Voices In the Night

By Steven Millhauser


(Knopf Doubleday, $25.95, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Steven Millhauser was born in New York and grew up in Connecticut. He’s been honored many times for his fiction, such as the novel, Martin Dressler, which won the 1977 Pulitzer Prize, and We Others: New and Selected Stories, which won  the Story Prize. His work has been translated into 17 languages, and his story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” inspired the 2006 film The Illusionist. Millhauser teaches at Skidmore College and lives in Saratoga Springs, N. Y.

What is this book about?

This collection of 16 new stories shows Millhauser, 71,  is still at the top of his game. As he often does, he sets his strange tales in ordinary settings – small towns that seem “normal” but are anything but. Some play on venerable fairy tales: Rapunzel and her prince charming meet the real world – and others have Biblical themes that resonate here and now. In one, Miracle Polish, an anti-tarnish product that also buffs up a man’s life; in another, a brochure advertises a luxury resort where, when people check out, they really do check out. In another, a mermaid washes up on shore and changes a town forever. There is fantasy here, handled deftly, and the collection is a showcase of terrific literary talent.

Why you’ll like it:

Critics have called Millhauser’s technique hyperrealism or magical realism, but readers will not care what lit-crit tags are hung on these stories: suffice it to say they are funny yet disquieting, familiar yet weird, deceptively calm yet disturbingly deep. Millahuser also has been compared to a daunting line-up of literary stars: Malmud, Kafka, Poe, Borges, Lovecraft, Hawthorne, Gogol, Calvino and Garcia Marquez to name but a few – yet readers know that his is an original and distinctive imagination at play.

What others are saying:

Library Journal’s starred review says: “ Imagine a town crier delivering updates to the world in the form of newsletter or annual holiday card. This is the dominant voice of this latest collection from Millhauser, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Martin Dressler. Half the stories, including “Phantoms,” “Mermaid Fever,” “A Report on Our Recent Troubles,” “Elsewhere,” and “The Place,” are told in the voice of The Town. “Arcadia,” the darkest of the stories, is a brochure advertising a suicide retreat complete with a suite of amenities found only in a luxury resort. There is a touch of magic realism as well, including phantoms, ghosts, mermaids, and a magical bottle of furniture polish, all revealing a sense of loss, longing, and an emptiness that cannot be expressed by ordinary means. The weakest pieces, e.g., the lengthy “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama,” move beyond town life, but the change in tone and voice is quite jarring and not entirely successful. VERDICT Millhauser’s wry humor really shines in these off-kilter stories of town life. Despite a few lesser pieces, this enjoyable collection is highly recommended.”

In another starred review, Kirkus says: “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  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.”

“American literature never had a magical realist tradition to call its own, but it’s always had writers eager to blur reality and the metaphysical . . . For decades Millhauser has [been] our national laureate of the weirdness of our normal lives. The stories in his masterful new collection riff on advertising copy, board reports, mythology and sports announcing. But within that breadth of styles he consistently prompts the reader to sense some shadowy but important news that’s about to be delivered . . . He isn’t concerned with death so much as with the elements of human nature that are hard to articulate or that speak to our fears. . . . Voices in the Nightis defined by its playfulness; Millhauser tweaks genres and expectations like a carnival strongman bending steel bars,” says Mark Athitakis in the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

The New York Times Book Review says: “ …the stories in Millhauser’s spellbinding collection…are anchored by dark human yearnings—for perfection, or excitement, or some ungraspable form of fulfillment. These yearnings have a combustible quality, threatening to consume the towns and minds where a pervasive sense of unease provides the tinder…beware the uncanny magic of Millhauser: Just when you think you recognize a myth, a character, a voice—the familiar tacks toward the strange and unexpected…In Voices in the Night, Millhauser gives us worlds upon worlds—wistful and warped, comic and chilling—that  by story’s end, feel as intimate as our own reflections. “

Publishers Weekly says: “In this vividly imaginative new collection of 16 stories, Pulitzer Prize–winner Millhauser  draws a gauzy curtain of hyper-reality over mundane events and creates an atmosphere of uneasiness that accelerates to dread. Millhauser establishes tense yet wondrous tones while never resorting to melodrama; his cool, restrained voice is profoundly effective. In a couple of stories (“Sons and Mothers,” “Coming Soon”) the protagonist wakens in a different time zone after a nap and understands that his life has changed forever. In others, the narrator is a spokesperson for his community, places where residents get caught up in mass hysteria (“Elsewhere”), psychosis (“Mermaid Fever”), or a craving for deep emotion (“The Place”). Variations on fairy tales include a clever, humorous “Rapunzel,” which is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. . . . The gem of the collection is the semi-autobiographical “A Voice in the Night,” in which a young boy in the author’s own home town in Connecticut is transfixed by the biblical story of Samuel, who heard God’s voice and knew he must obey. The boy grows up to be a writer, with memories similar to those in Millhauser’s earlier book The Barnum Museum. This is a volume best read in small doses, since the voices throughout remain similar and the situations often echo one another. The cumulative effect is to transport the reader to an alternate world in which the uncanny lurks pervasively beneath the surface.”

“Brilliant . . . powerful. Each work is a delight and revelation. Beautifully made fantastic tales such as Millhauser writes don’t begin from nothing. As in the tradition of Nikolai Gogol, Italo Calvino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez (to name a few revered creators of fiction that carries us beyond the normal), most of them grow out of everyday incidents and lead us right up to the line between the ordinary and the magical. And sometimes they help us to cross over . . . But this collection it isn’t just a regional fantasia, all stories about the other side of normal small-town life . . . Let’s call [them] borderline pieces—easily described as magical realism, or perhaps, turned on their heads, tales of realistic magic. However we might describe it, Voices in the Night is a smorgasbord of deftly created short fiction by a great imaginative talent. Millhauser stands tall in the company of a growing number of contemporary American masters of magic, from Ursula K. Le Guin to Aimee Bender and Kelly Link. To use his own plain, down-home metaphor, Millhauser has polished his mirrors in the halls and bedrooms and bathrooms and elsewhere, and it will do us all good to take a look at the reflections the glass throws back at us,” says Alan Cheuse for National Public Radio.

When is it available?

Millhauser’s magical book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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