Few readers of The Magic Mountain are likely to feel that it contains any element of suspense. We know from the beginning that World War I is the only possible ending, and in large part it’s our apprehension of that conflict that gives structure to the novel. Even as Hans Castorp’s life in the sanatorium remains stable and familiar, the shadows seem to lengthen; the story takes place in a deepening twilight. It doesn’t matter whether this is an effect produced by the writing or whether Thomas Mann can count on it because he knows that his readers will bring a certain historical knowledge to the book. The point is that the ending is never supposed to be a surprise: we know it all along.
Kafka does this too, but in a different way and for different reasons. We know in the first moments of The Trial that Josef K. is doomed, because we can see that in his world, nothing he does will have any effect other than to entangle him more hopelessly in the legal mess that claims his life. That rule governs everything that happens in the story, and the beauty of the novel—its dreadful inevitability—depends on the fact that we understand this rule from the beginning.
Steven Millhauser, a self-conscious devotee of both Kafka and Mann, is the master of the Inevitable Ending in American fiction. Like The Magic Mountain, like The Trial, Millhauser’s stories move irresistibly toward conclusions that can be apprehended long before they arrive. Their beauty depends not on the resolution of narrative problems but on the transformative effect produced by a knowledge of their architecture. These stories have a mesmerizing quality—they seem at once methodical and magical—and to read them is to follow the action of an elaborate machine whose function is to produce something simple and fundamental—a glass bottle, for instance, or a billiard ball. Somehow the elaborate process doesn’t match the product, and the bottle seems to be more than itself, perfectly recognizable and perfectly alien.
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Millhauser’s new book, We Others, a collection of new and selected stories, comprehends three decades of work, and it’s remarkable not only for the consistent delight it provides but also for the unwavering intensity of the vision that animates it. For all the wonder and fluency of these stories, they’re constructed on rigid formal lines and they continually make use of the same ingredients. The repetition of theme and setting will be striking to anyone not familiar with Millhauser’s writing. In “The Slap,” the inhabitants of a quiet suburban town are tormented by a stranger in a belted trench coat who steps from the shadows and slaps innocent people in the face. In “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” the inhabitants of a quiet suburban town are troubled by the mystery the title describes. In “The Next Thing,” the inhabitants of a quiet suburban town react to the appearance and expansion of a new department store. In “The Invasion From Outer Space,” the inhabitants of a quiet suburban town are baffled by a microorganism that descends from the heavens and begins to proliferate. It goes on like this: the same town, the same summer lawns, the same gliders on the same porches.
Millhauser’s other central preoccupation is the creation of art. In story after story, he details an artist’s increasingly fervent exploration of some esoteric medium. In “Snowmen,” for instance, children are bewitched by the possibilities of snow art. First they create sculptures of greater and greater complexity. Then—“fevered,” “restless and unappeased,” disdaining sentimentality—they move from representative art to abstraction, to the unreal and grotesque. The narrator is tormented by the “unquiet essence of the snow.” In the end he describes “a lofty and criminal striving” and says that “all [his] senses seemed to dissolve in the dark pleasures of transgression.” Art, in Millhauser’s writing, is a dangerous business. In “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” a magician conjures up illusory figures from the still air and eventually achieves such mastery over his medium that he becomes, or is revealed to be, an illusory figure himself. In “The Knife Thrower,” a traveling performer (paying a visit to—where else?—a quiet suburban town) is said to have brought his art to such a degree of refinement that he has chosen to abandon the conventional tricks and prefers to “mark” volunteers from the audience. One volunteer receives a small cut, a young man gets a knife in the middle of his palm and a young woman is killed on stage.