My love affair with Millhauser's work began when I was in college, when I mentioned to a professor that I was writing a series of slightly fantastical short stories about childhood, but intended for adult readers and with darkly adult themes. "You should check out Edwin Mullhouse," he suggested. "I'm not familiar with his work," I replied, feeling chronically underread; up until the previous day, I'd thought Evelyn Waugh was a woman. "Oh, no, Edwin Mullhouse isn't the writer -- well, he is, but he's fictional." "Wait, the writer is fictional? Like a pseudonym?" "No, no, the writer is Steven Millhauser." "So, wait, what's the title?" This who's-on-first went on for awhile, and I soon found myself in the library, searching for a book titled Steven Millhouse by Edwin Mullhauser. The pretension annoyed me -- in my opinion, only comedians on sitcoms were allowed to give their characters such close variations on their own names -- as did the nerve of this man, who back in the 1970's had already plagiarized what I thought was my own daring and original conceit: childhood recast as adulthood in uncanny miniature. Finally I found the book, and sitting on the floor between the shelves, flipped to the first page, eager to dismiss this pompous usurper, to parry his vision with a sharper one of my own. My professor had compared him to Nabokov, but, I reminded myself, one imitated Nabokov at his own peril; one always forgot the visual, the only weapon keen enough to cut loose from those brambles of language. I read, "I met Jeffrey Cartwright in the sixth grade... I can remember nothing physical about him except his tremendous eyeglasses, which seemed to conceal his eyes; somewhere in the dark attic of memory I have preserved an image of him turning his head and revealing two round lenses aglow with light, the eyes invisible, as if he were some fabulous creature who lived in a cave or well." I murmured to myself, "Oh fucking kill me now." Millhauser was the fabulous creature, possessed of dark and unholy powers, and by the end of the first paragraph, I'd handed him my bloody and still-beating heart.
Before Edwin Mullhouse, I had never understood the urge, possessed by characters in Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, to memorize a book in its entirety. I loved Pynchon's prose, but it was to me then as towering and mysterious as scripture, something from another realm. The sentences in Edwin Mullhouse, on the other hand, were ordinary things, bejeweled with precision. I fell in love with them individually, reading them aloud, out of context, to anyone who would listen. Describing a mischevious little girl, Millhauser wrote, "Her favorite dress was a short bright red one with puffed short sleeves, from which her short solid arms hung down alertly, as if she were perpetually prepared to snatch your crayons." Describing Edwin Mullhouse's grandmother visiting, he wrote, "After the first day, when she talked to Mr. and Mrs. Mullhouse about arthritis, rheumatism, and rising prices, Grandma Mullhouse spent all her time with Edwin... playing Go Fish and Old Maid, making vast bowls of custard or huge yellow cakes with orange icing, and telling stories about the man who thought she was thirty-eight or the man who thought she was thirty-five or the time she used to give piano lessons before her fingers got crooked or the time she was thrown from a merry-go-round halfway across the park and landed on her back and stood up without a scratch; it would have killed most people." Of a winter day chez Mullhouse, he wrote, "On the shady side of the house the icicles hung hard and frozen, but they were less lovely than the sunny icicles, shining with dissolution." His ability to specify tiny details that most people wouldn't even have noticed, to wrap an entire character or stage of life into a list, seemed sorcerous not because it came out of nowhere; to the contrary, the very familiarity of his materials was what made his sleight-of-hand dazzle me. Once when I was a small child, a birthday party magician put a rubber clown nose on his face and squeaked it; he then pinched my own ordinary nose and made it squeak too. Edwin Mullhouse released the magic power from everyday things in much the same way.
I did not read any more Millhauser for a long time after that. I was afraid, on one hand, of him disappointing me, and on the other hand, of him not disappointing me enough. I'd never before encountered an author so capable of influencing my writing style, drawing me, line by line, under his spell. Though the titles of his other books enticed me, some part of me wanted to resist. I held off until one day when, during the following summer and on vacation with my parents, I received a call from my boyfriend. He'd tried to check Edwin Mullhouse out from the library, but they hadn't had it in stock; instead he'd gotten a story collection called The Knife Thrower. "You have to read it," he said.
I read it, and then I read it again, and then I read everything else Millhauser has ever published. It's all terrific, but The Knife Thrower might actually be Millhauser's masterpiece. It's twelve stories and with the possible exception of one ("The Way Out") every single piece is a skull-melting, life-altering volcanic eruption of sheer literary force. Millhauser is obsessed with escalation, the way that, inch by inch, an artist's mind or a community succumbs to its own excesses. In The Knife Thrower, three separate characters vanish, or nearly vanish, into the sky's gulping blue ("Flying Carpets," "Claire de Lune," "Balloon Flight, 1870"); ordinary settings, like a department store or a suburban town past dark, open into deeper and deeper chambers within themselves, becoming self-enclosed worlds, unknowable from the outside. But the stand-out piece in the collection -- if such a thing can exist in a collection that left me so overwhelmed with pleasure I frequently forgot to breathe between paragraphs -- is the modestly titled "A Visit," an understated short story that achingly reveals the uncharted loneliness of so much of adult life, as well as the unsolvable riddle of romantic love: that's all I'll say about it here.
Millhauser read from The Knife Thrower at the Brooklyn Book Festival last Sunday, from a passage in his story "Paradise Park." The story concerns a Coney Island amusement park that, over time, develops from a family-friendly day trip destination into something straight out of the mind of Hieronymus Bosch. In the passage Millhauser read, about a level in the many-tiered pleasure playground nicknamed "Devil's Park," he described children dressed as concubines, a lover's leap that serves as the site of multiple suicides, and a roller coaster that plunges to its destruction again and again in a dark field.
Welcome to the pleasure dome.
The other panelists looked on, aghast and admiring, respectively; the mood of the audience, like the moods of the audiences in so many of his pieces, was awestruck and more than a little unsettled: his words whizzed by our ears too close, like so many coldly glittering daggers. But as much as I loved the piece, what I loved more was something he said during the Q&A session that followed. When asked by the moderator if there's ever a time when he's gone "too far" in his writing, Millhauser thought for a moment and then responded that he sees fiction as a seduction, a gradual casting-off of veils. There's no such thing as "too far," only "too soon."
This statement encapsulated perfectly what it is I love most about Millhauser's writing. His prose is decadent, forever reaching toward voluptuous release -- but what makes it truly compelling is his restraint. Perhaps the reason I so love his work is that, in the tenderness and care it takes in presenting each image, each rhetorical turn, it seems to love me back.