by Stevan Allred
central issue in a Stephen Millhauser story is never the characters,
never the plot. Millhauser's preoccupation as a writer is always with
the issue of "what if?" What if, as in The Other Town, the
inhabitants of a small town in New England built an exact replica of
their town and maintained it in real time? What if, as in A Precursor to the Cinema,
a painter invented paint that allowed the two-dimensional figures in
his paintings to reach out and touch the viewer? What if Thomas
Wizard of West Orange, had devised a way to record and
play back the sensory experience of touch? It is the quality
of Millhauser's imagination that is on display in his work, the sheer
power of his ability to wonder "what if..?"
is organized into four sections that neatly categorize the broad
strokes of Millhauser's speculative musings. "Vanishing Acts" are
concerned with characters in recognizably contemporary settings,
characters who disappear not suddenly, "but gradually, over the course
of time". "Impossible Architectures" are stories in which the premise
is some deep alteration of physical reality. Domes are built to enclose
single houses, then entire towns, and finally the entire country (The Dome), or
something closely resembling the biblical Tower of Babel actually
succeeds in piercing the floor of heaven, allowing access to mere
mortals (The Tower).
It is in these stories that the premise most clearly trumps the
conventions of plot and character.
Histories" present alternative histories, or in the case of Here at the Historical Society,
explore the nature of historical investigation itself. "Opening
Cartoon" contains the opening story in this collection, Cat 'n' Mouse, and
is another Millhauser foray into the intersection of speculative
fiction and form. (See A
Game of Clue from his earlier collection The Barnum Museum
for another example.)
the hands of a lesser writer these stories would be the literary
equivalent of The
Twilight Zone. Millhauser never stoops to the level of Rod
Serling's overly obvious sense of irony, and his characters, when he
chooses to employ them, are more carefully nuanced than Serling's
quickly sketched central casting types. His stories work best when
those characters actually inhabit his wonderfully detailed
speculations, as in the titular Dangerous Laughte",
wherein a group of bored teen-agers entertain themselves with
competitive laughing jags.
In the Reign of Harad IV
a court miniaturist builds smaller and smaller replicas of reality
until his objects become so absurdly small that no one can see them,
and through this lens we are given a portrait of artistic
of a Disturbance gives us a market researcher, an
apparatchik of the consumerist apparatus, whose ability to use language
dissolves in the space "between words and whatever they were supposed
to be doing."
stories that eschew conventional characters succeed when they are
brief. Millhauser's imagination, powerful as it is, can hold our
attention for eight or ten pages without offering any human contact
other than the narrative voice itself. When he stretches these premises
out too long, indulging himself, as he does in Cat 'n' Mouse, in
an extended description of the frenetic activity of a Tom &
Jerry cartoon, he becomes a bit tiresome.
brilliance of these stories lies in the visionary quality of their
conceits. Their titles are descriptive, never ironic or clever, and in
this we can find what it is that makes Millhauser a writer worth
reading: he speaks to us directly from his imagination, with a
decidedly adult sense of wonder.
is a poet, essayist, and short story writer, a Pushcart nominee, and
the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship. He has recently been
published by Bewlderingstories.com, Windfall, and Perceptions.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Millhauser is the author of five previous collections of short
stories and five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Martin Dressler.
His story Eisenheim
the Illusionist, from his collection The Barnum Museum,
was the basis for the 2006 film The Illusionist.
Millhauser lives in Sarasota Springs, New York, and teaches at Skidmore
with Steven Millhauser
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