Is Steven Millhauser America’s Best Short Story Writer? On ‘Voices in the Night’

millhauserThe quintessential American writer’s writer, or critic’s writer, or whatever, Steven Millhauser has long excelled at the three major forms of fiction. In 1997 he won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel Martin Dressler, a chimerical 19th century study that discovers Modernist ennui under the turtle shell of the American dream. He has been praised, too, for his novellas, by Jim Shepard and others, who rightly imply that he has more or less mastered the American incarnation of the form —  even if, as Millhauser wryly explains it, the novella isn’t a form but a length.

But for my money, the most convincing Millhauser, the one who more frequently avoids the excessive sentimentality of childhood, is the one who writes short stories, especially in the vein of his newest collection, Voices in the Night. And although the new book may not end up as roundly praised as Dangerous Laughter, a 2008 collection listed as one of the New York Times Book Review’s “10 Best Books” of that year, or We Others, which won the 2011 Story Prize, it should nonetheless fix Millhauser’s reputation as one of the two or three best short story writers alive in America. It certainly raises him above the inconsistent and overpraised George Saunders, perhaps his closest rival in terms of sensibility.

As Kierkegaard famously said of Hegel, he would have been the greatest thinker of all time had he prefaced his Science of Logic with “this is just a thought-experiment.” What separates Millhauser’s short fiction from that of his contemporaries is precisely this sensibility: his fictions are unabashedly thought-experiments meant to lead the mind and spirit down a dangerous path toward pseudo-collective hysteria, encroaching mania, epistemological blindness, communal oblivion, Emersonian Americo-religious philosophical splintering, and the vertigo of rumor. The stories themselves, though, are not these things; they are, again, thought-experiments, repurposed fables, or small-town myths. They are hilarious in the vein of Kafka, magical — that is to say not really magical at all — in the vein of Bruno Schulz, formally daring in the mode of Poe and Borges, although these similarities have been overstated. And they are written, this time around, firmly in the spirit of Hawthorne.

That is to say they are twice-told, not in the sense that they’ve all appeared in magazines, although the title story “A Voice in the Night” was a celebrated inclusion in the December 2012 issue of The New Yorker, but more in the vein of Shakespeare’s claim that “Life is as tedious as a twice-told tale, / Vexing the dull ear of a drowsy man.” It’s as if almost every story in Voices in the Night is told by a drowsy man or a chorus of them.

In the opener, “Miracle Polish,” one such man begrudgingly buys a bottle of miracle polish from a poor salesman, only to be mesmerized by the upbeat reflection of himself he discovers after rubbing it on a mirror. Soon the man has covered most of the walls in his house with mirrors, a fact that disconcerts his crush, a likewise browbeaten woman who becomes jealous of his love for her reflection. In a “dangerous” act of self-recovery, the man invites the woman over to his house, ceremoniously smashes all of the mirrors with a hammer, and then succumbs to the full reign of his madness:

A terrible excitement burned in me. I could feel my blood beating in my neck. I imagined it bursting through the skin in brilliant gushes of red. “She’s gone! That’s what you wanted! Isn’t it? Isn’t it? All gone! Bye bye! Are you happy now? Are you?” I stopped in front of her. “Are you? Are you?” I bent close. “Are you? Are you? Are you?” I bent closer still. I bent so close that I couldn’t see her anymore. “Are you? Are you? Are you? Are you? Are you?”

The brief wonderment at his own decline, or ecstasy — it’s impossible to tell the difference in Millhauser’s fiction — is repeatedly broadened into a Hawthornian chorus in Voices in the Night — and this might be the biggest complaint about the collection: there is an element of sameness to many of the stories. Sub-urban boredom, thwarted intellectuality, the machinations of small town wonderment or dread, these recur, even spiral, throughout. But as I said before, these stories are like language games, and even though every game on earth is essentially the same, we never really tire of playing them.

In “Phantoms,” which recalls Poe’s description of many of Hawthorne’s tales as “pure essays,” a speaker explains in depth the impolite but harmless existence of phantom-like human creatures in his town. In “Mermaid Fever,” a mermaid washes up on the shore of a mid-sized village, which leads to a series of reasonable incursions on the part of local law enforcement, the Lenin-style exhibition of the mermaid in a glass case, and a town-wide, Elvis-like hysteria for mermaid beachwear. There is also “Arcadia,” one of the funniest American stories I’ve read in the last ten years, which is nothing but an extended pamphlet for an idyllic existential rehab facility that curiously sounds like a brochure for assisted suicide:

Residents are welcome to visit the old Observation Tower, located on the cliffs of the Northwest Gorge. This imposing structure, constructed over one hundred years ago of granite blocks mined from local quarries, rises to a height of 420 feet and contains a winding stone stairway of 659 steps. At the top is an external observation platform with a waist-high iron railing, badly damaged. The ledge beyond the railing extends a further twelve inches. The Tower has not been repaired for many years and should be entered with caution…From the cliffside corner you can see down into one of our deepest gorges.

It’s a welcome thing that these signs and wonders and experiments, these invitations into the fold of American madness, are extended on every page of Voices in the Night, in almost every sentence. This is especially true when the mania of so much American fiction is cosmetic — when so many writers are playing the game rather than fashioning it themselves.