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Finely tuned grand illusions

(Francesco Bongiorni for The Boston Globe)
By Max Winter
September 25, 2011

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A Steven Millhauser story is meticulously worded, often off-kilter at heart, and deserving of comparisons to Borges and Kafka, and has been so for many years. Millhauser has built a reputation on producing a consistently mystifying and provocative product. In this volume of new and selected works written over 30 years, he offers us numerous tales from four volumes whose storylines have been creative loci for him for decades. These yarns, with their idyllic American backdrops, their driven geniuses entrenched in fin-de-siecle Europe, their wondrous, inexplicable occurrences, from flying carpets to frog wives, make demands on our imaginations, but definitely give back in return. And what’s more, the new stories in the volume display an unfamiliar restlessness, possibly a sign of stylistic changes afoot.

The most intriguingly unhinged of the new works, “People of the Book,’’ is a commencement speech in which the speaker tells a crowd of 13-year-olds the origins of their race: human copulation with books. The speech ends with a pleasing paean: “Lift your eyes to the heaven-shelves on every wall, lift your eyes to the living and breathing words that surround you. . . the Ancestors, row on row.’’ The story seems carried away with itself on the surface, yet Millhauser manages to keep its rhetoric grounded - in the love of books. In stark contrast, “The Next Thing’’ is notable for the restlessness of its commentary. After muttering and fretting about the gradual construction of miles of underground living/working spaces near his small town, the everyman speaker simply says, “It’s hard to know what to make of all that. These are interesting times.’’ A story of a thwarted teenage romance bears the rococo title “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove.’’ These stories seem to come from a different, perhaps more spontaneous, part of Millhauser’s mind than his other works. The possibility that they could fly out of control is tantalizing, while our hunch that they probably won’t is reassuring rather than disappointing.

Millhauser’s recurring storylines are much like forms - we care less about the stories than about the emotions they produce. Some of his stories are intensely imagined biographies, or parts thereof, that ultimately turn inwards. The tautly etched “August Eschenburg’’ is a standout from “In the Penny Arcade,’’ the earliest book included in this collection. The titular builder of clockwork-driven automata in Muhlenburg, Germany, garners praise for his figures’ deftness and lifelike quality; after achieving further success in Berlin, he begins to feel as disconnected from his business, and from success itself, as one of his own puppets. “Eisenheim the Illusionist,’’ from “The Barnum Museum,’’ describes a masterful magician whose summoning of ghostly presences - who interact with him and audience members - draws so much notoriety that he must eventually turn his magic on himself. These stories resemble cautionary fables, and yet the caution is ambiguous.

In other stories, Millhauser injects a surreal event into a commonplace setting, satirizing that setting by poking holes in its veneer. “Dangerous Laughter’’ offers, in “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,’’ the story of a woman who inexplicably vanishes one day from a room that locks from the inside, without evidence of abduction. The “we’’ narrating this story takes responsibility, claiming that the woman’s community erased her. In “A Visit,’’ from “The Knife Thrower,’’ a man visits an old friend in upstate New York. The friend’s wife is a large frog, and the couple is unabashedly content. Though the visitor is repulsed by the union, Millhauser makes their bond convincingly deep -and hard to entirely dismiss. These stories question normalcy, and their attraction lies in the degree to which they debunk it entirely.

Millhauser also writes antistories, plotless pieces that explore the luminousness or resonance of a place or discrete topic. The title story of the “Barnum Museum’’ takes readers through the cloistered interior of a museum devoted to the history and memorabilia of P.T. Barnum’s famed circus. We learn about all of the museum’s nooks and crannies, as well as about the strange denizens who live there. “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad’’ arranges itself as a collage of quotes, scholarly observations, and discussions of the history of “Thousand and One Nights’ ’’ and semiromantic, musings on imagined moments in the life of Sinbad. These pieces give us a tour of their own structure, rather than sweeping us through a plot, and yet they consistently suggest discovery.

Given the content of the volume, its title seems wholly appropriate. One of Millhauser’s most arresting stylistic quirks is to tell a story in the first person plural. Millhauser’s “we’’ both invites and distances; it asks us to be part of a group, witnessing the bizarre events occurring before “our’’ eyes, but it also gives a passive tone to the work, perpetually separating the teller of the story from the story itself. Naming the book “We Others,’’ then, raises the question: Are we part of “us’’ or “them’’? Are we witnesses, participants, outcasts? It is that kind of quiet unsettlement that makes “We Others’’ essential reading for anyone who might have ever doubted their assumptions.

Max Winter is author of “The Pictures,’’ and he co-edits the small press Solid Objects. He can be reached at maxw28@yahoo.com.

WE OTHERS: New and Selected Stories By Steven Millhauser

Knopf, 387 pp., $27.95