Steven Millhauser: Eisenheim The Illusionist (Deal Me In 2017 – Week 32)

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Now, it is well known among magicians and mediums that a canvas of unbleached muslin may be painted with chemical solutions that appear invisible when dry; if sulphate of iron is used for blue, nitrate of bismuth for yellow, and copper sulphate for brown, the picture will appear if sprayed with a weak solution of prussiate of potash.

Only Steven Millhauser’s detailed wordsmithing could make the technical behind-the-scenes aspect of a magic trick seem, well, magical. Blending the natural and the supernatural is not uncommon in fiction but Millhauser does it exceptionally well in “Eisenheim the Illusionist” and he tops it all off by making it character driven:

Eisenheim’s nature was like that: he proceeded slowly and cautiously, step by step, and then as if he had earned the right to be daring, he would take a sudden leap.

As Eisenheim’s career and fame grow, the reader can’t help but ask the question from where are his increasingly dramatic illusions originating. Millhauser plants those seeds in the reader’s mind when he explains some of the tricks at the beginning of the illusionist’s career. There is always that thought that something natural is explaining what looks supernatural – even when the reader stops getting the explanations, even when the possibility of “higher powers” is introduced. At the same time, though, whether Eisenheim is simply an expert trickster or something more, Millhauser never brushes away the mystery:

All agreed that is was a sign of the times; and as precise memories faded, and the everyday world of coffee cups, doctors’ visits, and war rumors returned, a secret relief penetrated the souls of the faithful, who knew that the Master had passed safely out of the crumbling order of history into the indestructible realm of mystery and dream.

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“Eisenheim the Illusionist” is included in Steven Millhauser’s collection The Barnum Museum. I read it when I selected my third Wild Card, the Two of Hearts, for Week 32 of my Deal Me In 2017 short story project. My Deal Me In list can be found here. Deal Me In is hosted by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.

 

 

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The Final TBR Triple Dog Dare Update

TBR Final Dare

The final TBR Triple Dog Dare is sponsored by James at James Reads Books and here’s my final update. The Dare requires participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March.

As I’ve said in previous updates, the number of books I’ve read during the Dare has not been staggering; however, I’ve read some books that have been on my shelf for a long time and thoroughly enjoyed them:

1.) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (on my shelf)

2.) Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser (borrowed from the library prior to the beginning of the Dare)

3.)Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte (on my shelf)

4.) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (on my shelf)

I just finished Jane Eyre yesterday so look for a post about Volume the Second in the next couple of days.  In addition, I read the beautiful story “The Turkey Season” for the April edition of The Alice Munro Story of the Month so a post about that will be coming up soon.

Next up is Andy Weir’s The Martian and after that I’ll begin a book I just got in the mail: The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings -J. R. R . Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski.

So how did you do with the TBR Triple Dog Dare? And what’s up for you post-Dare?

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Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser – Part 3 (or Finished)

Now I move on to the final four stories in Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories:

“Arcadia”

I guess I like dark humor more than I like plain old dark. This one is very dark and very funny. I’m still not sure, though, about what seems to be Millhauser’s infatuation with suicide.

“The Place”

Another story that I don’t completely understand but I’ll give it a go. A town has what could be considered a park known as “The Place”. It has some surreal, fantastical elements that attract some people to it whole-heartedly, some only half-way and others not at all. The narrator tends to lose his relationships to “The Place”. I’m going way out on a limb, here, but “The Place” seems to be where people with great imaginations go.

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“An American Tall Tale” 

Paul Bunyan enters a contest with his ne’er-do-well book-loving brother, James. I would consider this story delightful. Writing in typical tall-tale style, I have come to appreciate Millhauser’s ability to put himself in different voices while continuing to maintain his own.

“The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama”

From the title, it comes as no surprise that this story has a Buddhist flavor and along with it some beautiful writing and ideas – lots of “knowing and not knowing”.  Prince Siddhartha Gautama goes through a journey of inward-looking and self-discovery much to the dismay of his friends and family. I’m tempted to say this is my favorite of this bunch; however, it’s not as much of a standout as some of my other favorites.

The TBR Triple Dog Dare Update

TBR Final Dare

The final TBR Triple Dog Dare is sponsored by James at James Reads Books so I thought I would post an update. The Dare requires participants to read only books that they already have during January, February and March. While I can’t say the number of books I’ve read so far is anything to post about, I will say that I’ve become very inspired to read the books that are already on my shelf.

I’ve read Little Women by Louisa May Alcott and am almost finished with Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories. The Millhauser book I am counting even though it’s from the library. I’ve had it since before the beginning of 2016. I planned on reading Jack London’s Martin Eden, also from the library; however, it had to be returned before I got a chance to read it (I couldn’t renew it). So the London novel will have to wait until the spring.

Next up will be the Bronte sisters. I’ve had Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre on my shelf for years. It’s high time I read them.

Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser – Part 2

Continuing with Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories, here are my thoughts about four more stories:

“Coming Soon”

Levinson is quite proud of moving to a small town which perhaps could also be considered a suburb of a large town. Millhauser includes tons of small town details about Levinson’s neighbors and streets and shopping mall.  As the story progresses, the small town changes almost before his eyes. And keeps changing. All of these changes get the full Millhauser detail treatment; however, I’m never sure of the point Millhauser is trying to make. Unless of course, all of these constant changes have no point. That’s a possibility.

“Rapunzel”

This is the retelling of the fairy tale so the plot isn’t necessarily new although it might have a couple of different twists. What I thought was intriguing was the detail with which Millhauser describes the doubt and uncertainty the Prince has about Rapunzel. On a humorous note, the Prince actually enjoys climbing up the tower more than he does seeing Rapunzel. Meanwhile, Rapunzel wonders what takes him so long.

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“Elsewhere”

This story took me a while to understand and I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I still understand it. This is my take, though. As a kid, so much anticipation went into the start of summer vacation. An anticipation that many times never lived up to the hype by the end of the summer. In the story, this type of anticipation seems to cause a town to produce paranormal activity they can never quite figure out. My evidence for this interpretation comes from this paragraph – which I’m pretty sure will rank up there as one of my favorites this year:

By the middle of August we felt the exhaustion of adventures that had never taken us far enough. At the same time we were inflamed by a kind of sharp, overripe alertness to possibilities untried. In the languor and stillness of perfect afternoons, we could already feel the last days of summer, coming toward us with their burden of regret. What had we done, really? What had we ever done? There was a sense that it all should have led to something, a sense that a necessary culmination had somehow failed to come about. And always the days passed, like riddles we would never solve.

This reminds me of Ray Bradbury’s summer stories – from a different perspective. And of these four stories, this is my favorite.

“Thirteen Wives”

Is this the story of a chauvinistic polygamist or just a man who appreciates feminine complexities? Or put another way: how many wives does this dude really have? Readers, themselves, can be the judge.

 

Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser – Part 1

Several of the Steven Millhauser stories I read last year, in addition to “Home Run”, which I read for week 4 of Deal Me In 2016, are included in Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories. Since I already had the book from the library, I thought I would finish reading the rest of the stories. Here are some thoughts about four more of the stories in the collection:

“Sons and Mothers”

Lots and lots of details, which I believe is a Millhauser trademark, provide for an interesting perspective from the narrator. He is visiting his mother for the first time in a while. From the descriptions of his mother’s house, it almost seems haunted and his mother is the resident ghost. While ghosts appear in other Millhauser stories, the mother in this one is fully alive even if she may have some sort of dementia or senility. The narrator is caught between an obligation to his mother that is deep and sincere and an obligation that is simply an obligation. The jarring, and slightly humorous, ending helps the reader understand in which of these “camps” the narrator actually resides.

“Mermaid Fever”

A real, but dead, mermaid washes up on the shore of a New England town. The town makes the body into an exhibit at a local museum and it becomes quite a hit. A frenzy of all things mermaid takes over the town. I’m not sure if this was Millhauser’s intent but the craziness reminds me of the “fever” that took place with the Twilight Saga a few years ago – with mermaids in the place of vampires.

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“The Wife and the Thief”

Of these four stories, this is my favorite. The entire story is in the mind of a wife who can’t sleep and is certain a thief has broken into the house. She doesn’t wake her sleeping husband but continues to debate in her head whether the noises she is hearing are just the house or a burglar. The lengths to which she goes to justify to herself that it is a thief or that it’s not is both great comedy and great suspense.

“A Report on Our Recent Troubles”

A wave of suicides becomes contagious. With each new note, the story becomes more grim and bizarre. This one was just too dark for me.

 

Steven Millhauser: Home Run (Deal Me In 2016 – Week 4)

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…man did he ever jack it outta here, a dinger from McSwinger, a whopper from the Big Bopper, going, going, the stands are emptying out, the ball up in the mesosphere, the big guy blistered it, he powdered it, the ground crew picking up bottles and paper cups and peanut shells and hot dog wrappers, power-washing the  seats, you can bet people’ll be talking about this one for a long time to come…

When is a gimmick not a gimmick? I would say “when it works”. Steven Millhauser’s “Home Run”, a story of four pages and one sentence definitely has a gimmick aspect to it. Does this gimmick work? I would say that it almost does.

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The story is from the point of view of a baseball announcer detailing player McCloskey’s home run – which explains the use of one long sentence. Even though I was reading this to myself (as opposed to out loud), I felt out of breath in my head from not stopping at any periods, question marks, or explanation points. There are only commas. If one truly wanted to get picky, one could say that it really isn’t one sentence. It’s simply a bunch of sentences and phrases put together with commas. But still, Millhauser nicely gives the reader the phrasing and cadence of a baseball announcer.

Another nice touch is that while McCloskey and the announcer and the annoucer’s side kick, Jimmy, are all characters in the story, Millhauser makes the plot revolve around the actual baseball – which just keeps going until the story ends. I enjoyed the way Millhauser continues to use space hyperbole such as the stratosphere, mesosphere, “past Jupiter, see ya Saturn, …past the Milky Way” and numerous other galaxies and stars to track the baseball’s path. I say this is hyperbole but having read other Millhauser stories, it’s hard to say whether this is just for literary effect or whether the ball really has launched into outer space. But with Millhauser, it doesn’t really matter.

I read this story when I drew the 8 of Diamonds for Week 4 of my Deal Me In 2016 short story project. In four weeks, this is my third Diamond card. I really did shuffle the deck. “Home Run” is included in Steven Millhauser’s collection Voices in the Night: Stories which I borrowed from the public library.  My Deal Me In 2016 list can be found here. Deal Me In is sponsored by Jay at Bibliophilopolis.