The Edge of Comprehension: On Steven Millhauser

The Edge of Comprehension: On Steven Millhauser

The Edge of Comprehension: On Steven Millhauser

With We Others, Steven Millhauser remains the master of the inevitable ending in American fiction.


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.

* * *

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.

Even in these stories, the narrative voice retains its ingenuous suburban character. “As we left the theater,” the plural narrator tells us at the end of “The Knife Thrower,” “we agreed that it had been a skillful performance, though we couldn’t help feeling that [he] had gone too far.” And whether Millhauser is writing about his quiet suburban towns or about his mad artists, nearly all his stories have the same basic structure. They are concerned with a cultural, political, moral or physical boundary that they approach and then overstep. They move inevitably toward the extreme expression of an idea or possibility.

The fact of all this repetition is no mystery—writers, after all, have ideas that they feel compelled to return to. The real mystery is why, in this particular case, that repetition presents no difficulty to the reader. We notice, and we’re supposed to notice, and we don’t care. The more familiar it seems, the more hypnotic and incantatory Millhauser’s fiction becomes. Why?

In the first place, there is that sense of inevitability. We know something of the story’s arc from the beginning. We know that it will escalate and exceed itself—it will get out of hand—and that knowledge disposes us toward patience in the early going. But it may also be that the quiet suburban town is best understood as a rhetorical artifact. Its continual appearance isn’t exasperating because we sense at once that the place isn’t real. The town is like the snow in “Snowmen”: a shapeless medium with an “unquiet essence” that demands to be explored. Its invocation is less an act of scene-setting than a way of re-establishing the parameters of an aesthetic problem, and the writer himself, shut away in his workshop, is thus allied with the haunted artists of his own fiction.

This reminds us that Millhauser, like all the great fabulists, is first of all a great writer and a great stylist. His prose, which might seem restrained and often appears stripped of adornment, is doing considerable stylistic work. It’s often said that one feature of great writing is economy; but this is true only if we understand economy to mean the judicious use of language in every sense, not just the telegraphic prose one associates with the young Hemingway. There’s another kind of economy—the deliberate or apparent lack of economy—that’s harder to identify and harder still to do well, and this is the kind of writing for which Millhauser has an almost unrivaled genius. If his narrators seem to linger over details, and if the humor or the interest of some of these stories lies in the excessive amplification of simple thoughts, the slow pace is never irritating because it’s an illusion. These stories cover as much ground, paragraph to paragraph, as any fiction I know. It’s only within each paragraph that they assume a digressive style. But for every thought that’s obsessively worked over, many more are dispatched in a phrase or elided entirely. This is why Millhauser’s fiction has always seemed larger than the space it fills.

* * *

The best of the new stories are “The Slap” and the title story, in which a man dies, becomes a ghost, establishes an innocent, companionable relationship with the woman whose attic he’s haunting and then betrays her by having a horrifying and ghostly kind of intercourse with her niece. “Flesh stops at flesh,” he says, “but we others, we mingle entirely, we invade and penetrate…. I felt myself spreading through her like wind in a room.”

The selected older stories are a joy to return to or to encounter for the first time. One of my favorites among these is “Cat ‘n’ Mouse,” which is a precise and lucid description of a cartoon like Tom and Jerry. The matching of Millhauser’s careful prose to the world of the cartoon (a world with its own inevitable rules) is hilarious and produces passages like this one, in which the cat is preparing to eat a cake in which the mouse has placed a “sizzling red stick of dynamite”: He “grins, licks his teeth, and opens his jaws. He hears a sound. The cake is ticking loudly: tock tock, tock tock. Puzzled, the cat holds it up to one ear. He listens closely. A terrible knowledge dawns in his eyes.”

But what makes the story much more than a long gag are the few moments in which the cat and mouse fret over the peculiarity of their situation:

Although the faculty of astonishment is not highly developed in the mouse, he is constantly astonished by the cat’s unremitting enmity…. If only the mouse could stay in his hole, he would be happy, but he cannot stay in his hole, because of the need to find cheese.

The mouse is “denied the liberty of a single mistake” and must “continually exert himself to be wary.” The cat, on the other hand, is “filled with rage at the thought of the mouse” but understands that “his rage is not the rage of hunger.” He despises the mouse’s “frail, crushable skull, his fondness for books and solitude,” but he is also “irritably aware that he admires the mouse’s elegance, his air of culture and languor, his easy self-assurance.” The mouse wants to be left alone with his thoughts, the cat wants to be released from the “pain of outrage in his heart” and both of them are trapped until, at the end, the mouse erases them both with a pencil eraser.

The story I return to again and again is “History of a Disturbance,” which seems to me the simplest expression of Millhauser’s artistry and at the same time something entirely other. The narrator (another inhabitant of a quiet suburban town) is enjoying a summer day when he realizes with horror that the expression “What a wonderful day!” diminishes the complexity of his impressions to a simple formula. Once he discovers this, he tells us, “I began to sense that there was another place, a place without words, and that if only I could concentrate my attention sufficiently, I might come to that place.” He stops speaking, he’ll never speak again, but his real intention is to rid himself of the very concept of words, and indeed of any framework that reduces the world to comprehensible forms. At one point, while he’s looking at his hand, he experiences an intimation of that other world:

It was no longer a hand…. There was only a thing, not even that—only the place where my attention fell. Gradually I felt a loosening, a dissolution of the familiar. And I saw: a thickish mass, yellowish and red and blue, a pulsing thing with spaces, a shaded clump. It began to flatten out, to melt into surrounding space, to attach itself to otherness.

“History of a Disturbance” contains all the old ingredients: the suburban setting, the unreal problem and the giddy plunge toward the inevitable end, which is forecast at the very beginning. But all the while, even if we know exactly where the story is going, we can’t believe what’s happening.

Because they are clear and precise and carefully ordered, Millhauser’s stories lend themselves to certain easy interpretations. “History of a Disturbance,” for instance, is in some sense about the limitations of language. But one hesitates to say too much. As Millhauser writes in a prefatory note, “What makes a story bad, or good, or better than good, can be explained and understood up to a point, but only up to a point. What’s seductive is mysterious and can never be known.” Great stories are larger than the ideas that animate them. The best of these retreat to the edge of comprehension, they stand apart, they remain irreducible.

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