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Steven Millhauser (handout)
Steven Millhauser (handout)

The Daily Review, Thu., Sept. 8

Short-story collection is haunting, hilarious, absurd, wondrous Add to ...

Steven Millhauser is a master at creating fantastic and enchanting stories. His novels and stories are often preoccupied with oddities: circuses and carnivals, sideshows, nickelodeons, weird museums, twisted suburban landscapes and their denizens, eccentrics, illusionists, magicians, and builders of automata, zoetropes and other animating and esoteric technologies.

His stories take the reader down paths that become increasingly, subtly, bizarre. The reader flips one page, then the next, with a growing awareness that things are not unfolding as expected. Yet even as things turn stranger and stranger still, the reader finds herself propelled compulsively on the frictionless grace of Millhauser’s prose.

We Others is a collection of 21 of Millhauser’s short stories spanning more than 30 years. The first seven are new; the remaining 14 are selected from past collections that helped establish Millhauser's reputation as a first-rate fabulist.

The first story, The Slap, describes what happens when a mysterious man in a trench coat serially assaults – with a single, unprovoked but decisive slap – various inhabitants of a prosperous commuter suburb over the course of a few weeks. In Cat ‘n’ Mouse, we find a blow-by-violent-blow account of the complicated, almost purgatorial relationship between a Tom-and-Jerry-like cartoon cat and mouse, complete with tortured longing, envy and regret. The title story, We Others, is a ghost story from the point of view of the ghost. The Next Thing is about a new big-box store as labyrinthine as Borges’s Library of Babel. Is it a dream of absolute consumer satisfaction? Or is it a nightmare in which consumers are consumed?

Millhauser is pretty consistent in his choice of arcane subjects and settings, but he explores an astonishing range of themes, spanning the limits of desire and the imagination, the role of the spectator and the responsibility of the artist, the individual in society and the centrality of stories in our lives. Some of his stories are about the art of artifice, about how far an artist can or should go to keep an audience's attention: How far is too far? At what point does the artist transgress?

Take The Knife Thrower, in which the narrator describes Hensch, a celebrated performer who “had stepped boldly, some said recklessly, over the line never before crossed by knife throwers, and had managed to make a reputation out of a disreputable thing.” What will happen when Hensch's beautiful assistant turns to the audience and asks for a volunteer to make “the ultimate sacrifice”?

The stories August Eschenburg and Eisenheim the Illusionist (the inspiration for the 2006 movie The Illusionist) explore this theme as well, portraying virtuoso artists who push the boundaries of their craft to disturbing new realms. What is said of Eisenheim – that he was “returning the spectator to the troubled heart of magic, which yearned beyond the constricting world of ingenuity and artifice toward the dark realm of transgression” – can certainly be said of Eschenburg, Hensch and other Millhauser heroes as well.

The Wizard of West Orange, the last story in the collection, is a finely cut gem of short science fiction. The unnamed narrator is the librarian at Menlo Park, the headquarters of Thomas Edison’s technological empire, at the peak of the laboratory’s activities and output. The librarian discovers the true nature of a secret project personally overseen by Edison: the creation of the haptograph, a device meant to mimic the sensation of touch. But complications ensue when the researchers realize that the haptograph can transport them to new realms of consciousness.

These collected stories are by turns haunting, hilarious, absurd (in the best way), enigmatic and wondrous. Gems dominate. Millhauser writes in a brief introduction that he initially intended to choose stories representative of his career, but in the end chose “stories that seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I had never seen before.” These stories will seize your attention – and your imagination – with the force of a vise grip.

Patrick Lohier is a Toronto-based writer and critic.

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