There’s something appropriate about the distance of Steven Millhauser. He isn’t notorious for his reclusiveness in the ilk of J. D. Salinger; on the contrary, he still teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York, and during the few occasions he gives interviews, he speaks with great detail about literature and his own writing. But you certainly won’t find him tweeting, blogging or maintaining a personal website. Not every author does, of course, but an overall quiet presence and a limited amount of public information maintains a sense of unfamiliarity. The author may exist, but only in the shadows. Given Millhauser’s body of work, that only seems appropriate.
Millhauser’s writing has been met with strong critical praise. New stories often appear in The New Yorker, his novel Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer won a Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and his short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” inspired the 2006 movie The Illusionist. He’s got enthusiastic fans, but doesn’t have a branded cult following like H. P. Lovecraft. He’s been compared to Borges and Nabokov, but has birthed worlds similar to those of current writers like Karen Russell, Glen David Gold and Erin Morgenstern. Yet his name often slips through the cracks.
An utter uniqueness makes Millhauser’s writing feel at once immediately familiar and completely foreign, but read only a few stories and you’ll already know how to label something “Millhauserian.” This may be in part because of the unique concoction of genres; though he frequently presents wondrous, mysterious portraits of childhood and suburbia that feel like a hazy dream, he also often writes fables in a sort of science fiction world — only Millhauser isn’t concerned with computers and spaceships, but 19th century automaton theatres, turn-of-the-century amusement parks and fantastic department stores.
It’s easy to lose yourself completely in the marvelous worlds of Millhauser’s stories, though they aren’t just images of the fantastic but disturbing cautionary tales. Eccentric geniuses often invent their own downfalls by trying to top their most recent creations. In the short story “Paradise Park,” (from The Knife Thrower) the greatest amusement park on Earth eventually bores its customers and an underground park appears with rides even more thrilling — but that too reaches a point of the mundane, and so more subterranean levels are excavated until parks with rides that assist visitors with their own suicide emerge. In “The Invention of Robert Herendeen” (from The Barnum Museum), a man’s imaginary girlfriend grows interested in an imaginary suitor. And “The Dream of the Consortium” (also from The Knife Thrower) tells of a mall that allows its customers to purchase lost cities, making the whole world a catalog. The fables of Millhauser don’t stop after exposing a dark side to the familiar; they go on to address the absurdity of the darkness.
Looking to get hooked on a new author? Here’s a closer look at the landscapes you’ll find in the works of Steven Millhauser:
Though Millhauser was born in 1943, his writing has a mischievousness about it that makes him seem truly young at heart. Though it’s no surprise that many of his stories dive into the strange world of childhood, he’s less interested in coming-of-age tales of first kisses than he is in peering into the odd glimpses of sexual awakenings, unhealthy obsessions and secrets that lay hidden in silk gloves. In “Flying Carpets” (The Knife Thrower) the hottest summer toy isn’t razor scooters, but bona fide magic carpets. To be a teenager discovering the freedom of flight rekindles memories of growing independence that anyone can relate to, fused with the charm and delights of something new — at least while it’s still shiny.
Most of Millhauser’s work seems caught in a timeless realm befitting a postcard-view of the 1950s — a place, in short, where it's all too easy to imagine the charms and nostalgia of younger days. But like the fancies of Millhauser’s inventors, the whims of childhood can stray too far, finding themselves in ugly territory. When “Dangerous Laughter,” from the collection of the same name, finds laughing parties as summer’s latest trend (laughter here becomes a narcotic, sexual stimulants of sorts), it's only inevitable that new fads arise. Some don’t wish to let laughter go when crying parties become the next big thing; they cling on to to the old, they take it too far and are met with ostracization.
It’s an odd parable, but just as the once-popular flying carpets end up forgotten under a bed, Millhauser’s tales of youth are never unaware of their inevitable decay. The excitement of all summers, like all childhoods, never exists without time waiting in a nearby corner to steal them away. Even the whims of a Saturday morning Tom & Jerry-esque cartoon are met with existential frustration, the sad question of, if the endless chase is ever completed, what then do we do? Presented at the start of his collection Dangerous Laughter, “Cat ‘N’ Mouse” is categorized as the book’s “Opening Cartoon,” but it also may serve as a perfect opening to Millhauser’s entire catalog.
Millhauser holds an interest in stories within stories. His first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright, is written as a young boy’s biography of his best friend, the very smart and very dead Edwin Mullhouse, child author. There’s a hilarity to its youngsters taking on such pseudo-intellectual prose, but its emotions are never lost on what could have been a mere gimmick. Poor Jeffery, grappling with always being second-string to Edwin, now grapples with his death and tries to do the tragic child genius justice by telling the world of his life.
Other times, Millhauser’s biographies feature the lives of obsessive inventors, the sons of watchmakers who grow up to become master miniaturists (“The New Automaton Theatre,” The Knife Thrower) or an Edison-like figure with a machine that attempts to simulate new senses (“The Wizard of West Orange,” Dangerous Laughter). Often, the sheer hunger of genius pushes marvel into discomfort, be they “A Precursor of the Cinema” (Dangerous Laughter), which trades the escape of movies for total immersion, or magic tricks that lose their charm and bring about terror, as in “Eisenheim the Illusionist” (The Barnum Museum).
In an interview with BOMB Magazine, Millhauser explains that he’s drawn to the place “when things cease to be themselves, when they begin to turn into something else, which has no name. … This, I think, accounts for my interest in night scenes, in childhood, in bands of prowling adolescent girls, in underground and attic places, in obsession, in heightened states of awareness.”
It’s this reason that a coven of teenage girls in “The Sisterhood of Night” (The Knife Thrower) are not found practicing witchcraft at midnight, but merely sitting in silence. They have their initiation tactics, they have their devout secrecy, and there’s even a girl named Mary Warren (possibly after the Salem witch trial accuser), so surely there must be terrible rituals afoot. But no, just silence. Wouldn’t it be easier and more comforting to have an obvious area of contention? With nothing but silence, there’s only ever the town’s unease, a lack of being able to help and the continuing perils of growing imagination.
It’s this imagination and Millhauser’s frequent use of first-person plural to take on the collective thoughts of a community that fuel fear. But it doesn’t just stop at fear; there is sadness in the unexplainable, which captures that profound defeat of parents knowing that they can never answer all of their children’s questions.
We crave easy answers, bows tying up resolutions, Xs marking spots on maps. But when presented with sheer oddities defying logic, it is how people react to that confusion, that uncertainty, that is present in these stories. Whether this abrasion to the norm is in “A Protest Against the Sun” (In the Penny Arcade), in which a man simply wears a heavy coat to a sunny beach as a rebellion to summer, or in “The Slap” (We Others), which involves a stranger slapping a town’s inhabitants in the face for no reason, Millhauser looks for the weirdness of difference.
What works so well and what apparently keeps Millhauser coming back to the short story, may best be seen in his tales of fantastical lands. The worlds he creates in these stories don’t rely too heavily on plots themselves and are made all the more magical because of it. You’ll be treated to “The Barnum Museum” (from a collection of the same name), a room-by-room guide of a place that exhibits live mermaids, ever-changing hallways and dwarf-filled tunnels which descend into the depths of the Earth. Those in the nearby neighborhood are charmed if not confused by the place. Some grow into devoted fans, unable to leave its halls, others uncertain as to what it’s even supposed to bring into their lives. “The Other Town” (Dangerous Laughter) features a neighborhood which has a complete doppelganger version of itself. Maintenance workers will ensure that every detail in the first town — from a new plant to a baseball bat in a front lawn that moves after being played with — will be matched almost instantly in the next.
What’s so enticing about these marvelous landscapes is the opening they offer. Immediately after being plunged into such a canvas, it’s difficult to not become a daydreamer yourself, adding more to the world, thinking of plots, characters and conflicts. For example, “Cathay” (In the Penny Arcade), a story set in the eponymous kingdom, seems at first like it’s the world of a seven-volume saga, but instead it teases questions about wonder and spectacle in general.
Millhauser has a fondness for opening up his texts into something even larger than a single story. In many cases, he’ll create three intertwining narratives in a single space. “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad” (The Barnum Museum) finds its cocktail containing a retelling of the Sinbad myth, an older Sinbad looking back on his life and a literary overview of the differing Sinbad translations. Similarly, “A Game of Clue” (The Barnum Museum) positions the siblings of the Ross family reuniting on the outdoor porch while playing Clue, but also dives into the Body Mansion itself where Colonel Mustard attempts to seduce Miss Scarlett; it then presents technical descriptions of the board, of the game’s history, of other relics in the family’s attic, of their dying father. The narratives elevate out of storytelling and into a world in which Sinbad and Clue are not plot points but real things.
In a study of how Millhauser recycles material, be they his own stories, literature or old-world spectacle, David Creuze argues that the author often writes in open works, places where “readers are actively included in the text, and they have the opportunity to recycle what they know or do not know.” Never do the expanding scopes of these triptych tales come off as too-cute meta beats. They certainly bring a smile, but they also add a new dimension of narration and further a love of reading when the worlds you read of invite you into them. By placing Sinbad in a world in which his existence takes various forms, from source material to the fogginess of memory, the man of myth becomes something else entirely.
Read Millhauser’s latest triptych tale, “A Voice in the Night,” and see what you make of the mixture of biblical-era Samuel reacting to a noise in the darkness, contrasted with an American schoolboy thinking of the tale of Samuel and Eli, and finally the boy's older self, now an author, thinking of younger days and the inspirations of creativity. These three-tiered stories are not engineered to play only as puzzles, but cracking into them, like any Millhauser tale, provides the same reward. And just like the process of putting a puzzle together, the construction is often more enticing than the picture on the box.