American literature never had a magical realist tradition to call its own, but it’s always had writers eager to blur reality and the metaphysical: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bernard Malamud, Shirley Jackson, George Saunders, Karen Russell. It’s a tough gig. Too realist, and the magical element feels like cheap deus ex machina; too magical, and you’re in a different genre entirely.
For decades Steven Millhauser has displayed a remarkable capacity for keeping those two conflicting tones in balance: He’s our national laureate of the weirdness of our normal lives. The 16 stories in his masterful new collection, “Voices in the Night,” riff on advertising copy, board reports, mythology and sports announcing. But within that breadth of styles he consistently prompts the reader to sense some shadowy but important news that’s about to be delivered.
Consider “Arcadia,” which has the consistently polite tone of vacation-retreat brochureware (“Are you tired of life’s burdens?”) but offers stronger and stronger hints about what kind of “adventure” is promised there: The top of a tall tower has “an external observation platform with a waist-high iron railing, badly damaged.”
“A Report on Our Recent Troubles” is similarly deadpan, in which a somber report from a town struck by a series of suicides can barely contain its sorrow, dread creeping into the cleanly pressed prose: “By its very nature, that is to say, our town represents a banishment.”
But Millhauser isn’t concerned with death so much as with the elements of human nature that are hard to articulate or that speak to our fears. It’s why he’s written stories on the long spiritual transformation of Buddha and the prophet Samuel, or riffed on fairy tales, tall tales and mythology. A story in that last category, “Miracle Polish,” is a Narcissus-like tale about a polish that makes our reflections just a touch more attractive, and the way such idealized images become an obsession.
That story doesn’t deliver a firm moral lesson — Millhauser is the last writer, after all, who’d have a problem with us perceiving our world differently. And for all of its hauntedness and sense of biblical history, “Voices in the Night” is defined more by its playfulness; Millhauser tweaks genres and expectations like a carnival strongman bending steel bars. The brief, brilliant “Home Run” is a one-sentence story narrated by a cornpone baseball announcer calling a hit that leaves the stadium and keeps going (“so long Uranus, arrivederci Neptune … a round-tripper to the Big Dipper”). Millhauser is also the last writer who’d have a problem with abandoning the laws of physics if he can make a good story out of it.
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix.