For anyone who has been creeped out by a clown, or who has gulped at a sword swallower, the stories of the Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser will resonate deeply.
They are preoccupied with wonders that take us out of our daily drudge and in doing so become, ironically, a barometer to the absurd nature of what we deem normal. The new anthology, We Others, covers three decades of writing, coursing through several collections and a handful of new stories. It is a wondrous book.
"I was a normal, ordinary, well-adjusted boy, without a trace of anything that might account for the fate that lay in store for me," says Paul Steinbach, the narrator of the title novella. Paul begins by detailing his all-American, middle-class days, a life which ends with a quiet, unexpected death in late middle age. It is then that the fun begins. As a ghost he is suddenly extraordinary. He takes up residence in the attic of the home of a sad-eyed, lonely woman down the block. From this loft conversion he becomes the spectral caretaker of her heart while simultaneously seeking insight from a group of fellow ethereal lost boys. In a nice comic twist they form a kind of Phantoms Anonymous: melancholy ghouls struggling with their very own peculiar existential crisis. The story shows Millhauser's ability to take a well-worn formula to new ends. In "We Others" the ghosts could as easily be the extreme poor, the uneducated, the voiceless immigrant, all of whom we, the comfortable, educated, eloquent fail to notice.
The ability to shake up a genre piece is particularly evident in another new title, "The Invasion from Outer Space", which plays out through a rain of yellow dust. "No terrifying horror there," think the denizens of small-town America. Apart that is from the powder's talent for molecular reproduction. Slowly, the dust covers the white picket fences and perfect lawns. It's a custardy conquest.
The older stories fit perfectly with the new. In the most famous, "Eisenheim the Illusionist", which was filmed in 2006 with Edward Norton as the melancholy magician, fin de siècle Vienna is the setting for a fireside yarn about a prestidigitator at war with an official of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His sleight of hand proves to be beyond understanding and therefore ultimately victorious. "Eisenheim deliberately crossed boundaries and therefore disturbed the essence of things."
In "The Knife Thrower", a travelling showman sparks nostalgia and dizzying foreboding in his audience. "We thought of ... hot circus tents on blue summer days." However, this blades-man is known for scarring his targets. "That was something we hadn't seen before, or even imagined we might see, something worth remembering," says one of the crowd. It's a story that really hits the mark. Other entries explore the arcane and the specialist, taking in the realms of horology, automatons and barmy museums.
Millhauser's fiction is a genre all of its own: part Stephen King, part Roald Dahl, part Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Like fantasies, dreams and nightmares, these tales are touchstones to the bizarre, unknowable nature of human existence and our capacity for imagination. Through narratives of disruption, they place a mirror to the face of civility, chipping away at the veneer of everyday constructs and respectable behaviour. Millhauser, in the terminology of the barnstorming conjuror, has pulled off a great reveal: that in our desire for escapism we highlight how tethered we are to human insecurity.