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D. T. MaxReading Steven Millhauser is like watching a three-year-old playing alone. There's the same sense of inventiveness, of total absorption in the small stage. The dolls, the trucks, the pirate ship. You can watch or you can go back to the grown-ups' conversation. The child doesn't much care.
Millhauser's last book, the novel Martin Dressler: the Story of an American Dreamer, won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize, providing this brilliant and idiosyncratic writer with some long-overdue recognition. This has not changed the arc of his preoccupations, however: He grows progressively less interested in the ordinary world. The power of each story is to be found in the anxiety we bring to its reading. Which of our rules still apply?
The title story of this new collection is the best, a sinuous Gothic fantasy in which a touring performer, Hensch, enters an unnamed town and asks for volunteers for his knife-throwing exhibition. There's been a hint that something unusual happens at these shows, the narrator protesting a bit too energetically that one goes for Hensch's skill, not to see the volunteers' blood. At the show Hensch first undertakes the usual tame skillful displays. Then his assistant asks for volunteers, anyone in the audience who wishes "to receive the mark of the master." Several townspeople come forward and are nicked. They sit down to applause. Finally, the woman asks for a volunteer who desires the master's "final mark." What really happens to Laura, "a tall mournful looking girl in jeans and a dark blouse" who comes forward? Like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," "The Knife Thrower" is propelled by the reader's reluctance to believe in a society in which the most important of the commandments is the one that's missing.
Another wonderful story is "The Way Out," a strange little tale reminiscent of the stories of Julio Cortázar. Harter, a lazy womanizer, and his lover are caught in the act by her husband. Briefly he is genuinely excited, thinking -- perhaps half hoping -- that the man will shoot him on the spot. Then he realizes, disappointed, that he is "going to get away with it." They come for him early one morning in a dreamlike sequence, carrying him off to a field where an old dueling pistol is placed in his hand and another pointed at him by the husband. The last thing he sees are "hundreds of yellow butterflies, beating their wings like mad."
The long story "Paradise Park" replicates the moral of "Martin Dressler." Mysterious Charles Sarabee begins by building an ordinary Coney Island amusement park. It's a hit. He tries to outdo it with an artistically perfect sequel, but the public rejects it. "It may be art, but is it fun?" the papers sneer. Enraged, he responds by introducing a new, more subversive tier, called Devil's Park, with "fun-house mirrors that show back naked bodies in obscene postures" and lover's leaps where real suicides take place. It's a hit, but ultimately a mysterious conflagration burns the park to the ground. The applicability of the metaphor to the artist who goes too far is evident.
But I prefer the story "The New Automation Theater," in which prodigy Heinrich Graum perfects the almost-human-looking automatons his unnamed town has long specialized in, then falls silent. What more is there for him to do? He returns a decade later with a new invention, automatons that look like automatons but that engage you anyway. The very power of his art is the consciousness of the artifice behind them. This seems to me closer to Millhauser's own story. His surpassing genius is his ability to involve us in worlds that don't exist but that are nonetheless real. -- Salon