STARRED REVIEW
April 14, 2015

Explorations of the unfamiliar

By Steven Millhauser
Steven Millhauser is our patron saint of elsewhere. He is the bard of an Arcadia we long for (but also dread), a sorcerer who can materialize phantoms in our backyards, where they’ve been standing all along, just there, behind the bushes.
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Steven Millhauser is our patron saint of elsewhere. He is the bard of an Arcadia we long for (but also dread), a sorcerer who can materialize phantoms in our backyards, where they’ve been standing all along, just there, behind the bushes.

Three of the glories in Voices in the Night—Millhauser’s set of magic spells, masquerading as a collection of 16 new short stories—go by the names “Elsewhere,” “Arcadia ” and “Phantoms.” They belong to a fugal set of variations on a theme running through about half the tales, a pattern as variously realized as it is stringently upheld. In this handful of accounts, the storytelling takes the shape of objective reportage. The narrator presents a chronicle of unusual occurrences—or traumatic psychological conditions—going on in a familiar place, a town just like ours, a vicinity we recognize, someplace we gravitate to, as home.

In “Elsewhere,” there are random and terrifying outbreaks of reality’s collapse. The phenomenon starts small—in the dark corners of rooms—but soon evolves into a shift of consciousness, a general unease shared by the entire neighborhood, rising at last into a moment of such transcendent wonder that it ought, by rights, to be apocalyptic. But Millhauser’s genius (it’s not too strong a word) is a determination to keep us firmly in the poetic region that refuses resolution of any kind, especially of the religious kind (which makes a potent cameo in the title story).

“Phantoms” is the best thing the author has ever written. Its journalistic record of ghostly sightings—together with proposed “Explanations” and “Analyses”—never rises above the emotional level of a mezzo piano. It is on account of this restraint that the tale’s impact reaches its heights of spookiness and heartbreak. Who are these phantoms? Why do they withdraw from us, even at the moment of their visitation? There can be no answers.

The remaining stories in the book also work as a set of variations. In each case, Millhauser transforms himself into a sublime “parrot” of a given literary voice—fairy tale, Indian myth, baseball radio announcer, American tall tale, etc. The well-trodden scenario and conventional language of each story become the ironic foundations for its stunning strangeness.

Look to your heart when reading Millhauser! Just like the baseball hit by McCluskey in “Home Run,” you can kiss that baby goodbye.

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Voices in the Night

Voices in the Night

By Steven Millhauser
Knopf
ISBN 9780385351591

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