What Does “Stylist” Even Mean? On Steven Millhauser’s “Disruptions”
By Josh CookDecember 19, 2023
Disruptions by Steven Millhauser
One contemporary writer who often earns the moniker is Steven Millhauser, whose new collection, Disruptions, arrived in August a few days ahead of his 80th birthday. Aaron Thier, writing for The Nation, says Millhauser “is first of all a great writer and a great stylist. His prose, which might seem restrained and often appears stripped of adornment, is doing considerable stylistic work.” Michael Dirda, in a Washington Post piece called “Stylists and Visionaries,” says Millhauser is a “doleful enchanter.” Similarly, in a review of Millhauser’s Enchanted Night (1999), Kirkus calls him a “stylist and visionary.”
So, what makes a stylist, exactly? And what are we talking about when we talk about style? Is it prose that has recognizable cadences, structures, patterns of thought, or shifts in tone? Is it formidable lyricism? An overuse of fragments or tacked-on clauses? Or is it simply a style that deviates from the standards of prose set forth by Strunk and White? “House style,” after all, comes ready-made with easily digestible lessons: make your verbs powerful, change passive sentence constructions to active, and use nouns, nouns, nouns. Cut the adjectives and adverbs if you can help it, and above all? Clarity.
Nabokov, in his lecture on Jane Austen, says that “style constitutes an intrinsic component or characteristic of the author’s personality. Thus when we speak of style we mean an individual artist’s peculiar nature, and the way it expresses itself in his artistic output.”
If nature is what we’re talking about, then Millhauser might be a mischief-maker, a puzzler, bored with convention yet deferential to classic escalations of tension, wide-eyed, willing to go to the darkest places of our imaginations and investigate not the gritty details, but the things that motivate us to visit the darkness in the first place. On a sentence level, Millhauser favors clarity perhaps more than most of his more experimental contemporaries. Though there is an obvious line from Borges or Nabokov, he is above all a fabulist, and though details occasionally weigh down his stories, he keeps the tale twisting and firmly establishes place, keeping the reader’s feet on the floor before lifting off into flight. His novels and stories are readable, occasionally lyrical, and the plots, though sometimes subtle or playful, grow slowly tense like a string being pulled taut. Ever since his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943–1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (1972), Millhauser has never shied away from adjectives and adverbs, as seen here: “Edwin sat on the flickering rug before the fire in a bright circle of toys, solemnly rolling an empty wooden spool back and forth or dropping purple wooden hoops onto an orange pole.” In his second novel, Portrait of a Romantic (1977), Millhauser dials up the lyricism, nodding to Nabokov and Walt Whitman when he writes, “Mother of myself, myself I sing: lord of loners, duke of dreams, king of the clowns. Youth and death I sing, sunbeams and moonbeams, laws and breakers of laws. I, Arthur Grumm, lover and killer.”
Though he would never shift so far into, say, the minimalism of Don DeLillo or McCarthy’s later-stage fiction, Millhauser seems to have gotten the point that attention spans are ever-shortening by mid-career, and since the mid-1990s, he has more or less been working in the same mode. This, from “The Summer of Ladders,” a story from Disruptions about a town’s sudden obsession with ladders, illustrates the point:
Up there on my ladder, standing with most of my body above the roofline, I had the sensation of looking down at a world I had scarcely noticed before, a world smaller and vaster than the one I knew, and suddenly turning my face upward I stared into the rich blue dizzying sky before clutching the ladder tightly and warning myself to be careful, careful.
Millhauser’s love of adjectives remains, but he gets to the point a little quicker. His sentences are fluid and usually uncomplicated, free of digression and the compounded clauses of some of the more flamboyant maximalists like Stanley Elkin or David Foster Wallace. Millhauser might be called a moderatist, someone who pinpoints precisely but languidly, whose allegiance lies in moving the action forward.
Most obviously, perhaps, for any longtime Millhauser reader: Is there a more frequent purveyor of the first-person plural? If my count is correct, Millhauser has 23 stories that at least begin in the collective voice—and the “we” often consists of people of the same town archetype, which is sometimes named and sometimes not, but always idyllic, neat, placid, a Pleasantville of sorts, disrupted by some inkling, danger, or collective obsession. (There are obsessions with mermaids, ladders, lawns, new attractions, laughter, and danger itself.) Many of the towns in Millhauser’s newest collection, Disruptions, might as well be the Newfield, Connecticut, of his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, which begins on a “brilliant day,” and which the main character takes in for its glory: two-story houses, factories, seagulls, and “tanned elbows sticking out of windows.” Edward Scissorhands (1990) comes to mind, a suburban Technicolor dreamscape shadowed or shaded at the edges—the edge of town is another Millhauser trope. In “The Knife Thrower,” from Millhauser’s eponymous 1998 collection, we see an alluring magician growing increasingly risky with each performance and a town hooked in spite of themselves: “Oh, we admired Hensch, we were taken with the man’s fine daring; and yet, as we pounded out our applause, we felt a little restless, a little dissatisfied, as if some unspoken promise had failed to be kept.”
The collective curiosity can sometimes border on the absurd, as in “Mermaid Fever,” from Millhauser’s 2015 collection, Voices in the Night. After a mermaid washes up on a town’s public beach, mania prompts young girls to wear mermaid outfits to the beach, comically wiggling around and “laughing wildly as boys scooped them up.”
Protests ensue from the skeptical, as we see in “The Little People” and “After the Beheading,” from the new collection. “Little People” describes the two-inch-tall citizens who live “on a two-acre lot in the northwest section of our town” called Greenhaven. They look and act much like “normal-sized” people with banks and branches of government, only they are protected by an enclosure with a retractable roof and a watchtower to keep out rodents and birds. As some members of the normal world begin to cohabit with the little people, resisters raise concerns about the latter’s safety, “the twisted sexual practices,” and the fear of “emotional turmoil.” In “After the Beheading,” a town’s public square is turned into a scene of gothic amusement complete with a guillotine for public beheadings. Naturally, resistance arises and the guillotine is lit on fire overnight. Two teenage boys are apprehended, even while some townspeople remain convinced “that the guillotine had itself been responsible for the incident by the sheer fact of its blood-soaked existence.”
Most of Millhauser’s protagonists might be stand-ins for writers, from the bored dreamers to undersung craftsmen to loners to curious resisters of a town’s obsessive demise. Edwin Mullhouse playfully renders the life of a young artist, and the book is structured like a biography by Edwin’s childhood best friend. Millhauser also likes to pay tribute to canonical works, including “Alice, Falling,” which reimagines Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; “Revenge,” based on Robert Browning’s dramatic monologues; “King in the Tree,” a retelling of Tristan and Ysolt; and “Flying Carpets,” straight out of Arabian Nights. One of the highlights of Disruptions, “Kafka in High School, 1959,” offers a direct nod to one of Millhauser’s forebears, reimagining Kafka as a lovestruck teenager. Millhauser writes, “He has been studying his face intensely since seventh grade and has grown skillful in appraising it without mercy.” It’s hard not to laugh, thinking of the famous author photo of Kafka the tortured soul, drilling into the camera with wide eyes. Here, he’s just like any other teenager: “He dislikes his low hairline, which gives him the look of a member of an early anthropoid tribe that gradually branched away from Homo sapiens.” A structural tic, which we first saw with “Cathay,” published in 1982, persists. “Kafka” is organized in short chunks with headlines. “Kafka in English Class,” “Kafka on the Back Porch,” and “Kafka Answers the Telephone,” for instance, afford Millhauser his signature cubist approach, one that feels akin to being guided by a curator.
Millhauser’s obsessive return to the land of suburban idyll seems to fit more appropriately with the great fabulists. That is, his “once upon a time” might be a midcentury idealism that could stand in as Edenic. This is the land of popsicles and police who know your name, of days at the beach, where the gravest concern is a skinned knee. Underneath, though—and there is always an underneath—Millhauser always seems to be asking, “Why this fashion? Why this obsession? Why this darkness?” In “A Haunted House Story,” another highlight of the new collection, the protagonist and his friends dare one another to spend nights alone in a haunted house the summer before they scatter for college. One friend enters, emerges in the morning, and claims he “doesn’t want to talk about it,” much to the group’s dismay. The protagonist gives it a go and becomes enchanted by the quirks, intricate beauty, and details: “I could still see the curves and lines of things, but as the details faded I had the always sharpening sense of an arrangement or atmosphere in which the formal was balanced by the playful, in which ceremony rang with laughter.”
The story might be seen as a commentary on the danger of style itself, or of the stylist’s tendency to indulge. He goes on: “This was a world set apart from the world. It was a world that released me from myself, invited me to overcome whatever it was I was.” Millhauser knows that with any craft, there is a danger in the miniature, concocting the joke no one understands, the allusion that no one comprehends, or the layers of meaning only gleaned by a studied few.
Millhauser has been publishing stories in The New Yorker since 1981, though, curiously, none collected in Disruptions were previously published in the magazine, which makes one wonder if perhaps their faith in Millhauser’s gifts has waned. With all his trademarks—the collective point-of-view, the obsession with obsession, the calm and languid lyricism, and the structural tics—a more appropriate question might be, as some have noted after the death of Cormac McCarthy, how does a stylist remain a stylist? That is, how does a stylist not go out of style? And how do they hang on to that pizzazz while avoiding self-parody or losing steam altogether? Hard to say. Though there are some repeats in his body of work, and though some stories in Disruptions feel like sketches, the “intrinsic components” are still there. That is, even in thematic redundancy, you feel Millhauser boldly reaching for new heights, as with the narrator of “The Summer of Ladders”: “I could feel again the old exhilaration, shot through now with a new restlessness, even a dissatisfaction, as if any height could never be enough.”
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