Steven Millhauser

By Alexander, Danielle; Ponce, Pedro et al. | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Steven Millhauser


Alexander, Danielle, Ponce, Pedro, Rodriguez, Alicita, The Review of Contemporary Fiction


Introduction

Since his debut in 1972, Steven Millhauser has published novels, short story collections, and novella collections to widespread critical acclaim and, until recently, little popular attention. When he earned the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressier: The Tale of an American Dreamer, many reviewers predicted a rise in his readership. A survey of Millhauser criticism shows a marked increase following this, though not nearly adequate to what he deserves. No book-length work on Millhauser or his craft, general or academic, exists in English. The French, however, have notably embraced Millhauser, producing two books on his work: an introductory overview of his oeuvre and a collection of essays presented at a 2004 conference at the University of Lille, which honored the addition of his story collection The Knife Thrower and Other Stories to the French national teacher examination program, which certifies secondary-school teachers in specialized areas--in this case, lettres anglais (literature in English). Besides a healthy amount of book reviews spanning his writing career, there are only five author interviews, approximately a dozen academic articles, a few book chapters, and two doctoral dissertations published in English that deal wholly or partly with Millhauser's fiction.

Part of the responsibility for the lack of notice lies with Millhauser himself, who generally refuses to publicize himself, a consequence of his strong belief that an author's work should speak for itself: "Unless a writer is a trained aesthetician, his opinion concerning the nature of fiction is of no more interest than his opinion concerning the nature of the economy" (qtd. in Schuessler 57). In an article entitled "Two Mandarin Stylists," J. D. O'Hara divides contemporary American fiction into two categories--Mandarin and Vernacular (complex and simple), placing Millhauser definitively in the first camp. O'Hara blames Millhauser's limited audience on poor readers: "readers nowadays tend to prefer Vernacular writers. This may be traced to the famous decline in American literacy, as a result of which linguistic and intellectual complexity baffles them. It may stem from our earnest moral confusion of simplicity with truth ..." (250). That Millhauser has gained more readers in France certainly justifies O'Hara's claim. But American resistance to Millhauser is not entirely due to a lazy readership: his fiction also works against realism and minimalism, our most recent cultural and literary trends.

His tales, whether in the form of stories, novellas, or novels, manipulate reality, stretching it until it seeps into another realm--otherworldly, fantastic, and strange. They begin innocently enough in a recognizable setting, often the northeastern United States, usually Connecticut or New York, places where the author grew up or currently resides. Yet Millhauser's uncanny talent for meticulous description, rending from his individual and our collective memories the details of quotidian life, slowly, subtly transforms reality into dream. He favors places that defamiliarize and destabilize: museums, arcades, hotels, amusement parks, skyscrapers. Many of these settings house both the gigantic and the miniature, and size is an obsession of Millhauser's, because a shift in scale necessarily alters our perception of everyday things, granting them a magical quality that normally goes unnoticed:

   discrepancy of size is a form of distortion, and all forms of
   distortion shock us into attention: the inattentive and jaded
   eye, passing through a world without interest, helplessly
   perceives that something in a bland panorama is not as it should
   be. The eye is irritated into attention. It is compelled to perform
   an act of recognition. (Millhauser, "Fascination" 33)

Within these transgressive spaces, Millhauser displays his lists, catalogs of syntactical and allusive genius, "in which the dynamics of expectation/formation and surprise are carefully modulated" (Sheridan 12); in other words, a pattern, though initially detected, always unravels--"the sunny tall grass" and "milkweed pods and pink thistles" become "the far sound of a hand mower, like distant scissors" (The Knife Thrower 81). …

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