The 20th century American short story is a gem of a form. Call it formulaic, call it of a certain type, but the best short story writers are able to conjure up an entire feeling of a moment and time period in the space of ten pages. Certain writers like John Cheever or Raymond Carver have been sanctified for it, but then there are those who have been ruefully ignored. I think one example of one such writer is Steven Milhauser. While Millhauser has one the Pulitzer for his short novel Martin Dressler, I can think of few writers who can conjure up worlds as stylistically rich, or as atmospherically intense.
Take for example one of Millhauser’s first published stories, “August Eschenburg.” In some thirty pages, Millhauser conjures up 20th century Germany, and the workings of a street-side toy shop. The opening sentences reminded me of a walk through Strausbourg; a small peak into the Baroque architecture, the winsome feeling of magic and delight in the corners of description, and then the sense of mystery; what does it mean to make a toy come to life?
The story “A Protest Against the Sun” is a more traditional 20th century American short story. The narrator waits for her parents and later gets into a condescending interaction with a boy. In this story, Milhauser showcases the absurd and yet natural ways teenagers talk to their parents (how often and yet how un-often do random blimps get caught in conversation?), as well as the insecurities which define the ways teenagers feel (is this boy really making fun of them, or is it all in her head?) “A Protest Against the Sun is one of those typical stories in which nothing really happens, and yet one feels that one has incidentally been placed right into the center of life, and is observing life as it happens to unfold.
Millhauser’s early stories are what drew me to him. Other interesting stories from this period include “Eisenhelm the Illusionist” (his most famous story, which also became a movie), or “The Knife Thrower.” I do feel that the new stories in the collection are the weakest. From the short punctuating sentences of “The Slap” to the somewhat banal “Getting Closer,” Millhauser seemed to somehow get influenced by the contrived tensions of later Joyce Carol Oates, and not in a good way. I do think Millhauser’s later work shows more mastery of sentences, but less passion, and less intrigue, compared to his rawer writing from the 80s and 90s. Nonetheless, it is inevitable that not all writers improve with age, and I will continue to respect Millhauser nonetheless, for being a late 20th century short story stalwart, and for not getting the attention he deserves.