Stories like Norman Rockwell paintings, if Rockwell painted guillotines
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Stories like Norman Rockwell paintings, if Rockwell painted guillotines
In his new story collection, “Disruptions,” Steven Millhauser reveals the bizarre within the mundane.

by Dwight Garner

NEW YORK, NY.- Steven Millhauser was the surprise winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his novel “Martin Dressler” (1996), a syntactically bracing reverie about a young entrepreneur in 19th-century New York. For many readers at the time, the response was: Steven who?

The New York Times sent a reporter to Saratoga Springs, New York, where Millhauser taught at Skidmore College, to find out more. The ensuing profile ran under the headline “Shy Author Likes to Live and Work in Obscurity.” Here was not a Norman Mailer manqué. He said he had written for many years in his parents’ attic.

Shy people who live and work in obscurity are commonplace in Millhauser’s fiction, his short stories especially. (The best of these are collected in “We Others: New and Selected Stories.”) Millhauser cuts the ground from under their feet. Aliens land and disappoint a town. A man’s friend marries a female frog. Children fly out their bedroom windows on magic carpets.

Sometimes these stories go even further afield. If this book review moves you to any sort of direct action, I hope it’s to read Millhauser’s short story “Cat ’n’ Mouse,” collected in “We Others.” It takes the story of two battling cartoon characters, a Tom and Jerry, to tragic, absurd, sublime, goose pimple-inducing extremes.

Millhauser’s new collection is titled “Disruptions.” Several of the stories are among his best; a few are midlevel Millhauser; a handful of others don’t rise above craft. So it goes with books of short stories.

Millhauser, who was born in 1943, has a sensibility that pushes Norman Rockwell into Edward Hopper, and Edward Hopper into Dennis Hopper, and Dennis Hopper into David Cronenberg. Up jumps the devil, in unusual forms.

In a story titled “After the Beheading,” a shiny new guillotine appears in a town square. This story is a bit like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” if YouTube videos of the stonings had leaked out, and if Jackson’s town had a gift shop that sold fake rocks.

In “Guided Tour,” a tour company delivers to its customers a historical experience so authentic that it puts sweat on the reader’s brow. It’s something akin to visiting the site of Custer’s Last Stand and leaving with a shiny red screaming patch on the top of your head, but worse.

As the dread rose in “Guided Tour” I kept hearing, as a soundtrack, the song “Navvy” by Pere Ubu, the one in which David Thomas chants over and over, “Boy, that sounds swell.” You wipe the flecks of blood from your eyeglasses and turn the page.

Millhauser has long been fond of investigating fads and manias. In one of the new stories, people become obsessed with climbing ladders until one fellow disappears into the sky. In another, people start to live high up on columns. “They are in fact our sons and daughters, our friends and neighbors,” the narrator says. “They have left us and will never return. We do not really know what they are doing up there.”

“Theater of Shadows” is about a citizenry that turns against the notion of color itself. “Green” is about a town that gets rid of its lawns and trees, only to long for them back. In each of these, you half expect Rod Serling to ride through on a motorcycle.

The longest and most insinuating story is “The Little People.” It’s about a town in which a not-insignificant segment of the populace is 2 inches tall. They mostly live in their own development. They have banks and shopping malls and colleges. So many things are a danger to them that they are as fierce as the Mossad. They can tie up, with wire, a marauding squirrel in seconds.

There is a scene in “Gulliver’s Travels” in which Gulliver, among the Brobdingnagians, strolls on the nipples of certain young ladies of the court. In Millhauser’s story, a little man, lean and muscular but as cute as a piece of gnocchi, falls in love with a regular-size woman. The sex writing approaches Nicholson Baker levels.

He liked to climb naked onto one or the other of her breasts as she lay naked on her back; once on top, he would seat himself on the areola and embrace the nipple with his legs. Holding the sides of the nipple with the palms of both hands, he would rub his face back and forth across the sides and top, rousing her to shuddering paroxysms that she had never dreamed possible. We know less about how he satisfied his own strong desire. From hints in his diary, it appears that he liked to lie on her stomach and make love to her navel.

In another scene, a naked little woman slides down a large man’s ear, to apparently profound effect.

Millhauser pushes this story into the realm of social politics. Little things become fashionable. People suddenly long to be short, and “small penises are the envy of locker rooms.” Because the little people are hard to hear, loudness becomes unfashionable.

One can be sued for discriminating against little people. Backlash arises. A “Think Big” movement erupts, a “White Lives Matter” crusade of a sort. This all threatens to be a bit on the nose. But Millhauser navigates the chaos and allows it to ripen. He provides an antic psychological coherence.

Millhauser’s stories are often about cracks in everyday life, cracks that reveal other possibilities and other modes of living. Sometimes one soul journeys through them; sometimes there are hundreds. His characters often sense they’ve crossed some unmarked border. Maybe they can go back home but, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, they can’t go back all the way. Other times these cracks lead to reefs, where good citizens wreck themselves.

There are too many preset frequencies on Millhauser’s dial. A little of him, for this reader, goes a long way. Maybe that’s why it was always a treat to find his stories in The New Yorker, where many have appeared over the years, though none in this book seem to have. When Millhauser is on, he hands you a periscope of his own unique design, and he allows you to really look and feel. You can bring your own allegory.

Publication Notes:

‘Disruptions: Stories’

By Steven Millhauser

270 pages. Alfred A. Knopf. $28

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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