The Knife Thrower

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Steven Millhauser’s short fictions are basically “Suppose” stories. Suppose someone built the ultimate shopping mall. Suppose adolescent female mystery was really caused by witches. Suppose there was an amusement park that opened the door to an alternate reality. However, Millhauser’s most obsessive “Suppose” is: “Suppose you took an ordinary entertainment, illusion, or metaphor and pushed it as far as it would go.” One could say that all of Millhauser’s stories go “too far,” that is, if the intensive “too far” existed in his vocabulary. In the title story of THE KNIFE THROWER: AND OTHER STORIES, for example, runner-up winner in the 1998 O. Henry Prize Awards, Millhauser takes the basis for the dangerous entertainment of knife-throwing—how close can the knife go?—to the next logical but incredible step.

While most short-story writers in the 1980’s and 1990’s have followed the realist rebellion against 1970’s fabulism, Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Scheherazade to Edgar Allan Poe and from Franz Kafka to Jorge Luis Borges, playfully exploring the freedom of the imagination to reject the ordinary world of the mundane and explore the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation. His favorite persona is the impresario, the maestro, the necromancer, the wizard, Prospero on his island, Edison in his laboratory, Barnum in his circus ring.

Whether his stories focus on magic carpets, men who marry frogs, automatons, balloon flights, or labyrinths that lie beneath everyday reality, Millhauser embodies one of the most powerful traditions of short fiction—the magical story of the reality of artifice.