“Powerful . . . A book of astonishingly beautiful and moving stories by one of America’s finest and most original writers. . . . Faulkner said that short stories were harder to write than novels . . . Stories tend to see life on a smaller scale [than novels] and confine themselves to a short span to time and a small number of characters. Their most admirable quality is associated with what Steven Millhauser calls ‘artful exclusions.’ Like poems, good stories never overexplain. They only hint that a second, slower, and more careful reading will deepen our understanding. Millhauser’s stories have that effect on me. They are never far from my mind and they return for a visit from time to time. . . . What they have in common is that most of them may be said to take place in what Hawthorne called ‘neutral territory’ between the real world and fairy land, where the actual and imaginary meet and each imbues itself with the nature of the other. Millhauser has a fascination with moments in our lives when something inexplicable happens, when our reality collides with some other reality, while the world we had taken for granted up to that moment turns strange, and even familiar things cease to be themselves, stripping us in the process of our identities, and leaving in their place something that has no name. . . . The shock of the real, along with the shock of something that transcends it, is what he wants us to experience. Millhauser is one of the most imaginative writers we have, capable of pure invention. . . . Sublime.” —Charles Simic,
The New York Review of Books
“Millhauser’s capstone collection of strange fables, written over the past 30 years, don’t evoke life; they provoke thought.” —
San Francisco Chronicle, Best of 2011
“Millhauser is a writer whose work partakes both of the dream logic strangeness of the post-Borgesian fictional tradition and the calm virtuosity of mass magazine American story writing. . . . Illusionism is an apt metaphor for the fiction writer’s art, which depends on making something revelatory happen while maintain the audience’s belief that what they are seeing is, at least in some way, real. Many of the characters and themes in Millhauser’s earlier stories allegorize this aspect of writing. . . . The new stories in the volume move away from Millhauser’s previous obsessions: the magic tricks and postmodern metatextuality for the most part recede in favour of an eerie realism. Steven Millhauser is at his best when he is mysterious but explicable—which is the case more now than ever.” —Michael Sayeu,
Times Literary Supplement
“Mesmerizing . . . magical.
We Others 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 formal lines. . . . Millhauser’s fiction has always seemed larger than the space it fills; these stories cover as much ground, paragraph to paragraph, as any fiction I know. 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. . . . 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. . . . The selected older stories are a joy to return to or to encounter for the first time. . . . Clear and precise and carefully ordered . . . 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.”
“Outstanding . . . [In
We Others], readers will find an extensive cast of characters, including a knife-thrower, adolescent boys on flying carpets, ghosts and a cartoon cat and mouse in addition to a previously unpublished novella-length title story in which a deceased man returns and reaches out to two lonely women. Each selection invites the reader to enter into the strangeness of a mysterious and fascinating place. Don’t miss these new and selected stories.”
The Providence Journal
“A Steven Millhauser story is meticulously worded, often off-kilter at heart, and deserving of comparisons to Borges and Kafka. He has built a reputation on producing a consistently mystifying and provocative product. In this volume of new and selected works written over 30 years, he offers us numerous tales from four volumes whose storylines have been creative loci for him for decades. These yarns, with their idyllic American backdrops, their driven geniuses entrenched in fin-de-siècle Europe, their wondrous, inexplicable occurrences, from flying carpets to frog wives, make demands on our imaginations, but definitely give back in return. And what’s more, the new stories in the volume display an unfamiliar restlessness, possibly a sign of stylistic changes afoot. . . . Millhauser’s recurring storylines are much like forms—we care less about the stories than about the emotions they produce. Some of his stories are intensely imagined biographies, or parts thereof, that ultimately turn inwards. . . . One of Millhauser’s most arresting stylistic quirks is to tell a story in the first person plural. Millhauser’s ‘we’ both invites and distances; it asks us to be part of a group, witnessing the bizarre events occurring before ‘our’ eyes, but it also gives a passive tone to the work, perpetually separating the teller of the story from the story itself. Naming the book
We Others, then, raises the question: Are we part of ‘us’ or ‘them’? Are we witnesses, participants, outcasts? It is that kind of quiet unsettlement that makes
We Others essential reading for anyone who might have ever doubted their assumptions.”
The Boston Globe
We Others] is all the things a person wants a Steven Millhauser book to be: lapidary, disturbing, mandarin, brilliant, perverse, and funny. As befits a book whose very title is given in the collective first person, it contains a teeming multitude of strange voices. There's not a dog in the bunch. A new-and-selected-stories collection is an invitation to look at a writer's career, and Millhauser's has been a long, strange trip. It's not his biography that's been weird, but his work—and weird in the old-fashioned sense. Millhauser has refused pure realism from the start, but he's not a formal gamesman like Donald Barthelme. His narrative structures are usually old-fashioned. It's what he does with them that's surprising. He uses comfortable story, novella, and novel forms to take us into the realms of the fantastic and the absurd. For many writers this would be—has been—enough. But Millhauser goes a further step. As strange as his characters' experiences may be—watching a friend fall in love with a giant frog; telling us what it's like to live as a ghost; flying around the backyard on a carpet—he always delivers us eventually to felt human experience. He uses these odd situations to try to get at subtle, hard to pin down, and very real human feelings. . . . Millhauser also specializes in stories that try to get below the surface of ordinary life. He probes hard at tiny moments—such as a character's anticipatory approach to the first summer dip in the lake in the story "Getting Closer." At the opposite end of the spectrum, Millhauser is a master of the purely fantastical—stories that feel witty and contemporary but also make gemlike little fairy tales. His astounding novella collection,
The King in the Tree, falls into this category. Millhauser shows in this work that he can write with a hard, glittering beauty. But he is probably most famous for his rarified and unusual historical fiction. He repeatedly explores the technologies and art forms that were new in the 19th century, wondering and worrying over the birth of the modern. This obsession—a word I think it is fair to use—informed his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel
Martin Dressler (1996). . . . A longtime master of the short form, Millhauser shows in [the seven] new pieces that he has somehow managed to improve what was already very good, writing with increased clarity, power, and emotional heft. The opening story, ‘The Slap,’ is told from the collective point of view of the townspeople of a smug commuter town where an unknown assailant has taken to slapping random victims. The story manages to indict elite complacency without slipping into sophomoric
American Beauty-type clichés. The slaps force the townspeople to reassess their comfortable lives . . . Millhauser makes us sympathize with the outsider, the slapper, through the words of his victims. This displacement of sympathy is typical of his stories; you as a reader often find yourself on the wrong end of the stick, or, if not the wrong end exactly, then at least the poky, awkward one. . . . The book is full of gorgeous writing about seriously entertaining characters. . . . There's something moving about the idea of this man, now growing older, returning over and ove...
About the Author
Steven Millhauser is the author of numerous works of fiction, including
Martin Dressler, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, and, most recently,
Dangerous Laughter, a
New York Times Book Review Best Book of the Year. His work has been translated into fifteen languages, and his story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was the basis of the 2006 film
The Illusionist. He teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Excerpted from The Slap
Walter Lasher. One September evening when Walter Lasher returned from the city after a hard day’s work and was walking to his car in the station parking lot, a man stepped out from between two cars, walked up to him, and slapped him hard in the face. Lasher was so startled that he did not move. The man turned and walked briskly away. Lasher was a big man, six one, with broad shoulders and a powerful neck. No one had dared to hit him since the sixth grade. He remembered it still: Jimmy Kubec had pushed him in the chest, and Lasher had swung so hard that he broke Kubec’s nose. Lasher looked around. The man was gone, a few commuters were strolling to their cars. For a moment he had the sensation that he’d dreamed the whole thing: the sudden appearance of the stranger, the slap, the vanishing. His cheek stung: the man had slapped him hard. Lasher entered his car and started home. As he passed under the railroad trestle, crossed Main, and drove along streets lined with maples and sycamores, he kept summoning the little scene in the station parking lot. The man was about five ten, well built, tan trench coat, no hat. It was difficult to remember his face, though he’d made no attempt to hide it and in fact had looked directly at Lasher. What stood out was something about the eyes: a hard, determined look; not rage, exactly—more like a cold sureness. The man had hit him once: hard. Then he had walked away. Lasher pulled over to the side of the road and checked his face in the rearview mirror. He wasn’t certain, but the cheek looked a little red. He pulled back onto the street. The man must have mistaken him for someone else. A crazy guy, some loony off his meds, they should keep them locked up. But he hadn’t looked crazy. Maybe a client, in over his head, unhappy with the performance of his investment portfolio in a tanking market. Or maybe Lasher had offended someone without knowing it, the man had followed him up from the city, and all because of a sharp word, an impatient look, a biting phrase, he had no time for fools, a bumped arm in the street. The man had looked directly at him. Lasher would talk it out with his wife. They’d lived here for twenty-six years and nothing like this had ever happened to him. It was why you stayed out of the city, took the long commute. A few blocks from the beach he turned onto his street, where the lights were already on. They must have come on all over town while he was driving from the station. How could he have missed it? The man had taken him by surprise. He hadn’t had time to react. He didn’t like the man’s eyes, didn’t like the thought of himself standing there doing nothing. It was probably too late to call the police—the man would already be far away. Anna would know what to do. Lasher pulled into the drive and sat motionless in the darkening car. The man had looked hard at him: there was no mistake. He should have smashed him in the mouth. Jimmy Kubec had worn a bandage on his face for two weeks. Lasher walked across the flagstones and up the steps of the front porch. In the hall he could smell roast beef and basil. He’d save his misadventure for after dinner. The man had come right up to him and slapped him: hard. As Lasher hung up his hat he understood that he would not speak of it to Anna, who was coming toward him. “Katie called—she’s coming on Saturday. I said it was fine. I mean, what else could I do? Oh, and Jenkovitch left a message. He says he never can get hold of you. He wants you to call him back. Here, give me that. How was your day?”
Our town. Our town is bordered on the south by a sandy public beach that faces the waters of Long Island Sound and on the north by a stretch of pine and oak woods. To the east lies an industrial city, where streets of crumbling brick factories with smashed windows give way to neighborhoods of new ten-story apartment complexes rising above renovated two-family houses with porches on both floors. To the west lies a wealthy town of five-bedroom homes set back on rural lanes, with a private beach, a horse-riding academy with indoor and outdoor practice rings, and a harbor yacht club where powerboats and racing sailboats are moored on floating docks. We like to think of ourselves as in the middle: well off, as things go, with pockets of wealth at the shore and on Sascatuck Hill, but with plenty of modest neighborhoods where people work hard and struggle to make ends meet. In this way of thinking there’s a certain amount of self-deception, of which we’re perfectly aware—it pleases us to think of ourselves as in the middle, even though, as statistics show, we’re well above the national average in per capita income. Although we’re on the commuter line to Manhattan, many of us work right here in town or in small cities not more than half an hour away. For the most part our lawns are neat, our streets well paved, our trees trimmed once a year by men in orange hats who stand in baskets at the ends of high booms. Our school system is one of the best in the county—we believe in education and pay our teachers well. Our Main Street is lively, with cafés and restaurants and a big department store, despite the new mall out by Route 7. Because we’re on the commuter line, we don’t feel shut away from the center of things, as if we were stuck up in Vermont or Maine, though at the same time we’re happy to be out of the city and take pride in our small-town atmosphere of tree-shaded streets, yard sales, and the annual fire department dinner. But make no mistake, there’s nothing quaint about us, what with our new semiconductor headquarters and our high-end boutiques, unless it’s our seventeenth-century town green, with a restored eighteenth-century inn where George Washington is supposed to have spent the night. Most of us know we’re lucky to live in a town like this, where crime is low and the salt water is never more than a short drive away. We also understand that to someone from another place, to someone who is disappointed or unhappy, someone for whom life has not worked out in the way it might have, our town may seem to have a certain self-satisfaction, even a smugness. We understand that, for such a person, there may be much to dislike, in a town like ours.
At night. In the middle of the night Walter Lasher woke beside his wife and immediately recalled the episode on the playground that had taken place forty-two years ago. He saw Jimmy Kubec with startling vividness: the thick black combed-back oily hair, the loose jaunty walk, the mocking mouth, the large long-lashed eyes. Kubec had long thin biceps, with a vein running down along each upper arm. He wore black jeans and a tight white T-shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his shoulders. He walked toward Walter, looking at him with a little taunting smile, and as he approached he held up the palm of one hand and made a pushing gesture at the air. He did not touch Walter, who nevertheless felt the mockery and the challenge. Walter had grown six inches over the summer. His shoulders were filling out, and he felt an energy in his arms that was almost like anger. The mocking little gesture cut into him like glass. He walked up to Jimmy Kubec and smashed him in the face. He could see the surprise and pain in Kubec’s dark eyes, the blood streaming from the broken nose, the look that seemed to say: Why did you do that to me? Kubec had no friends. He stayed out of Walter’s way after that, standing alone by a tree in a corner of the schoolyard. Lasher lay in bed and thought: Could it have been him, after all these years? The idea was absurd. The man in the trench coat had sandy hair, sharp features, grayish or bluish eyes. It must have been someone else, someone who had it in for him. He saw it again: Jimmy Kubec coming toward him, the veins in his arms, the little pushing gesture in the air. Kubec hadn’t touched him. All that was in another time, another life. Anna lay with her back to him, her hair rippling over the pillow. On the street a car passed, sending a thin bar of light across one wall and up along the ceiling.
Robert Sutliff. Some sixteen hours later, Robert Sutliff arrived at the station on the 7:38. It was an hour after his usual time. The lights were on in the lot, though the sky was still gray with the last light. He had worked late—tomorrow’s design presentation was a big one. He still needed a few hours after dinner to do a little fine-tuning, a little last-minute cleanup on the three logos he was planning to show them, each with six presentation pages, with and without type. That way he’d give them the illusion that they were actively involved in the decision process, that they were making a contribution to the final product, while he slowly steered them in the direction of the third mark, the one they wouldn’t be able to resist: the yellow-gold ring surrounding a solid dark coffee-colored circle, as if you were looking at a cup of coffee from above, and in the center a design of classic simplicity, in five bold yellow lines: a horizon line, a half circle representing the rising sun, and three sun rays. Coffee and morning, coffee and the energy of the new day, the energy of a new beginning, all in a visually striking, distinctive, versatile design. It worked perfectly on a two-inch business card, and it would work just as well on a ten-foot billboard or the side of an eighteen-wheeler. He hurried down the platform stairs, the stone shining dully under the orange lights. He would talk up the first two designs, the tame one and the way-out one, then hit them...