Steven Millhauser Essay - Critical Essays


It seems clear enough at first where to place Steven Millhauser’s short fiction. In its use of the fantastic and grotesque, it springs directly from the American tradition of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with traces of Herman Melville thrown in. Millhauser’s European forebears include E. T. A. Hoffmann and Franz Kafka; more recent international influences include Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov. That his work also coincides with that of other American postmodernists, such as Robert Coover and John Barth, is not surprising either. Yet his work cannot be so easily pigeonholed.

As in the work of Borges and Nabokov, Millhauser’s work is filled with doubles, slightly obtuse scholarly narrators, and at times a seemingly infinite series of regressions. Yet the metafictional aspects of Borges’s and Nabokov’s work often leave readers feeling that they have missed out on some cosmic point or joke that only the authors and their acolytes share. In Millhauser’s work, this layered effect gives his readers a sense of depth and a clear indication of the questions he is asking about the interrelationships of art, life, dreams, and reality. Similarly, the anguish that Kafka’s characters undergo in his parables often seems too personal for readers to share; in Millhauser, such suffering arises not only out of the human condition but also out of the artistic dilemmas in so many of his stories. In short, Millhauser’s fictional worlds, while often as mysterious as those of his predecessors, are both more accessible and more comprehensible—and admitting this removes none of their accompanying sense of wonder. His fantastic kingdoms, albeit rooted in reality, defamiliarize the mundane world of daylight and habit. Nevertheless, he is quite capable of writing the typically anthologized type of epiphanic, realistic short story, such as “A Protest Against the Sun” or “A Day in the Country.”

Even though Millhauser has admitted that he often writes about “failures,” they are often specifically American failures, who share a sense of vision with such quintessentially American figures as Thomas Edison and Walt Disney; his dreamers’ machineries and domains are always doomed to failure, because they attempt to engulf and break down the borders between their experience and their dreams.

“August Eschenburg”

Some of Millhauser’s most important stories are miniature portraits of the artist. This story is the first of these. Eschenburg is a designer and constructor of miniature automatons, and, like many of Millhauser’s other artistic protagonists, explores with his lifelike creations the interstices between real life and the artificiality of the imagination; in Eschenburg’s work, “realism itself [is] being pressed into the service of a higher law.” Eschenburg’s triumphs are overshadowed by the successes of his artistic double (a characteristic Millhauser device), Hausenstein, whose figures are unabashedly sensual and satisfy the baser instincts of their audience. Thus it seems as if Hausenstein’s appeal to the degraded tastes of the audience, the “Untermensch,” as he calls them, has triumphed. Yet even as Eschenburg wanders out of the plot, the inner fire that has led him to construct his analogues of life has not deserted him. “His ambition was to insert his dreams into the world, and if they were the wrong dreams, then he would dream them in solitude.” He has failed, like so many of Millhauser’s artistic protagonists, but he is not defeated.

“A Game of Clue”

One of the most striking aspects of Millhauser’s short fiction is his ability to stretch the...

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