Is there any Pulitzer Prize winner as overlooked as Steven Millhauser? Although he wrote the award-winning novel Martin Dressler—chosen last fall for an A.V. Club Wrapped Up In Books discussion—Millhauser still wears the distinction of “short-story master” around his neck like an albatross keeping him out of the spotlight. With the arrival of his newest collection, the career-spanner We Others, it’s clear that while he might prefer novels, short stories remain his most accessible and influential work.
Of the seven new works, the lead story, “The Slap,” most deserves a place among Millhauser’s best. It’s set in a suburban town along Long Island Sound, where a sleepy community jolts to life after a mysterious man in a trenchcoat slaps a string of random citizens in the face. Millhauser draws out the growing fear as both rational and irrational: Someone is getting away with crimes and eluding capture, but only doling out slaps, which “invite the victim to accept a punishment that might have been worse—that will in fact be worse if the slap isn’t accepted.” The structure alternates between close third-person narration in the heads of the slap victims and first-person plural that encapsulates the fears and thoughts of the entire community. It’s simple but deft, and executed with pinpoint accuracy to hypocritical suburban fear.
“Eisenheim The Illusionist” is the best-known of the stories from previous collections: It was adapted into a 2006 film starring Edward Norton, and it remains mystically potent 20 years after its first publication. “The Wizard Of West Orange” made the cut for 2008’s Best American Short Stories; it’s notable for its Thomas Edison stand-in and its eerie human experiments. In his author’s note, Millhauser outlines how he came to choose the collected stories, ones that “seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I had never seen before.” If that’s the thinking that produced this anthology, more compilation collections should use it.
Millhauser is less of a populist success than John Updike, perhaps because his fierce imagination comes with a dark temperament instead of positive humor. He aligns more with Edgar Allan Poe’s brooding characters than with the humorous twisted fantasies of George Saunders. He likely isn’t No. 1 in most readers’ hearts, but as with many stalwart authors before him, a best-of collection like this is the best starting point for anyone looking for the right introduction to his work.