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A Master of the In-Between World

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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.

“Eisenheim the Illusionist”—which was adapted into a pretty good movie in 2006, called The Illusionist and starring Edward Norton in the title role—is the tale of the turn-of-the-century magician in Vienna. Less a portrait of Eisenheim, about whose inner life we learn little, it is a portrayal of an empire on the verge of dissolution and its fascination with the art of magic. From the obscure villages of Moravia to Galicia, Istria to Bukovina, the narrator tells us, bearded and black-caped magicians in market squares astonished people by drawing streams of dazzling silk handkerchiefs from empty paper cones, removing billiard balls from children’s ears, and throwing into the air decks of cards that assumed the shapes of snakes and angels before returning into their hands.

In larger towns like Zagreb, Lvov, Budapest, and Vienna, on the stages of opera houses and theaters, traveling conjurers astonished sophisticated audiences with feats of levitation, decapitation, ghostly apparitions, and sudden vanishings of their female assistants. Eisenheim, who was born Eduard Abramowitz in Bratislava in 1859 or 1860, became infatuated with magic in his youth after a chance encounter with a traveling magician. The story of how he went from practicing traditional magic to becoming a famous illusionist provides Millhauser with an opportunity to describe the repertoire and some of the tricks he and his competitors used.

At one point, the narrator explains our fascination with magic this way: “Stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams.” The master illusionist, Eisenheim distances himself from his competitor’s growing reliance on machinery and begins giving performances with no props except for a plain wooden chair and a small glass table on an otherwise empty stage where he seats himself and where, after long and fierce concentration, he “materializes” a dead girl out of thin air who answers questions from the audience, not only mesmerizing people, but taking them, as the narrator notes, beyond the constricting world of ingenuity and artifice toward something dark and forbidden that lies at the very heart of magic. He violates the accepted boundaries and in the process blurs the distinction between reality and illusion. In effect, as the police detective who has been watching all his performances says, Eisenheim is subverting the empire. Just as he is about to be arrested during a performance, he disappears, passing safely, we are told, “out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.”

“The Knife Thrower” is a story about another practitioner of the unsavory arts, a man called Hensch, who in his performances crosses a line never before crossed by any knife thrower, by inflicting small, artful wounds on women who come to assist him and ask to bear his scar proudly. As in “August Eschenburg,” a tale about a German watchmaker’s son who builds increasingly lifelike clockwork automations, what these stories have in common is an astonishingly detailed and credible recreation of their heroes’ unusual occupations and the historical periods they lived in. Aren’t they all artists in their own fashion? Millhauser is asking us. He shares Fellini’s love of men and women who once performed in variety theaters, traveling circuses, and sideshows, and devotes many pages in his stories to cataloging and describing their stunts. Here, for example, are some of the acts young Eschenburg encounters at a fair his father takes him to: Elmo the Fire-Swallower, Heinrich the Learned Horse, the Hairy Lady of Borneo, Professor Schubart the Mesmerist, the Speaking Bust, the Automaton Chess-Player, Bill Swift the American Sharp-Shooter, Wanda the Ossified Girl, Count Cagliostro’s Chamber of Horrors, and Kristina the Captured Mermaid.

“The Barnum Museum” is Millhauser’s homage to the famous museum by that name that opened its door in 1841 in New York, and that has survived through various reincarnations to this day, and where at one time the visitors could admire a Mona Lisa made out of ice, a loom run by a dog, a strand of Pocahontas’s hair, and a flea circus, in addition to hundreds of other such marvels. Millhauser’s museum is a single complex building with numerous wings, annexes, additions, and extensions, where the wonders of the world are kept. It has everything from mythical animals like the griffin, the winged horse, the homunculus in his jar, great birds with the faces and breasts of women, and the transparent man, to a city on the bottom of a lake and other marvels too numerous to count. In the chamber of false things, there are trompe l’oeil doorways, forged paintings, faked fossils, joke-shop ink spills, and footprints of extraterrestrials. The guards, we are told, spend their lives within its walls, and visitors who are so inclined can also reside permanently in the museum.

This story—first published in 1990—has often been likened to Borges’s “The Library of Babel,” in which the universe is compared to a library, but to me its resemblance to both madhouse and prison is closer to Kafka and its horrific creatures closer to Hieronymus Bosch’s encyclopedic vision of monsters in his paintings. The Dutch artist’s intent may have been to scare sinners into repenting their sins, and Millhauser’s is to make us admire the ingenuity of generations of hucksters who constructed an alternate reality for us to escape to when we grow weary of this one, but they both draw from the same kind of imagination, the very one that populated the mythologies of early cultures throughout the world with monsters and divinities and whose uppermost desire was to create an image we are not likely to ever forget.

As we have seen, most of Millhauser’s stories are about loners. “History of Disturbance” is about a husband who stops talking after he becomes convinced that words harm the world, and “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” is about a woman whom no one who had ever met or knew her could clearly recall afterward. There is also “A Protest Against the Sun,” a gripping story about a young woman alone with her thoughts on a crowded beach on Long Island Sound. “It was an absolutely perfect day,” she tells her father, only to have him nod morosely in the direction of a radio two blankets away. Her mother is there, too, sunbathing and reading.

It is indeed a lovely, drowsy summer day. The father is reading a fat seventeenth-century anthology, two collections of Milton criticism, and has also brought along a library novel. The daughter has a book of Molière plays and a paperback Larousse, but she’s not reading. Like the boy in the story “Getting Closer,” she’s obsessed with time passing, thinking to herself that there are only a certain number of days in a lifetime, and to see them just fly by is horrifying to her. “Don’t you realize that nothing lasts?” she yearns to tell her parents.

At the same time, even she has to admit, it is very nice to do nothing and just lie all lazy in the sun. She’s about to doze off when her mother’s voice startles her awake. A boy of about sixteen, dressed in black denim, “a dark heavy parka fastened up to his neck,” and “heavy bootlike shoes,” is walking furiously along the beach. His black eyes, the daughter thinks, look “as if a black bottle had exploded inside him and flung two sharp pieces of glass into his eyeholes.” Up and down the beach people stop what they are doing and turn to look at the boy. “Don’t stare at him,” the father orders the daughter as he marches past them, and now she is mad too. This beach in the sun is all a lie, she thinks. Hate is in human hearts. The boy knew that, and was mocking them.

We, as readers, are being mocked too, since we fell for the day being perfect, forgetting that we ourselves on occasion had thought the same and discovered otherwise. What we are not in any doubt about is our growing realization that we are reading an unforgettable story in a book of astonishingly beautiful and moving stories by one of America’s finest and most original writers.

  1. *

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

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