Thirty Years of magical mystery in Millhauser’s stories

From this week’s Irish Examiner

We Others: New and Selected Stories

We Others: New and Selected Stories

Stephen Millhauser (Corsair; £20.00)

Review: Val Nolan

A fantasist of the first rank, Stephen Millhauser’s work crosses straight-up realism with the kind of unsettling occurrences more readily associated with writers such as Stephen King or Roald Dahl. Nonetheless, Millhauser’s preoccupation with the unexpected is the single commonality throughout his short fiction, a startling body of work which blends the best of the literary, horror, and supernatural genres.

The twenty-five pieces here – seven of them new – represent the high-points of a thirty-year writing career. The author states in the introduction that he ‘chose stories that seized my attention as though they had been written by someone whose work I had never seen before’. It is difficult to think of a better description for this selection.

The arresting opener, ‘The Slap’, exemplifies Millhauser’s style and imagination. The story is propelled by a mysterious figure drifting through suburbia and doling out slaps to people seemingly at random. Though it may sound slight, ‘The Slap’ is a profoundly disconcerting critique of the somnambulist qualities inherent in contemporary life. Perturbing the established order, its antagonist is the archetypical Millhauser character, agent of a trickster breed which surfaces again and again throughout this taut, beautifully written volume.

Millhauser, awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, is probably best known on this side of the Atlantic for ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’ which was adapted into a film starring Edward Norton. That story is one of several real treats from the author’s back catalogue which are reprinted here, with standouts such as ‘The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad,’ ‘The Barnum Museum’, and ‘The Wizard of West Orange’ illustrating Millhauser’s joyful willingness to experiment with form as much as they do his love of the extraordinary.

Balancing these are the new pieces on which the success of We Others rests. The title story spotlights a posthumous narrator, and while this has been done before – Neil Jordan’s Shade and Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones come to mind – Millhauser’s dark humour and melodramatic narrator give this story a distinctive edge.

Another strong showing is ‘The Next Thing’, in which a massive discount store opens on the edge of a small town and begins to transform not just the way people act but also the way that they think. Though the offhand perversions of the story’s plot exhibit a Twilight Zone flavour, its most disturbing aspect is its allegorical commentary on how commercialism can all too easily erode the moral core of communities.

Here, as throughout, Millhauser transforms banal and reactionary tendencies into something genuinely thought-provoking. His writing, while occasionally melancholic, is always emotionally intricate and his observations about how society works (or, in many cases, does not) linger long after the book is closed. A sophisticated, intensely rewarding collection, We Others ought to be required reading for anyone who enjoys short fiction or the best of contemporary American writing.

  • Val Nolan teaches contemporary literature at National University of Ireland, Galway.

This article first appeared in the Irish Examiner, p.16, on January 21th 2012 

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One Response to Thirty Years of magical mystery in Millhauser’s stories

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Steven Millhauser’s We Others - Opinionless

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