selection of newer pieces include “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove” and the title story “We Others.” In the former piece, we see a touching relationship between a teenage boy and girl disrupted when the girl develops a mysterious illness that requires her to wear a white glove on her hand. In the latter, we bear witness to a devastating love triangle between two women and a ghost. In each case, Millhauser is able to infuse his story with a great gentleness even as he undermines our sense of reality.
There are numerous standouts from the selection of older pieces as well. The novella “August Eschenburg” is an expansive and gripping tale about a young boy living in the 19th century who is a wizard at building automatons, and how competition, commerce, and changes in public taste affect his chosen art form. This is Millhauser at his realist best. By contrast, “The Eighth Voyages of Sinbad” is a sort of postmodern metafiction—as much about the history of the story of that famous sailor as it is about the sailor himself. Yet Millhauser is equally strong in this mode, showing his ability to stray from narrative’s beaten track when he wants to.
There are, inevitably, a few missteps that pepper We Others. “A Visit”, for example, is the story of a man who goes to visit an old acquaintance he hasn’t seen in nine years, only to discover the man is living in a “remote upstate town” and married to a frog. The story never really does much in the way of building a plausible world for these characters to inhabit, and thus falls flat. Similarly, “Flying Carpets” is a magical story that doesn’t really do much with its magic. The writing is strong and lyrical, but it just doesn’t engage enough with its own premise. Consequently, this story—like a few others—starts to drag, and thus makes the collection as a whole more daunting than it should be.
Millhauser has many tools in his writerly toolbox, and this anthology gives the reader and excellent taste of what he is capable of. Whether We Others will bring him a wider audience remains to be seen, but this book is definitely worth slogging through: there are many gems and only a few dull stones.