Voices in the Night by Steven Millhauser Review

Night Watcher’s Tales

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<i>Voices in the Night</i> by Steven Millhauser Review

Sharma Shields’ The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac, published earlier this year, is not an almanac per se. It does read more episodically than most novels, and most of the episodes play out as a sort of magic realist apologia. Shields seems intent on defending magic realism not so much as a literary genre but as a richer and more intuitive way of understanding the world. At times it’s the transformative intrusion of the Fates in everyday life, a car crash with a unicorn or a runaway girl’s confrontation with an improbably wise old man and a creepy creature from the lake. Best of all, Shields’ insistence on embracing the mystery on the fringes of the familiar emerges in her story’s [spoiler alert] refusal to explain away a grown man’s recollection of his mother leaving his father for Bigfoot as a child’s delusion. The incident preoccupies him until his death, not because it didn’t happen, but because it unlocked an awareness of the unknowable that others pretend doesn’t exist.

In several stories in his new collection, Voices in the Night, acclaimed author Steven Millhauser doesn’t so much defend the pervasiveness of unexplained phenomena in everyday existence as slyly report it. In off-kilter accounts of how ordinary life unravels mystically in small towns, and strange goings-on subtly or dramatically alter the townspeople’s behavior, Millhauser deploys a unnamed narrator—dutifully generous with details—who reports legend and fact with equal avidity.

And what legends they are. In “Phantoms,” a town’s ongoing series of poltergeist sightings (along with enumerated interpretations and explanations, some credited, others debunked) comes to define the town’s history and character. In “Mermaid Fever,” he delivers an unvarnished account of local citizens of all ages gripped by life—and fashion-altering mania for months after a dead mermaid washes up on their beach.

In “Elsewhere,” a summer-long feeling of restlessness consumes a town, leading to mass apparitions, cross-town tunneling, unregenerate roof-dwelling and a temporary ability to pass through objects. An op-ed column in the local paper argues “that the mysterious incidents were nothing less than manifestations of the invisible world—eruptions of the immaterial into our realm of matter.” As ever, Millhauser has fun with this seemingly accurate description of what the author himself is suggesting by writing the story: “This argument, which many of us found irritating or laughable, was taken up, debated, condemned, and embellished.”

In “A Report on Our Recent Troubles,” Millhauser details a small town’s cultish, connected series of suicides from the perspective of committee convened to investigate and report on the incidents. The recommendations the committee offers at the conclusion of the report might be the sickest and most absurdly funny thing you read this year.

Millhauser is a supremely gifted miniaturist. His Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Martin Dressler, explores reckless, mammoth ambition on a compact and intimate scale, a towering hotel viewed through a tilt-shift lens. For nearly 40 years, Millhauser has pursued a parallel career as a writer of short stories and novellas that has yielded an impressive body of short-form work. While many novelists break into the business with short story collections, or use them as stopgaps between longer works, few writers of Millhauser’s generation have spent decades working in both dimensions with comparable success; T.C. Boyle and Lee Smith are two that come immediately to mind. Dating back to his first book of short stories, In the Penny Arcade (1986), Millhauser has explored, and cleverly exploited, that strange moment when realism veers or erodes into fantasy. In Voices in the Night, with its preponderance of concerned citizens faithfully reporting dissolution on Main Street through the mystical and macabre, Millhauser comes on like the bizarro world Sarah Orne Jewett we’ve all been waiting for, even if we didn’t know it.

Unlike short story collections that strive to make the author’s mark through a mostly unified voice, like Junot Diaz’s Drown or Nathan Englander’s For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, Voices in the Night is a protean work that collects at least a half-dozen distinct voices. Millhauser twists fables fractures fairy tales in “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Guatama” and “Rapunzel.” He demonstrates absolute command of spurs-jangling, hyperbolic Pecos Bill-ese with a ripping good Paul Bunyan yarn in “American Tall Tale.” He takes his darkness-on-the-edge-of-town magic realism to another place entirely in “The Place,” evoking yearning and questing and doubt and loss a few steps beyond the temporary unsettling that attacks small towns elsewhere in the book.

Millhauser does so many different things so well in Voices in the Night, with several stories that can stand (and already have stood) on their own apart from the rest, he hardly needs to tie it all together at the end. With the final story in the collection, “A Voice in the Night,” he does and he doesn’t.

Millhauser kicked off his literary career with Edwin Mullhouse, a fictional biography of an 11-year-old writer that presented a wickedly perceptive sendup of the literary biography genre. But since that book’s publication in 1972, Millhauser has staunchly resisted any attempts to unearth connections between his life and his work, famously replying to one request for biographical details with “1943?.” He’s certainly leveraged details from his Stratford, Connecticut upbringing in his work, though not nearly enough to inspire the sort of ongoing “fiction-as-memoir” debate with his critics that has dogged John Irving for decades, and came to a head in the staged author-critic showdowns of Last Night at Twisted River.

So take three-part interior-monologue “A Voice in the Night” for what it is: an aging, insomniac author, lying in bed recalling a young boy in Stratford, Connecticut in 1950, lying in bed thinking about a Bible story (I Samuel 3), in which the Biblical prophet Samuel, also lying in bed, he hears his first prophecy. All three of them wonder, in parallel, what it means to be chosen, or not to be chosen to hear a voice in the night, and to what else one might be called by not being called by God.

The younger version of the author reveals the most involved interior monologue, with meditations on his grandparents’ Lower East Side and his father’s steadfast refusal to practice Judaism evoking a sort of one-generation-removed (and much less terrified) David Schearl from Henry Roth’s Call it Sleep: “The boy in Stratford, listening. Something extreme in his temperament, even then. Shy and extreme. Stubborn. You don’t call my name, I won’t call yours. Even Steven. Dr. Dolittle and Pecos Bill instead of Samuel and King Saul.” And then again the aging writer: “The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration. Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.”

As a penetrating insight into the origins of the author’s own calling, or a metaphor for his own process of inspiration, “A Voice in the Night” probably comes closer to a clever bit of ventriloquism, or a prismatic trick of the light. Either way it supplies a satisfying conclusion to a worthy collection of miniatures from a master of an increasingly rare art.