Steven Millhauser has been working for a long time in the strange, the disturbing, and the fantastic. I’ve read several books of his short stories and novellas, my favorite of which is The King in the Tree, with its wonderful novella about Tristan and Isolt. He always uses comfortable short story and novel forms to circle around several themes: 19th-century obsessions like automatons, magic, carnivals, trains, or miniatures; fabulous stories about magic carpets, cartoons, transformations, gloves, ghosts, or other strangenesses; or infinitely close looks at tiny human moments. It’s been very much my thing.
This collection, which is made up of both new and selected stories, is more of the same. It has several wonderful pieces: the eponymous “We Others,” which tells what it’s like to become a ghost; “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” which was the basis of the film The Illusionist; “The Next Thing,” about the…er… evolution (?) of the department store and its workers/mole-people. Some of the stories go deep into the territory of the absurd, like “A Visit,” about a man who goes to visit his friend Andrew, who turns out to have married a large frog. Others are grotesque, like “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove,” which is the tale of a teenager whose girlfriend, Emily, wears a curious white glove on her left hand, a glove that ultimately comes between them.
This story in particular is a good example of why I found this collection both fascinating and ultimately kind of frustrating. It’s a story that builds up in a great Bluebeard kind of way, where the glove is both a symbol of the otherness of women during the teen years, and is also a literal glove, and we want to find out what’s underneath it. It’s a really good, weird story with a punch of an ending. But I have also just come from reading Carmen Maria Machado’s “The Husband Stitch,” which is that same kind of Bluebeard story from the woman’s perspective. And that made me realize that in all the stories I’ve ever read by Millhauser, there isn’t a single woman’s voice or even a fleshed-out woman character. He just doesn’t do it. They are all others, all grotesques or strangers or eroticized automatons. And once I realized that, I couldn’t enjoy the collection as much. There was something missing, something that grated on me more and more as I read on, and finally the stories, as gleaming with originality or absurdity or pastiche as they were, seemed flat.
In the end, I think it has been possible to like Millhauser in small doses, but reading too much of him at a time has revealed a flaw to me that I can’t unsee now. He’s a good writer about interesting stuff, but for me, right now, that wasn’t quite enough.