'We don't know how to take it easy," says a ghost in the title story of Steven Millhauser's stellar retrospective, "We Others." "Loafing is not for us. Anxiety's our pastime, desperation our sport." Those lines make the narrator feel unearthly, which is as it should be with ghosts. What strange creature makes a sport of desperation?
Yet not knowing how to take it easy is so much a part of being human that we can't help but relate. As the ghost slowly intrudes on the lives of two women, readers are nudged to consider the ways they, too, subtly affect others. When Millhauser writes "we," he's pointing a finger at you.
Millhauser is best known for his 1996 Pulitzer-winning novel, "Martin Dressler." But he's been writing since the early '70s, focusing on offbeat subjects like magicians, knife throwers and Borgesian museums. Working in an elegant, plainspoken style, he conjures ordinary worlds that are stalked by strangeness. That's true in a satirical story like "The Next Thing," in which a town is slowly subsumed by an ever-expanding big-box retail store. But it's just as true of the poker-faced "A Visit," in which a man reconnects with an old friend who has married, of all things, a frog.
Millhauser's heroes are often adolescents, who are a perfect fit for his vision: They're young enough to be nonplussed by the world's weirdness and old enough to engage with it. The kids in "Flying Carpets" bemusedly soar above their sleepy neighborhood, while the young hero of "August Eschenburg" is seduced by windup toys before becoming Berlin's leading maker of clockwork automatons. On occasion, the sense of wonder is deeply interior, as in "Getting Closer," where a boy is walloped by a sudden awareness of time speeding by. "If he stands still, if he doesn't move a muscle, maybe he can keep it from happening," Millhauser writes, capturing the superstitious musings of somebody learning his place in the world.
Millhauser chose his broad themes early in his career, and he's retained admirable control over them. The disarming, creepy power of 1989's "Eisenheim the Illusionist" is just as present in last year's "The White Glove," in which a teenage boy is overwhelmed with curiosity about a classmate's hand injury. Blending the eerie and the true is Millhauser's hallmark; at every turn he reminds us of how eager we are for a sense of magic in our lives. In "The Invasion From Outer Space," for instance, the "invasion" proves surprisingly mundane, and as Millhauser upends our assumptions, the narrator speaks for the dumbstruck child in all of us. "We had wanted, we had wanted -- oh, who knew what we were looking for?"
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.