The Knife Thrower and Other Stories
In the story "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" by Jorge Luis Borges--a writer to whom Steven Millhauser has been likened--the protagonist undertakes rewriting Miguel de Cervantes' novel. He doesn't want to merely transcribe it; he wishes to rewrite it from his own perspective, informed with the experiences of his life and the sensibilities of his time, and yet have it come out precisely the same.
This is a tricky proposition, and it is just the sort of thing Millhauser takes on in his writing. The Knife Thrower , a collection of short stories, reads like nothing so much as a volume of lost Franz Kafka stories. Here are some opening lines:
The purchase of the department store by the consortium filled us with uneasiness and secret hope.
Beneath the cellars of our town, far down, there lies a maze of twisting and intersecting passageways, stretching away in every direction and connected to the upper surface by stairways of rough stone.
These are disquieting fables, often just this side--and sometimes way on the other--of surreal, set in some timeless realm in which the occasional mention of jeans or software is jarring. There are frog brides, flying carpets, automata, duels at dawn.
"The Sisterhood of Night" is about a mysterious nocturnal society of adolescent girls--its secret purpose seems to be secrecy itself. In "Balloon Flight, 1870" a man escaping from an alternate-history Paris besieged by the Prussians suffers some vintage late-19th-century existential vertigo:
I fear this blue nothingness, this little voice that whispers, whispers: O what does it matter, this thing or that thing, Paris or Prussia, breath-warm or corpse-cold.
It's a quaint, oddly noble project. You might even call it quixotic--Millhauser can't quite pull it off, and I don't think anyone else could either. You just can't write 19th-century fables in 1998 without sounding affected. There is something stilted and off-putting about Millhauser's prose, as though it were a translation. Also, these stories are not about the nameless oppressions of Kafka. They are, many of them, about the purpose and limits of art, themes more self-conscious, academic, and, well, bullshitty. Too many of them feel unfinished--not in a way that reverberates and makes you ponder them later on, but in a way that leads you to imagine all of the thesis papers that'll be written about them.
Thomas Pynchon, who ought to know, says "it is simply wrong to begin with a theme, symbol, or other abstract unifying agent, and then try to force characters and events to conform to it." Although creating rules about fiction is a tricky proposition too, this one is well-proved. "The Dream of the Consortium" and "Paradise Park," two nearly indistinguishable Millhauser stories about, respectively, a fantastic department store in which everything from exercycles to the Library of Alexandria is on sale, and a fantastic amusement park that becomes, through successive renovations, a Boschian garden of depravities, seem more like exercises. The escalations are contrived and the details, though brilliantly imagined, are just illustrations for the concepts. The title tale--in which a master knife thrower "marks" volunteers from the audience--represents the best of Millhauser's stories, which fulfill what in one story is called "the promise of entering a dark dream." Their meanings, like those of dreams, are secreted perfectly within.