A master storyteller continues to navigate the blurry space between magic and reality in 16 comic, frightening, consistently off-kilter tales.
As a short story writer, Millhauser (English/Skidmore College; We Others, 2011, etc.) emerged in the ’70s with his sensibility fully formed, taking Bernard Malamud’s heady mixture of Jewish mysticism and urban life and expanding its reach to encompass palace courts and big-box suburbia. His strategy remains the same in this collection, but there’s little sign that his enthusiasm has weakened. In “Miracle Polish,” a man buys a mirror-cleaning chemical that makes his reflection slightly but meaningfully more upbeat and glimmering; a sly riff on the myth of Narcissus ensues. “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” describes a community wrecked by a spate of suicides, some seemingly done as perverse pleas for attention, and the narrative slowly edges toward a harrowing, Shirley Jackson–esque conclusion. That story, like many of the others here, is written in the first person plural, and Millhauser revels in upending that bureaucratic voice and making it strange; he satirizes the language of rest-home brochureware in “Arcadia,” which opens gently but becomes more sinister, darkening the bland rhetoric. Millhauser does much the same with setting, complicating our notions of suburban comfort in stories like “The Wife and the Thief.” As ever, he’s an incessant tinkerer with ages-old myths, fairy tales and religious stories: Among the best entries here are “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama,” a tale of the young Buddha that pits foursquare language with its hero’s roiling spiritual despair, and irreverent tweaks of tales about Paul Bunyan, Rapunzel, mermaids and the prophet Samuel. Millhauser intuits modes of storytelling like nobody else, and even his satire of sports-announcer–speak in “Home Run” elevates the quotidian to the cosmic.
A superb testament to America’s quirkiest short story writer, still on his game.