Friday, February 10, 2012

Making the Invisible Visible: Steven Millhauser's We Others

This is the second in a series of posts about the short story collections shortlisted for this year's Story Prize. Last week, I shared a few thoughts on Edith Pearlman's Binocular Vision, and this week I'll share a few thoughts with you about Steven Millhauser's We Others.

We Others, much like Pearlman's collection, is a volume of new and selected stories; this book contains some of Millhauser's work since the publication of his 2008 collection Dangerous Laughter, as well as a smattering of pieces from his earlier books. As a whole, the volume illustrates the trajectory of Mr. Millhauser's career and presents a portrait of how a quirky author's style can evolve over the course of several decades. My personal preference for these volumes is that the work appear chronologically so that the reader, engaging this work (for either the first time or a repeat visit), can observe this development, but We Others begins with the new stories.

Still: Mr. Millhauser's book contains a strong sample of his work, and the new stories haul the same thematic yoke as the earlier works. We Others is a collection that investigates the hidden aspects of our personalities, and Mr. Millhauser's facility with the first-person point of view provides the reader with tragic insights into confessions. Two of the new stories present this in stark relief: "The Next Thing" and the title piece "We Others." "The Next Thing" recounts a man's gradual (and willing) surrender to a burgeoning company town, a process that demonstrates how a corporation—here, the ever-expanding department store, The Next Thing—can dominate and monopolize a person's thoughts; The Next Thing seems equal parts Wal-Mart and Scientology, with how it siphons a person's independence. "We Others," in turn, relates the early days of Paul Steinbach's afterlife, and his struggles to decipher and abide by the new rules of his spiritual existence as one of the "others" is a considered—and also haunting—glimpse at how trauma forever alters the fabric of our existence, as well as our relations with those who have not experienced our woes.

We Others: New & Selected Stories provides its readers with a look at the unique and varied stories in Steven Millhauser's repertoire, but the stories also force us to stare head on at the disturbances and transformations of our realities, alterations that inevitably shift our natures—and the voice, the rhetoric, of Millhauser's tales often shift tone elegantly to assist the stories' in this task. Though the book is a long 387 pages with text-heavy pages, the collection rewards and instructs the patient reader.


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