The Essential Steven Millhauser: Where to Start With An Underrated American Master
Spoiler Alert: It's Not With Martin Dressler
Steven Millhauser: Pulitzer Prize winner. Certified Writer’s Writer. Big in France. Reported Ping-Pong champ. A master short story writer who never quite seems to get his due. George Saunders before George Saunders, though sans the gooey center. Lit Hub’s own Jonny Diamond recently called him “the Blonde Redhead of lit,” and also admitted he wasn’t cool enough in college to be really into him [ed. this is false]. Luckily for you, I was. And am. I love Steven Millhauser.
Too many people have not read any Steven Millhauser, in my opinion, and too many that have read him have only read Martin Dressler: The Tale of An American Dreamer, which won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, and which was also a finalist for the National Book Award. And look, there’s nothing wrong with Martin Dressler, except that it is not really representative of Millhauser’s work, except in its broadest themes: exposing the void behind the American Dream and the American way of life. I remember reading it in my freshman year college and finding it well written but a little boring. But there is no way to find any of Millhauser’s other work boring.
And in general, despite the fact that he earned a Pulitzer Prize in the genre, the novel is not really where Millhauser shines brightest. He is a master of the short story—I’d call him one of the greatest American short story writers alive, though I recognize it is not very hip to say this about a 77-year-old white man in this day and age. But it can’t be helped; it’s true. So we’re going to start with some stories. If you want, you cheat and just read We Others, which includes most of the stories below, and many other gems, but listen, you’re only cheating yourself. (That said, you should totally also buy We Others—the story about a guy in a trench coat going around slapping people is worth the price of admission on its own.) Either way, here’s how to start your Steven Millhauser obsession.
1. Dangerous Laughter (or just “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” but also “Dangerous Laughter”)
I’m biased, because this is where I started with Millhauser, and where I fell in love with his work; for years I was devoted to the title story—don’t tell anyone, Internet, but the story that got me into grad school was a blatant rip-off of it, and you can still see the obsessive notes I took in the margins on how it worked—and I still recommend it, but “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman” may actually be the best story in the collection: quieter, eerier, more resonant over time and space.
But the collection is also a good starting place because even in its table of contents, it maps out so many of the types of stories you’ll find in Millhauser’s larger oeuvre: “Opening Cartoon”; “Vanishing Acts”; “Impossible Architectures”; “Heretical Histories.” For the full picture, we’d really need another category, something like, I don’t know, Bizarre Homes & Gardens, to encompass all of his wonderfully skewed suburban towns and domestic surrealism, but still, it’s a good opening gambit. Read it straight through. And then tell me your opinions on said Opening Cartoon; mine change with every re-read.
2. Voices in the Night (or just “Miracle Polish,” but also “Arcadia”)
Often these “essential guides” will have you work forward, from an author’s earliest work to his most recent, but I actually think Millhauser has been getting better, slicker, and a little meaner, over the years. I always appreciate a nice dose of cynicism with my fantasy. So if you too like that sort of thing, after Dangerous Laughter, I’ll point you towards his latest collection, which should have cemented Millhauser as one of our greatest working artists in the short story form, but which, despite rave reviews from those who know, really did not get enough attention.
3. The Knife Thrower (or just “A Visit“)
If you’re a Denis Johnson fan, or a Cheever fan, or both, like me, and surely like Millhauser, this one will probably ring your bell extra good.
4. The Barnum Museum (or just “Eisenhelm the Illusionist”)
Yes, this is the collection, and the story, that led directly to the production of 2006’s The Illusionist, for which I am sure Millhauser is . . . not that sorry, actually. The story is, as you might expect, much, much better than the film. Millhauser often references or incorporates other cultural artifacts in his work, and this collection includes Alice, J. Alfred Prufrock, and the characters from Clue; if you like your stories intertextual, and your reading about writing, this is the one for you.
5. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright
I know how this sounds, but in my opinion, it’s only when you’ve been fully immersed in Millhauser’s tone and style that you’re ready for Edwin Mullhouse, his debut novel. It’s not an easy book, and it’s not a particularly magical one, either—but it’s a metafictional satire, a forgotten cult novel, a wild experiment, and a masterpiece. I think it takes a little bit of trust to get into it, but once you do, you’ll see a whole new side of Millhauser. Then you can go read Martin Dressler, if you want!