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Millhauser won a Pulitzer Prize for one of his novels, and all his speculative novels (at least three of his total of four are essentially speculative) are fine work; but it is widely held, and rightly, I think, that he especially excels at shorter works: novellas and, most especially, short stories.
Millhauser’s form of speculation is what critic Robert Scholes has called “fabulation”: a style similar to magical realism, and [that does] not fit into the traditional categories of realism or (novelistic) romance (per Wikipedia, as just linked). Or, in Scholes’ own words, “an essentially comic and allegorical mode of fiction that often adopts the forms of romance or of the picaresque novel.” There is an excellent (and lengthy) article discussing fabulation in the speculative-fiction context at the ever-helpful Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
There is a temptation to think of much of Millhauser’s work as “magic realism” (to the extent that that phrase has a meaning at all). But if there is a difference, it is in the almost self-conscious and often light-hearted way that Millhauser introduces speculation—a sort of “look me, look me, ain’t I having fun?” And he is, and we are, even on the occasions when the tale is more dark than light.
Looking at what I call the four legs of the table—prose, plot, setting, characterization—we can start with Millhauser’s impeccable prose. Here are some samples:
A batter stepped briskly forward, suddenly stopped and bent over. He stood up, rubbing his hands with dirt, gripping the yellow bat between his green-stained knees.
On a nearby bench sat a fat bald man wearing Bermuda shorts, a blue baseball cap, and a white T-shirt that showed rain falling from a dark thundercloud. Between two bench slats a green Coke bottle lay shining in the sun.
I have often wondered whether it is possible for words to summon a scene in all its innocence, its freedom from pertinence, its lucid and precise irrelevance. One labors to be haphazard, yet fatality comes coldly creeping in. For say that a certain event takes place, one fine day. Say, further, that it an event of momentous consequence, though perhaps slight in itself. Then the innocent details of that day begin to quiver in the memory as if they were about to burst into prophecy; each blade of grass seems to be holding its breath; the diamond-shaped shadows, the girl on the grass, the fat man on the bench freeze into a porcelain permanence, as if without them nothing at all could have come to pass, that dazzling August afternoon; and the lazy red dog seems only to be waiting for the signal to lift its head, seems already to be standing in the sunny and shady wood, slowly wagging its brushlike tail. Or, conversely, the mere listing of details, meaningless in themselves, at once provides them with a significance, which one denies in vain. The beauty of irrelevance fades away, accident darkens into design; and like a subtle disease in the veins of the day, Fate spreads its infection everywhere.
The batter tapped the plate.
On a brilliant afternoon in July, under a sky so blue that it seemed to have weight, the beach towels on the sand reminded me of the rectangles of color in a child's paint box. Here and there a slanted beach umbrella partly shaded a blanket. Under the wide umbrellas, thermos jugs and cooler chests and half-open picnic baskets stood among yellow water wings and green sea monsters. On my striped towel, in the fierce sun, I leaned back on both elbows and stared off past my ankle bones at the place where the rippling dry sand changed to flat and wet. Low waves broke slowly in uneven lines. The water moved part-way up the beach and slid back, leaving a dark shine that quickly vanished.
Right, then, that’s that.
As to plotting, short tales have almost no plot, being—as is endemic to the species—in essence snapshots of some critical moment in time. In his few novels, also is there little plot. Indeed, From the Realm of Morpheus is really more a series of vignettes strung together by a framing device than an actual novel. The other two full novels we deal with here, Edwin Mullhouse and Martin Dressler, are more expository than plotted: Martin Dressler, for example, is presented as essentially a biography of that imagined figure than as a tale per se. So though none of his works in any least sense drags or glosses over its events, few if any are what one would call plot-driven. They proceed just as they need to, satisfactorily.
As to developing settings, some of his tales are in the ordinary, familiar world (as the two quotations above demonstrate), while some are set in imagined realms, some quite fantastic. But in the fantastic ones, there is little to no “world building”, as the thing is called: Millhauser simply conjures up whatever things are needful for the tale to progress, without feeling (and rightly) any need to develop histories or backgrounds for them, even if they are bizarre or seemingly illogical (they are fantasies, after all). But, as the quotations also show, when he does want to portray a setting, even a quite ordinary, mundane one, he paints it with exquisite detail and telling accuracy.
Finally, characterization: this is really what Millhauser is all about. Through the inner workings of his characters, well and wisely displayed to the reader, Millhauser comments, sometimes humorously but more often tellingly, on the human condition. One reviewer put it this way: [Millhauser’s broadest themes are] “exposing the void behind the American Dream and the American way of life.” Another remarks on “Millhauser’s signature preocccupation with the processes of imagination and with protagonists who become obsessed, even possessed, by the need to explore the limits of their own perpetually active imaginations.” Yet another has said “He uses these odd situations to try to get at subtle, hard to pin down, and very real human feelings. ” And to wrap this collection of thoughts on him, there is the reviewer who said “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.” Whew.
To sum: his works are quite various, but all eminently praiseworthy and deeply satisfying reading. Go to it.
Interesting footnotes: one, the 2006 film The Illusionist was based on Millhauser’s short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist”; two, the eminent caricaturist David Levine has done a Millhauser caricature (prints available at huge prices).
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Considering how important Millhauser is considered by the literary establishment, it is surprising how little there is about him on the web—not one dedicated web site, for example. There are numerous interviews and, even more so, one-off reviews of particular books, but little about the man's oeuvre as a whole. (It should be noted that Millhauser famously values his privacy.) Here is what may be the top of the crop.
There are several Millhauser interviews available, including a 2008 interview (failbetter.com), a 2003 interview (Bomb magazine), and an undated interview at ASU’s Superstition review site. And there are lots of others out there.
The New York Times has, over the years, carried numerous articles and essays on Millhauser , all listed and linked from that page.
One the occasion of Millhauser’s book (Dangerous Laughter), several reviews appeared, some of which are fairly general about Millhauser’s work. They include reviews from the Los Angeles Times and the New York Sun [archived copy].
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So far as I can see, there is but one book on Millhauser, Understanding Steven Millhauser by Earl G. Ingersoll.
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