Steven Millhauser could not really be called a neglected writer. He has won a Pulitzer Prize, his books are reviewed relatively widely and usually respectfully, and he has his share of admiring readers. But I don't think he has been sufficiently recognized as the important and accomplished writer he really is. Since the early 1970s, he has produced a series of novels and short fiction collections that easily rival the fiction of any of his contemporaries in their imaginative depth, stylistic vigor, and formal ingenuity.
Millhauser's novels Edwin Mullhouse, Portrait of a Romantic, and Martin Dressler form a significant part of his body of work, each of them singular achievements that nonetheless display Millhauser's signature preoccupation 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. Each of them provides a reading experience unlike any the reader is likely to recall, and each of them should be included on any list of superior American novels of the past thirty-five years. But in my view, Millhauser's short stories and novellas are even better, and constitute the core of his achievement. While the longer form allows Millhauser to demonstrate the breadth of his inventive powers, the concentrated intensity of the shorter forms seems especially suited to his particular kind of storytelling.
Millhauser's fiction is a variation on the mode of postwar American fiction Robert Scholes labeled "fabulation" (Fabulation and Metafiction, 1979). According to Scholes, "Delight in design, and its concurrent emphasis on the art of the designer. . .serve in part to distinguish the art of the fabulator from the work of the novelist or satirist. Of all narrative forms, fabulation puts the highest premium on art and joy." The work of few other writers manifests in both its own formal patterns and its emphasis on protagonists with various kinds of artistic ambitions as much "delight in design" as Steven Millhauser's. While the "joy" that this art produces doesn't always lead to fulfillment in life, Millhauser's characters are nevertheless fixated on perfecting their work and cultivating the satisfactions that only it is able to bring them.
A very good example of this sort of art-focused fabulation can be seen in "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne," a novella from the 1993 collection, Little Kingdoms. J. Franklin Payne is a newspaper cartoonist who begins to apply his talents to the then (1920) embryonic form of the animated cartoon. His efforts prove artistically successful, but as he explores the possibilities of this new medium, continuing to use thousands of individual drawings rather than adopt time-saving background cels, he finds his painstaking art already at odds with the increasingly commercial practices of the film business. Franklin remains faithful to his artistic vision and methods, even as his domestic life is falling apart and his wife leaves him. He completes his magnum opus, Voyage to the Dark Side of the Moon, but by this time he is not only the work's one true audience but in fact its only audience, however much he might imagine others there "to applaud him in the warm and intimate dark."
Like most of Millhauser's fiction, "The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" is partly about an individual human being with intensely focused creative impulses, and partly about the way those impulses are transformed into works of aesthetic beauty and complexity. Like many of Millhauser's protagonists, Franklin Payne's imagination leads him to unorthodox expression, to forms, such as the animated cartoon, that allow for the transgression of realism and aesthetic convention. Franklin, we are told,
. . .felt the desire to accept a certain challenge posed by the artificial world of the animated drawings: the desire to release himself into the free, the fantastic, the deliberately impossible. But this desire stimulated in him an equal and opposite impulse toward the mundane and plausible, toward precise illusionistic effects. As the violations of the real became more marked, the perspective backgrounds became fuller and more detailed; and as he gave way to impulses of wild, sweet freedom, he found himself paying close attention to the look of things in the actual world: the exact unfolding of metal steps at the top of a down escalator, the precise patterns of reflections in the panes of a revolving door seen from inside. . . .
This view of art's purchase on reality is in keeping with that delineated by Scholes in his section on "fabulation and reality":
Fabulation, then, means not a turning away from reality, but an attempt to find more subtle correspondences between the reality which is fiction and the fiction which is reality. Modern fabulation accepts, even emphasizes, it fallibilism, its inability to reach all the way to the real, but it continues to look toward reality. It aims at telling such truths as fiction may legitimately tell in ways which are appropriately fictional.
The pursuit of "such truths as fiction may legitimately tell in ways which are appropriately fictional" leads Millhauser in other stories to more openly experiment with form rather than narrate the stories of fictional characters such as Franklin Payne who themselves are driven to artistic experimentation. "Revenge," from Millhauser's 2003 book, The King in the Tree, is a good example of such an effort. It takes the form of a woman showing her house to a potential buyer, who is addressed throughout, in the first person, as "you": "This is the hall. It isn't much of one, but it does the job. Books here, umbrellas there. I hate those awful houses, don't you, where the door opens right into the living room. Don't you?" Gradually we learn the "buyer" is a woman who had a long-term affair with the narrator's now-dead husband and that the narrator is taking the occasion to exact a sort of revenge by informing the mistress of the damage her actions have inflicted. The narrator takes the mistress on a tour of each room of the house, in effect using them to present her (and us) with an anatomy of the narrator's life and marriage.
"The Little Kingdom of J. Franklin Payne" and "Revenge" show Steven Millhauser to be a writer of great inventiveness and storytelling prowess, one whose work emphasizes the wonders of artifice—including the artifice that is fiction—but also tempers our delight in its artifice by truthfully depicting its limitations though the ultimate confrontation with the irresistible forces of reality. These qualities can be found in equally compelling measure in Millhauser's most recent collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter (2008). The author's use of fabulation to evoke fantastic worlds is memorably evident in "The Dome," a Barthelmean story about the erection of domes above and around homes, towns, and eventually whole countries, "The Other Town," about a town that has replicated itself, creating an "other" town the citizens of the "real" town visit in order to give themselves a more vivid sense of its (and their) existence, and "The Tower," about the aftermath of a multi-generational effort to build a tower that "grew higher and higher until one day it pierced the floor of heaven."
The focus on artist figures perfecting their craft in their own visionary if idiosyncratic ways can be found in "In the Reign of Harad IV," which tells the story of a court miniaturist who is able to reduce the size of his miniatures to the point of invisibility, in "A Precursor of the Cinema," which relates the life and career of a painter able to create such realistic effects that his subjects can be seen moving on the canvas, even to leave the canvas altogether, and, in its way, in "The Wizard of West Orange," a story about Thomas Edison and his work on the "haptograph," a device that simulates tactile sensations. "Cat 'N' Mouse" is a verbal rendition of a Tom and Jerry-like cartoon, "History of a Disturbance" is a final communication from a man who has given up on words, while "Here at the Museum" is a docent's guide to the "New Past" on display at the institution named in the title.
"Real life" is portrayed more directly, if still with Millhauser's usual fanciful conceits, in "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman" and "Dangerous Laughter." In the former, Elaine Coleman has indeed disappeared, although she has neither run away nor been abducted. She has simply ceased to exist, a condition that, as the story makes clear, essentially mirrors her circumstances when she ostensibly did exist. As the narrator of the story puts it, "If it's true that we exist by impressing ourselves on other minds, by entering other imaginations, then the quiet, unremarkable girl whom no one noticed must at times have felt herself growing vague, as if she were gradually being erased by the world's inattention." The latter story relates how a group of teenagers during summer vacation begin holding "laughing parties," in which all involved break out in willed laughter. (Later, the laughing parties are replaced with weeping parties.) One girl, Clara Schuler, proves particularly adept at laughing out loud (it may be her only talent), but when the laughing fad fades, she holds one last party at her own home, after which "The local paper reported that Mrs. Schuler discovered her daughter around seven o'clock. She had already stopped breathing. The official cause of death was a ruptured blood vessel in the brain, but we knew the truth: Clara Schuler had died laughing."
Both of these stories use fabulation as the best way to get at the reality experienced by those like Elaine Coleman and Clara Schuler, who feel marginalized and ignored, to find those "correspondences between the reality which is fiction and the fiction which is reality." They don't allow escape from the world through simple fantasy but aim at "telling such truths as fiction may legitimately tell in ways which are appropriately fictional."
Millhauser's most provocative fantasies generally explore explicitly the gray areas between art and reality. In Dangerous Laughter, the most striking example of such a story is "A Precursor of the Cinema." Harlan Crane is a "Verisimilist" painter whose invention of "animate" paint allows him to take his paintings a step beyond realism to the kind of photographic illusion of the real achieved by film. According to the story's narrator (an art historian of sorts) "Harlan Crane's animate paintings are more unsettling still, for they move back and forth deliberately between representation and deception and have the general effect of radically destabilizing the painting—for if a painted fly may at any moment suddenly enter the room, might not the painted knife slip from the painted table and cut the viewer's hand?"
Part of the humor of the story (and there's almost always an embedded humor in Millhauser's fiction) is in in the narrator's matter-of-fact way of presenting Harlan Crane's "invention" as if the idea of animate paint were not manifestly ludicrous. But the notion that art can "move back and forth deliberately between representation and deception" in a move that has the effect of "radically destabilizing" the work is one that has resonance not just for the paintings of Harlan Crane but also for the fabulative fiction of Steven Millhauser. His fiction consistently moves "back and forth" between the world we think we live in and the invigorating deceptions with which it both warps and truthfully renders that world. It "destabilizes" our idea that these two things are incompatible if 'realism" is the goal.
Steven Millhauser is one of the remaining postmodernists (a late postmodernist, perhaps) still publishing vital, challenging work. Dangerous Laughter is a book long-time readers of Millhauser's fiction will certainly value, but also one that could provide readers less familiar with Millhauser a compelling introduction to that fiction. Although such readers will then want to turn to the previous books for a more complete appreciation of one of the best living American writers.