Contemporary American literature seems to have two basic locations: the city and the wide open spaces. In this respect, as in so many others, Steven Millhauser is something of an oddity, because his fiction is almost invariably located in the town. Usually, if the town features in American literature, it is as the locus of cultural conservatism, or, which may amount to the same thing, as a cluster of houses huddled defensively against the vastness of the wilderness around them. Millhauser's town is neither of these. He situates his stories in among the cluster of dormitory towns from which commuters stream into the city every day, but he never follows them to the city; his focus remains there in Connecticut or upstate New York. The towns are familiar; we are told the names of the streets, the shops, the local landmarks. Only the town itself remains nameless. It is always and only "our town."
That first person plural is important: there is something collective, communal about the stories he tells. The narrative voice is not one distinctive individual emerging as a representative figure from the mass, but rather resembles a chorus, voices joined together to express a common experience, something that affects the whole town, something for which they all must share responsibility. Even when a nameless "I" emerges to take a solo, it lasts no more than a handful of paragraphs before sinking back into the "we."
Our town, the place that we jointly celebrate, is a quiet and prosperous place. Its citizens seem to work mostly in finance or the law, they have lovely, well-appointed homes, in the morning they'll often have a coffee at a little place on Main Street, at weekends they might drive to the beach. It is that fortunate lifestyle so often apostrophized as the American Dream, and yet its hollowness is always on the point of exposure.
Millhauser's stories are summer tales, they take place in lazy, heat-swamped days, when the air is heavy and the characters enervated. One story typically begins, "That summer a restlessness came over our town. You could feel it on Main Street, you could feel it on the beach. In the early mornings we'd step from our front doors . . . and in that warm, inviting air we'd stop suddenly, as if in confusion" (p. 135). When the supernatural intrudes into this stillness, the characters are too listless to do anything other than observe the way they are being flensed by events. But that is the only possible response, because the magical is not there to put things right, to punish the guilty or elevate the holy. When the magic goes away, all is not healed, it does not put right what is missing from life; on the contrary, it is only when the magic goes away that the sickness, the hollowness, the faults and failures lie exposed. For Millhauser, the supernatural does not restore but reveal. The intrusion from outside does not resolve anything, but rather undoes any possibility of resolution, and it is in that final recognition of doubts and uncertainties that the story ends.
The intrusion that lies at the heart of a Millhauser story is not necessarily fantastic. In one of the authentically creepy stories in this new collection, "The Wife and the Thief," for instance, a wife lies awake in her bed at night convinced that she can hear a burglar moving about downstairs. She imagines his route through the house, thinks which of her possessions he might have dropped into his sack, but when she gets up to investigate there is no sign of anyone. This continues on successive nights, until she herself becomes the thief in order to fulfil her own dream. The hollowness of her life can be filled only by acting against her life.
More often, however, there is something strange and inexplicable happening, although it is generally treated as though it is completely unexceptional. In "Phantoms," the residents of our town are all quite used to seeing ghostly figures around the place in broad daylight. The living and the phantoms do not interact, neither represents any sort of threat to the other, no one knows who the phantoms are or what their presence might mean but all sorts of theories are tried out during the story. But where a conventional ghost story might suggest that the ghosts are hungry for what the living possess, what comes across most strongly in this story is the hunger that the living feel for the phantoms. They make the town special, and by extension, they make the citizens of the town special; they fulfil a need that nobody recognized until the phantoms appeared.
This sense that the irruption of the supernatural into the everyday is necessary to fill the emptiness of ordinary life finds varying expression throughout these stories. In "Mermaid Fever," the body of a mermaid is washed onto the beach and is put on display in our town's small museum. For a summer it excites the population—girls adopt a fashion that mimics the mermaid's tail, boys queue for hours to glimpse the mermaid's naked breasts, reports start to come in of other mermaids glimpsed offshore, some people start to swim out to sea in a fatal attempt to become mermaids—until the body starts to decay and is shipped off to a university in Hartford and the excitement generated by the mermaid starts to ebb. In "The Place," a hill on the outskirts of town has a curious ability to generate contentment in people, and as time passes people visit the hill for longer and longer periods in order to cope with their everyday lives.
If the intrusion of the supernatural tends to be comforting, it is the intrusion of the modern world that represents a threat. In "Coming Soon," a recent arrival in the town discovers that building work is being carried out so extensively, and at such a pace, that between the morning and the evening of the same day he can become hopelessly lost in his own neighbourhood. In "Sons and Mothers," (Millhauser has written frequently about the relationship between fathers and their children; this is the first story that I can recall about mothers) a middle-aged man, caught up in the hurly-burly of a successful career, finds that a business trip takes him close to his old home, and on a whim calls in to see his widowed mother for the first time in years. There, in a setting that is both familiar and unfamiliar, he finds a woman who seems to be frozen in time, someone with whom he cannot speak, cannot relate; someone who may even be dead, but he is so detached from this reality that he cannot recognise it.
When the emptiness of the world cannot be filled by the mysterious, it leads inevitably to suicide, one of the dark and abiding themes that runs throughout Millhauser's work. From the mysterious death of the eleven-year-old novelist in his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, to the central figure in exquisite short fictions like "The Disappearance of Eileen Coleman," his characters are forever finding ways to withdraw from life. Thus, in this new collection, among the confusions that plague the town in "Elsewhere" there are suicides. "A Report on Our Recent Troubles" has been compiled by concerned citizens in an attempt to account for the rash of suicides, usually in twos or threes, that have disturbed the town throughout the summer. "Arcadia" provides the text for a glossy brochure advertising the charms of a luxurious holiday retreat that provides superb accommodation, first-rate food, personal counsellors. Slowly we realise that the cliffside walks, the convenient low-hanging branches, the bottomless pools are all there to provide opportunities for doing away with oneself.
From all of this it should be clear that there is a tone of voice, a range of concerns, that are distinctively Millhauser's. But that must not be taken to suggest that there is a sameness to the stories, or that they are in any way repetitive. The familiar town is a setting of infinite variety that can conjure anything from clangourous modern horror ("Coming Soon") to gentle satire ("Mermaid Fever"), and the voice he most often uses has a sly wit that is always refreshing and amusing (as, for instance, in the descriptions of the women in "Thirteen Wives," one of whom doesn't really exist). Nor, although it is the locus of his sharpest and most pertinent fiction, is he slavishly tied to his New England town. Here, for instance, he ventures out in "The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama," when a friend tries to introduce a taste of misery into the tightly controlled life of the prince whose father doesn't even want him to witness the sadness of a leaf falling from a tree; or there is the reimagining of the old fairy tale in "Rapunzel," or the exaggerated story of Paul Bunyan in "American Tall Tale." Each of these represents a startling change of pace within the collection, while never quite abandoning the themes that have become so familiar.
But the best story here is perhaps the most personal. "A Voice in the Night" juxtaposes the story of Samuel hearing the voice of God in the temple with the upbringing of a young secular Jew in the 1950s, and with that same young man now an old writer struggling to find his story. It is a powerful and haunting work that perhaps brings us closer to Millhauser himself than anything else he has written, and it represents what is best about his work, a delicate balance of the real and the fantastic, of the personal and the communal. Because he holds his finest work in such an extraordinary balance, it is never easy to say whether his stories belong in the mainstream or the fantastic. The truth is, they belong in both at the same time; which is precisely why I believe that Steven Millhauser is the finest and most underrated writer of the fantastic working in America at the present.
Paul Kincaid is the author of two collections of essays and reviews: What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction and Call and Response. He has received both the BSFA Non-Fiction Award and the Thomas D. Clareson Award.