Critics sometimes compare Steven Millhauser’s work to Kafka’s or to Borges’s. Maybe this is because of his clean, uninflected sentences or his essayistic tone, the rigorous logic of his tales or the way he makes his most fantastical plots seem vivid. Millhauser has written so many stories about strange artists and craftsmen—doll-makers, magicians, trompe-l’oeil painters, architects of fantastic department stores, and inventors of premodern moving pictures—that he can seem like one of them, an outsider artist, working his obsessions all alone. But his new book, We Others: New and Selected Stories, shows off a Millhauser neither difficult nor obscure: a deeply American writer, working in some very old-fashioned veins of New England storytelling. The book includes some of Millhauser’s more grandly peculiar stories: “August Eschenberg,” about a nineteeth-century German clockmaker’s son who becomes the world’s greatest maker of lifelike automata; “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad,” both a scholarly meditation on the Arabian Nights stories and Millhauser’s re-creation of Sinbad-story magic (“I abode with the frog folk for many days and nights, remaining alone in the town when they swam across the river to the marsh, till one night, when I could not sleep for sorrow”); and “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” about a great turn-of-the-century magician. But the bulk of the stories in this book are set in a present or a remembered America. In most of them something strange and scary intrudes on ordinary New England towns.
There’s a ghost story, a UFO story, and a story of a monstrous hand, all in tidy little white-bread villages that might have fifty years ago been a setting for Cheever, or a hundred and fifty years ago been a place for Hawthorne to spook. In “The Slap,” a contemporary commuter suburb is terrorized by a mysterious stranger in a trench coat who assaults its citizens one at a time, walking up to them, delivering a sudden, withering slap to the face, and then vanishing. In “A Visit,” a man drives up to visit a friend in the country, only to find the old friend happily married to an enormous female frog. In “Flying Carpets,” a narrator remembers a passing fad in small-town midcentury middle-class America—as if flying carpets were a 1950s craze gone the way of the Hula-Hoop. In “Snowmen,” children rush out after a storm and build snowmen and then snow art and then increasingly impossible snow sculpture:
The town itself had been struck with genius. Trees of snow had been composed leaf by leaf, with visible veins, and upon the intricate twigs and branches of snow, among the white foliage, one could see white sparrows, white cardinals, white jays. In one yard we saw a garden of snow tulips, row on row. In another yard we saw a snow fountain with arching water jets of finespun snow.
We Others includes seven new stories, and fourteen from books that have been published over the past thirty years. The group of new stories is a little more uneven than the group of selected ones. “Getting Closer,” a simple story about a boy wading into a river at the start of summertime, might be the gem of the new batch. Here, Millhauser’s observations are Nabokovian in their detail, and make palpable the boy’s rising panic on a perfect summer day:
If he goes into the river he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin, you’re using things up. The day starts slipping away behind you. He wants to stay on this side of things, to hold it right here. A nervousness comes over him. The day he’s been waiting for is practically over. He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere.
In story after story, the everyday gets punctured by magic and by dread.
We Others is no greatest-hits collection. It does not include a number of Millhauser’s celebrated and anthologized works, including “The Dome,” from the 2007 Pushcart Prize collection, or “A Change in Fashion,” included in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2008. “Phantoms,” a Millhauser story that appeared in McSweeney’s last year and is included in this year’s Best American Short Stories, is not in the new book. Also absent are pieces from his two great collections of novellas, The King in the Tree and Little Kingdoms. In an introductory note, the author explains his process:
At first I tried to choose stories that seemed to me representative, but I soon realized that the ones omitted from the collection might represent me just as well. My final method had nothing to do with being cautious or dutiful. I chose stories that seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I had never seen before.... What’s seductive is mysterious and can never be known.
What we get in We Others are glimpses into a spectacular career, perhaps analogous to what visitors get in the Hall of Mermaids in Millhauser’s story “The Barnum Museum”:
Along the inner rim of the platform stand many iron posts about six feet apart, joined by velvet ropes; at the top of every third post glows a red or a yellow lantern. Standing on the platform, we can see over the lower boulders into the black water with its red and yellow reflections. From time to time we hear a light splash and, if we are lucky, catch a glimpse of glimmering dark fishscales or yellow hair.
“The Barnum Museum” is as good a metaphor as I can find for Millhauser’s world. It’s a museum of gryphons and magicians and flying carpets and wax-works museum guards, but what really knocks out the visitors to the museum, what upends their sense of reality, are the rooms with everyday items: “a green-stained gardening glove in a battered pail, a rusty bicycle against one wall; or perhaps old games of Monopoly, Sorry, and Risk.” After wandering the museum of miracles, “these everyday images...startle us with their strangeness.” This seems to me a lot like the effect of a Steven Millhauser story. Close the book when you’re done, and the ordinary seems fantastic.