By Alicia Bones, CutBank Fiction Editor
I’m reading Steven Millhauser’s 2015 collection of short stories, Voices in the Night, right now. I’ve read a lot of Millhauser over the years, and he always makes me sweat. In this collection, he continues to blur the lines between realism and fantasy, to extend the edges of reality to their most extreme limits.
Millhauser’s characters seek out rule, order, reason, but they rarely—if ever—find it. In “Phantoms,” the collective narrator (the “we”) reports the goings-on in a town haunted by ghosts who seem to operate within a strict series of rules (or do they?). In “Sons and Mothers,” a man visits his long-neglected mother who now seems to be turning to stone (Or wood? Or something?). In “Arcadia,” the reader concludes that the idyllic retreat being advertised has a more sinister—or hopeful?—purpose. Questions, questions, after reading Millhauser, I always have questions. That’s good, I think.
I’ve been assigned Millhauser several times in college and graduate school, and I wonder what it is that makes his work accepted into a canon that excludes so many genre writers. It might be that he dropped out of a PhD program at Brown. Twice. Or, like Ari Laurel mentioned in her post about Kazuo Ishiguro, Millhauser’s often-fantastical stories do not remove us from our world, but instead make us examine the fissures, holes, and exceptions that we can’t comfortably fit into our versions of reality. Millhauser exemplifies the type of writing that’s most exciting to me: it makes us disbelieve in the kind of contingencies to which we so fiercely cling.
Millhauser dazzles with his imagination, his simultaneous understanding of and lack of adherence to convention. These things should be celebrated in reading and writing, but they aren’t always. On dullness in literature, a Millhauser character in another of his collections, Dangerous Laughter, says:
“Art, he said, was a controlled madness, which was why people who selected books for high school English classes were careful to choose only false books that were discussable, boring, and sane, or else, if they chose a real book by mistake, they presented it in a way that ignored everything great and mad about it. …”
I’m always searching for breaks in composure, dissolution of logic, moments of madness in the things that I read. And Millhauser never fails to deliver.
"Editors' Bookshelf" asks the editorial staff of CutBank to expound on a book or books that have meant something to them, either recently or in the past. These posts take a look at our editors' bookshelves and nightstands, allowing readers a glimpse into what most intrigues our staff.
About the Author:
Alicia Bones is a second-year fiction writer at UM. Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska, she earned her master’s degree in literature from the University of Iowa in 2013, so she struggles not to make life and fiction into tedious exercises in critical theory. She enjoys hiking in Missoula’s North Hills, and is interested in old people, food and bodies, and the early 20th-century.