A collection of gossamer yet substantial entertainments from the ineffably graceful stylist well on his way to becoming America’s Borges (or, perhaps, Cortázar).
If that seems paradoxical, so does Millhauser, who has spent decades perfecting a minimalist art that nevertheless encompasses the history of our culture, its predecessors and its oppressors. These most recent products of his fertile imagination can perhaps be faulted for too often echoing his Pulitzer-winning Martin Dressler or—more egregiously—his languid second novel Portrait of a Romantic. Still, the collection starts well with “Cat ’n’ Mouse,” presented as a narrative shooting script for a cartoon in which a homicidal feline is consistently outwitted by an introspective, borderline-studious mouse. The story works smashingly, both on the level of pure story and as a (perhaps partially autobiographical?) allegory of the contemplative temperament at odds with the exigencies of brute physicality. There follow three clusters of four stories each. Among the highlights in the section entitled “Vanishing Acts” is “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” which concerns the guilty narrator’s regret for his unintentional part in what caused the “vanishing” of a mousy, withdrawn high-school classmate, and the title story, which details the creation of a “game” that briefly engages the participation of distractible adolescents, while crucially transforming one girl who takes it too seriously. The best of the section entitled “Impossible Architectures” is “The Dome,” a deadpan paean to a sheltering superstructure whose protectiveness “has abolished Nature,” and “The Tower,” which concerns the human fallout from a structure thrusting upward and reaching to heaven. “Heretical Histories” explores further the passion to invent, control and manipulate—most memorably in a fable that celebrates trivial minutiae (“Here at the Historical Society”), and the history of an inventor who pushes representational art beyond its limits (“A Precursor of the Cinema”).
Marvels within marvels, from a writer whose prose possesses the equivalent of what musicians call perfect pitch.