Steven Millhauser: We Others

I’ve been struggling for a while to figure out what to do for my October recommendations.  Obviously October recommendations have to center around something haunting if not outright horrific — but all in a fun way.  Sure, I’ve reviewed several horrific novels here, like Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 (click here for my review; my opinion of it has grown infinitely since I first read it), but not many of these quite suit the mood because their horror isn’t that fun.  At this time of year one could ceratinly do worse than read César Aira’s Ghosts, (click here for my review), but that takes place on New Years Eve, and the ghosts aren’t that scary.  Patrick McGrath’s Asylum (click here for my review) is closer, but I prefer his book Doctor Haggard’s Disease, which I haven’t reviewed yet.  When I think Halloween horror, I think Edgar Allan Poe and the like (I love Edgar Allan Poe). With this as my standard, only two books reviewed here would work as classic “ghost” stories with intelligent angles; they are two that I recommend fully: Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger (click here for my review) and Henry James’ great — no, magnificent — The Turn of the Screw (click here for my review).  So, rather than do a recommendation list (as I have in past months — click here for monthly recommendation lists), I wanted to review what will be one of my favorite books of the year from an author who often reminds me of Edgar Allan Poe: Steven Millhauser’s new “new and selected” collection of short stories, We Others (2011).

Review copy courtesy of Knopf.

Actually, if I were to make a recommendation list for October (wink wink), I would have included Millhauser’s Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (click here for my review).  In that early novel, Millhauser displays his haunting vision of youth’s mysteries, and it is beautiful and horrific, both aspects common in these short stories.

Let me start by listing the “old” stories in this collection: from In the Penny Arcade we get “A Protest Against the Sun,” “August Eschenburg,” and “Snowmen”; from The Barnum Museum we get “The Barnum Museum,” “The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad,” and “Eisenheim the Illusionist”; from The Knife Thrower, “The Knife Thrower,” “A Visit,” “Flying Carpets,” and “Claire de Lune”; and from his latest collection Dangerous Laughter, “Cat ‘n’ Mouse,” “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” “History of a Disturbance,” and “The Wizard of West Orange.”  I will not be reviewing any of these stories here because I have each collection and the goal to review each at some point.  However, if you’re new to Millhauser, this collection, with its selection of past stories, is a great place to start.

There are seven new stories in We Others: “The Slap,” “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove,” “Getting Closer,” “The Invasion from Outer Space,” “People of the Book,” “The Next Thing,” and “We Others.”  Each is fantastic.  We’ve already looked at two of them on this blog: “The Invasion from Outer Space” was published in the February 9 & 16, 2009 issue of The New Yorker and I spoke about it briefly here; “Getting Closer” was published in this year’s January 3 issue of The New Yorker, and it is still one of my favorite stories to appear in that magazine this year; I wrote about it here.

In this post, I’d like to focus on another of his “new” stories that I read last year when it was published in the summer reading issue of Tin House.  (Incidentally, another of the “new” stories, “The Next Thing,” was published in Harpers, but I didn’t read it there.  Also, there was another new Millhauser story, “Phantoms,” that isn’t in this collection but that was published in issue 35 of McSweeney’s.  The man’s short stories are rightfully sought after.)  The story I’m focusing on here is “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove,” whose wonderful title takes us back to those pulp collections of scary stories — what could be better for the month of October?

This is Edgar Allan Poe, in both ability and content, born a century later.  Will, the narrator, is in his senior year of high school, and his best friend is the youthful, quiet — dare I say, delicate? — Emily Hohn: “It happened quickly: one day she was that quiet girl in English class, the next we were friends.”  Will and Emily just fit together.  There is no real romance (though there are buds of it, and of obsession); for the most part, it’s a peaceful and reliable friendship for both, which is welcome because Will says, “I’d spent the last year so desperately in love with another girl, so whipped-up and feverish, that even my happiness had felt like unhappiness.”

The story begins in the early autumn, and Millhauser takes us through the smells and sounds of each month until the climax the next June (one of Millhauser’s great abilities is to make the feel of seasons — often from a child’s perspective — come alive again).  In the interim, Will’s relationship with Emily is threatened by a white glove she suddenly and inexplicably starts wearing on one hand.  Neither she nor her parents will say anything about it.

But there was something else about the glove that troubled me, beyond the sharp fact of its presence.  Ever since I’d become friends with Emily, I had felt an easy flow between us, an openness, a transparency.  This restful merging, this serene interwovenness, was something I had never known before, something that reminded me of her porch in sunlight, or the night of the snow shining under the streetlights.  The glove was harming that flow.  It was, by its very nature, an act of concealment.  Emily herself, by eluding the question of her hand, by refusing to reveal whatever it was she was hiding under the white cloth, was forcing me to think about her in a secretive way.  It occurred to me that the glove was changing her — turning her into a body, with privacies and evasions.

My, but that’s a fantastic passage!  It sets up the contours of Will and Emily’s relationship and how the glove begins to define how Will looks at Emily.  He cannot help but wonder about this glove that she never takes off.  Will’s obsession grows and warps.  Emily is aware of this, saddened by this, but she still does not want to let Will know, perhaps in fear that it would ruin their friendship.  The story develops slowly and nicely over the year as the white glove grows in Will’s imagination, and Millhauser uses it to inject tension into other aspects of Will and Emily’s relationship: 

“Look at that,” I said, and lightly touched her forearm where the dim light lay across it.  She looked down at her arm, where my two fingers rested.  I moved my fingers slowly down her forearm until the side of a finger touched the edge of the glove.  Slowly I lifted one finger and stroked the white cloth. It was softer that I had imagined. “What are you doing,” Emily whispered. “Nothing,” I said. I began stroking the part of the glove that lay over her wrist. Emily’s right hand descended only my fingers. She lifted my hand and placed it on her collarbone. With the fingers of her right hand she unbuttoned the top button of her shirt. Then she undid the button below. I felt the sudden edge of her white bra and the skin below her collarbone; my thumb touched the small connecting strap that joined the parts of the bra. I understood, with absolute clarity, that she was offering me her breasts in place of her hand. An immense pity came over me, for Emily Hohn, for the two of us sitting there like sad children, for the dark room and the spring rain, before anger seized me.

It’s a tremendous story, creepy, nuanced, filled with those haunting obsessions we try to repress but that explode into all sorts of ugliness.  The entire collection — Millhauser’s entire ouvre — is worth reading.  I chose to focus on “The White Glove” here mainly because the title easily ushers in the month of October, but each story has its own disturbances that suit the month well.  Happy October!