Sunday, September 30, 2012

Steven Millhauser's Grains Of Sand

Today's Sunday Guardian column.

When you spend much of your free time reviewing books, you realize very soon that most of them are graduates from the school of Dreary Realism. Characters are rooted in the real world, facing issues that they need to overcome, with details of interiors, clothes, food, appearances and the weather tossed into every page. And at the end, as someone said, if characters are happy and successful, it’s a potboiler; if they’re not, it’s literary fiction.

Of course there are a few who turn to end-of-the-century Modernism, with its splintered structure, polyphonic narrative and stream-of-consciousness style. Which is well and good, but all too often, this is done as a stance, a pose to adopt, and not a form organic to the novel in question.

This is why it’s such a pleasure to read Steven Millhauser, whose work takes another approach, combining realism with the fantastical. Though he won a Pulitzer for his novel, Martin Dressler – which one critic called “a conjuring trick” of a novel, the American Dream recast as fairy tale – it’s in Millhauser’s short stories and novellas that his art is most readily apparent.

His recent We Others, comprising new and selected stories is the perfect introduction to his work. Here, one finds all the well-chosen detail and character revelations expected from better writers of realism. Allied to this is, more often than not, a central image or action not necessarily drawn from the world of the real, but one that sheds light upon it.

In one of the new stories, a miscreant appears to slap random people in a town in upstate New York, compelling the townspeople to reflect on their attitudes toward each other. In another, a teenager drawn to a classmate is mystified and frustrated when she starts to wear a single white glove to cover a mysterious deformity. The title story itself is a study of a man who may have become a ghost, finding himself drawn to and repelled by the world of the living.

The earlier stories echo these new ones in many ways. A snow-clad town takes to building innovative snowmen, and then other objects, from furniture to gargoyles. The residents of another town, excited about an upcoming alien invasion, deal with their emotions when it takes the form of yellow dust. A new superstore on the outskirts of a city slowly takes over its way of life. A failure of collective memory causes a woman to vanish. And there’s a Borgesian description of a museum of marvels with a hypnotic power to attract. These are metaphorical mirrors, and Millhauser is accomplished enough not to spell out what they reflect; that job is left to the reader.

The longer stories here are no less fascinating, all dealing with the world and its simulacra. There’s a tale of the eighth voyage of Sinbad, which is also a gloss on the ways in which all his other voyages have been translated. There’s a saga of a creator of automatons in the 19th century, having to deal with changes in public taste. There’s the famous tale of an illusionist who goes too far. In this theatre of chimeras, reality and its reflection interrogate each other to uncover deeper layers of meaning.

Many stories are narrated, in whole or in part, in the first person plural, a device that allows Millhauser to generate irony in the telling. (In passing, this also brings to mind Faulkner’s A Rose for Emily.) At other times, Millhauser comes across as almost Kafkaesque, but nevertheless firmly rooted in modern-day America.

In a passionate defence of the short story form, Millhauser once wrote of the world in a grain of sand: “every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely… if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.” Millhauser’s own grains of sand admirably live up to this premise.

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