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A Master of the In-Between World

simic_2-071212
Réunion des Musées Nationaux/Art Resource
A Barnum & Bailey Circus poster, early twentieth century

A heretical thought has often crossed my mind, while reading a particularly fine short-story collection by an American writer, that our literature has produced more masterpieces in that genre than in the novel. The-bigger-the-better being our national ideal in just about everything we set out to do, many of our novels, especially in recent decades, when a walloping book of six hundred to eight hundred pages is no longer a rare exception, have tended to be badly overwritten. Even in the best of them, one encounters scenes and descriptions of negligible interest that ought to have been cut entirely or at least trimmed by their authors or editors.

The writers’ and publishers’ defense that readers like sprawling narratives is not without foundation. One of the finest novels in our literature, The Great Gatsby, which is about 180 pages long, failed to sell well when it first came out, according to F. Scott Fitzgerald, because it was too short. Despite evidence to the contrary, the belief that the Great American Novel will be a huge book persists. We can see this by the prominence bookstores give to the newly published lengthy novels by familiar-name authors, as if their thickness guarantees both their literary importance and their commercial success.

No wonder short-story collections are kept out of sight. Getting a book of them published in the United States has become nearly impossible. They have been marginalized even more than poetry, despite everyone from college students to serious readers of literature knowing that they are not only fun to read, but are capable of being as memorable as novels. Ranging from realistic to fantastic, and any mixture of the two, they have come in many guises since their origin in the early nineteenth century, paralleling the rise of popular magazines and journals where stories by such familiar names as Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, Maupassant, Chekhov, D.H. Lawrence, Babel, Mansfield, Hemingway, Cheever, Borges, and many others first appeared.

Faulkner said that short stories were harder to write than novels. While novels assemble a vast amount of diverse material and rely on its cumulative effect, stories tend to see life on a smaller scale and confine themselves to a short span of time and a small number of characters. Their most admirable quality is associated with what Steven Millhauser calls “artful exclusions.”* Like poems, good stories never overexplain. They only hint that a second, slower, and more careful reading will deepen our understanding. Hemingway once said that the best story he ever wrote contained just six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Short as it is, I find it haunting and inexhaustible to the imagination. Steven Millhauser’s stories have that effect on me. They are never far from my mind and they return for a visit from time to time.

Author of four novels—one of which, Martin Dressler, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997—and seven collections of stories and novellas, Millhauser was born in 1943 in Brooklyn, but when he was four years old his family moved to Stratford, Connecticut, where his father was a professor of English at the nearby University of Bridgeport and his mother taught first grade. Growing up in a working-class neighborhood, where his friends and classmates all had Slavic and Italian names, taught him, he later said, what an American small town is like, what its streets, kitchens, cellars, attics, roadside weeds, and telephone poles are like.

His first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer, 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972), about an aspiring writer whose career ends with his death at age eleven, and whose story is told by a classmate, won France’s Prix Médicis Étranger. In addition to being a spoof of literary biographies and detective stories, it is also a rich evocation of a boy’s life in 1950s small-town America, a subject that Millhauser has returned to often in his writings, as in the three marvelous stories “Flying Carpets,” “Clair de Lune,” and “Snowmen” included in his new collection, We Others.

Though the prose, narrative strategies, and cast of characters have varied over the decades, what Millhauser’s stories have in common, in my view, is that most of them may be said to take place in what Hawthorne called “neutral territory,” between the real world and fairy land, where the actual and imaginary meet and each imbues itself with the nature of the other. Millhauser has a fascination with moments in our lives when something inexplicable happens, when our reality collides with some other reality, while the world we had taken for granted up to that moment turns strange and even familiar things cease to be themselves, stripping us in the process of our identities, and leaving in their place something that has no name. The very first story in We Others, called “The Slap,” describes from its very first page how something like that comes to pass:

One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face. Lasher was so startled that he did not move. The man turned and walked briskly away.

A crazy guy, some loony off his meds, Lasher thinks. Most likely he had him mistaken for someone else. Nevertheless, sixteen hours later the same man strikes another man at the same station. This time the man looks angrily at his victim and the news gets around. Seven other attacks follow. The stranger in a well-cut trench coat strikes again in different locations of the same town. No one has any idea who he is or why this is happening, so people are not just scared but deeply troubled. If it were murder, they think, it would be easier to understand.

Of course, they all have their own theory about these assaults. Everyone has a secret, shameful thing they’ve done in the past, and the slapper, like an angry father, is punishing them for that. He is making a point: his target is not individuals, but the town itself. Then, all of a sudden, the attacks stop. A package addressed to the police contains a plain cardboard box with a tan trench coat neatly folded, leaving the townspeople even more confused, asking themselves whether the stranger was right to treat them the way he did, though what it was that he was right about they are unable to say.

The powerful story has forty sections, each a paragraph long. The point of view switches between third-person for the individual victims and first-person plural for the beleaguered community. Even though the narrative moves briskly, each scene has the vividness of cinema verité. Millhauser is one of the most imaginative writers we have, capable of pure invention, as in the story “Cat ’n’ Mouse,” in which he uses the plots of old Tom and Jerry cartoons to spin his own even zanier version of the endless rivalry between a cat and a mouse; however, he never confuses seeing with imagining. The shock of the real, along with the shock of something that transcends it, he has said, is what he wants us to experience. Even the fantastic ghost story “We Others,” from which the book gets its title, depends on the interplay between the two.

“We Others” tells about a small-town doctor in his fifties who experiences a fit of dizziness one evening. He goes to bed with a feeling of uneasiness and heaviness on his chest, takes out his stethoscope, and listens to his heart, promising himself to stop working so hard and to take some time off. Instead, he dies in his sleep that same night. He wakes in early dawn with a pleasant sense of lightness, and seeing his body lying in the bed lifeless, comes to realize that he has become a ghost.

What follows is a sublime description of his wandering in the dark light of dawn with everyone asleep and seeing his neighborhood as with brand-new eyes. He stops to admire a soccer ball sitting on the black-green grass beside a yellow sprinkler, mailboxes with red reflectors that look like gigantic lollipops at the end of driveways, a wooden swing hung from the branch of a tree, and the cat on one porch arching its back and hissing at him as he passes by.

Eventually, he enters a house, walks past the dressmaker’s dummy beside a sewing machine, and makes his way to the attic where he’s finally able to take a rest. After some weeks, he establishes contact with a woman who lives in the house he’s hiding in, and then with her niece who comes to visit. Both of them fall in love with him, but these complications in the plot, in my opinion, break the spell of its dreamlike narrative and with it this reader’s belief in this particular ghost.

Among the seven new stories in the book, I especially like “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove,” Millhauser’s spinoff of Hawthorne’s story “The Birthmark.” Like its predecessor it’s a study of an obsession, in this version about a high school girl who begins to wear a mysterious white glove on one of her hands, and her estrangement from the boy who loves her after she refuses to reveal what is being hidden under that white cloth. I also admire the one called “Getting Closer,” about a nine-year-old boy who loves to procrastinate and savor the excitement of prolonging the moment before he has to do something. His family goes to spend the day swimming on the banks of the Housatonic River, but he can’t bring himself to enter the water, because he likes the anticipation that makes everything intensely present and real, and he is afraid he is going to lose that feeling once he does. He wants to hang back on this side of the divide, hold that moment forever, but, of course, he cannot, and so, with a wild cry that tears through his throat, he steps over that invisible line and throws himself into the river.

Very different and very funny is “The Invasion from Outer Space,” an account of that long-awaited calamity the movies and science-fiction books have been promising us for over a century. However, instead of buildings collapsing, spaceships landing, and creatures with large heads on stalk-like necks disembarking, what descends on us is just some yellow dust that covers our sidewalks, our cars, and our clothes. These single-celled organisms, which the scientists assure the people are harmless, nevertheless multiply. Pretty soon they are everywhere, including our homes, despite shades being always drawn. Without quite admitting it, everyone is disappointed. Annoying as the mysterious substance is, it doesn’t seek our subjugation and annihilation or reveal to us the secret of immortality. Instead, it wastes our time by making us sweep our front walks daily, hose off our porches, and shake out our shoes and sneakers, first thing in the morning and late at night.

  1. *

    Interview with Steven Millhauser, Bomb, No. 83 (Spring 2003). 

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