A WRITER'S WIT
My body is housed
in the outline of wife and mother.
Before that, a musician or teacher. For the most part
I move without seeing; an animal put to sleep
and transported, to prevent extinction,
Born January 22, 1947
From “Self-Portrait of Kerrie: A Contour Drawing”--Leaf's Boundary
My Book World
This is a collection of stories in which an image from the title story—the knife—appears in nearly all the other stories, varied though they may be in character. In “Sisterhood of Night,” a gang of teenage girls leave their homes each night and meet in a wood: “Rumor has it that the girls are instructed to carry weapons: scissors, jackknives, needles, kitchen knives” (38). A character named “Mary Warren displayed a bone-handled kitchen knife” (39). This rather gothic story is marked by the use of first person plural, as if the narrator is one of the girls not a citizen of the town. The girls, after all, are only after silence and invisibility, not mischief.
In “The New Automaton Theater,” Millhauser again employs the first person plural to great effect, as well as the heavy use of passive voice, creating an objectified distance between the material and the reader. He also brings into use another knife, though this time metaphorical in nature: “That long-awaited performance was like a knife flashed in the face of our art” (107).
The story, “Clair de Lune,” is an ode to the moon a fifteen-year-old would write if he could write this well at fifteen. A male teen prowls through his town on a moonlit night and lauds its shadowed “blueness” multiple times. Haunting.
In “The Dream of the Consortium,” a large, multi-storied department store is repurposed. Again, a knife plays a part in the author’s imagery: “One window showed a six-foot scale model of a thirty-four-story hotel, in which each of its more than two hundred rooms was lit up in turn, revealing in each instance an exquisitely detailed scene performed by miniature automated figures: a little man was murdering a little woman with repeated stabbings of a little bloody knife” (138). Again the first person plural creates a certain air, expressing perhaps the thoughts of an entire culture. The story may ultimately be a cautionary tale about the excesses of capitalism. Millhauser creates a dry, biting satire by way of a playful tone.
“Balloon Flight, 1870” is a lovely combination of history, travel, war, peace of being on a four-and-a-half hour balloon ride—escaping from one place to another. Plenty of time to daydream. One of Millhauser’s strength seems to be creating a unique point of view; this one: watching the world from thousands of feet in the air at a time when humans can only view the earth from a tall tree or a two-story dwelling.
The longest story, “Paradise Park,” is about the history of a Coney Island amusement park, in which one man, having become wealthy from other business interests, desires to fund the rebuilding of this park. The park, a multi-leveled sprawl, is a character that takes the first eight of fifty pages to be described in its entirety; one wonders if a human will appear. Then Sarabee, the owner-manager, does build more and more elaborate parks, sometimes on top of one another, until he, at one point, goes “dark.”
If one wishes to enjoy both reading and being challenged by short stories, Millhauser is your author, and this is the book!
[Note: In an earlier version of this post RJ discussed Millhauser's use of "third person" plural when he intended "first person" plural. The errors have been corrected]
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