Archive for August, 2011

“We Others: New and Selected Stories” by Steven Millhauser

Wednesday, August 24th, 2011



Are you wondering the same thing I’m wondering? Would you like to call the senior editor at Knopf to the witness stand to answer a few questions starting with this one: Why this book?

The “New Stories” half of “We Others: New and Selected Stories” by Steven Millhauser occupies just 144 pages. Does the publisher view us readers of Millhauser as an impatient lot, unable to wait the few years it would take this methodically productive author’s backlog of unpublished stories to grow from the seven found here to a total of, say, a dozen? Why not wait for enough material to satisfy our expectation for a hearty, stand-alone book of new stories? And what about the back half of the book — the “Selected Stories” compilation? Does this indicate Knopf considers Millhauser undeserving of a “Collected Stories” compilation (the treatment respectfully accorded Lydia Davis, Amy Hempel, Grace Paley, Deborah Eisenberg and others)?

The 14 previously published stories, which come from Millhauser’s four books of short stories, are:

From “In the Penny Arcade”:  A Protest Against the SunAugust EschenburgSnowmen. From “The Barnum Museum”: The Barnum MuseumThe Eighth Voyage of SinbadEisenheim the Illusionist. From “The Knife Thrower”: The Knife ThrowerA VisitFlying CarpetsClair de Lune. And from “Dangerous Laughter”: Cat ‘n’ MouseThe Disappearance of Elaine ColemanHistory of a DisturbanceThe Wizard of West Orange.

Millhauser explains in his “Author’s Note” how he worked past initial trepidation to pick these pieces: “I chose stories that seized my attention as if they’d been written by someone whose work I had never seen before.” Millhauser fans may object to the omission a favorite or two from his inventory, but I think he generally made good choices. This compilation will allow a new reader to get an honest perspective on Millhauser’s work. So: the book may be an excellent gift idea.

Part of the pleasure of reading Millhauser (who is on the faculty at Skidmore College’s Department of English) is to enjoy the ways in which his literary inspirations flavor his writing. Even when his plots are ensconced in late 20th or early 21st century settings, something in the atmosphere, some note or tone, will harken back to 19th century American writers, especially Hawthorne and Poe. When a protagonist proclaims that “anxiety’s our pastime, desperation our sport,” one is reminded of the restlessness, the fevered unease (nay, panic) that seizes so many narrators of that period. Then, too, there is the author’s infatuation with T.S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock. Most boldly, in the story Klassic Komix #1 (collected in “The Barnum Museum”) Millhauser re-conceived Prufrock’s anxious meanderings in the form of a 44-panel comic book. Now, in one of his new stories, we read of a similarly drifting character emerging from his lonely room with desirous thoughts — thoughts that parody Eliot’s lines (note, for example, what happens to Prufrock’s final fantasy of becoming a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas):

“. . . one has come down from the attic in search of — in search of what? Shall we say, a pleasant encounter between two like-minded souls, in a suburban living room, of a September eve? And yet the craving to reveal ourselves spreads in us like a disease. It’s also true that we long not to be seen, never to be seen, to live out our existence — our existence! — like growths of mold in the depths of forests.”

While Millhauser is not breaking any new ground in the seven new stories, I perceived a heightened emphasis on what in one story he calls “a savage loneliness of which you can know nothing.” Opening with “The Slap” in which a quiet suburban community attempts to fathom the meaning of a stealthy stranger who randomly approaches residents and delivers a slap to their face (“we had been violated in some definite though enigmatic way”) and ending with “We Others” which is narrated by the ghost of a recently-deceased doctor who self-examines his attraction to a couple of lonely women (“our desire is infused with a darker, more ferocious longing: the desire for all that we have ceased to be”), these new tales are a continuation of Millhauser’s hallmark obsessions played out within solidly crafted surreal worlds — worlds which mirror what we understand, perhaps mistakenly, to be our real world.


An abbreviated version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.

Normalizing Reading by Women

Sunday, August 14th, 2011

In modern societies today women read, yet we should not forget that in earlier periods of those same societies this was not the case. There was a time when women were not expected to read, were not taught to read, and were in effect forbidden to read. Even today there are 30 nations where the female literacy rate is less than 50%. Cultural factors are responsible for some of this shortfall.

As with all human liberation movements, the history of the rise of female literacy is a story with many heroes and heroines. It occurs to me that among those assisting the movement have been artists who created images of women engaged in the quiet and sometimes defiant act of reading. Art has the means to do good, even if those means are hidden.

While surfing online this morning I came across a painting by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), Jeune fille assise lisant, les cheveux sur les épaules (oil on canvas, 12 3/4 x 9 3/4 in.; 32.3 x 24.7 cm):



As depicted by Corot, the girl has settled into a pose commonly found in portraits of readers. The pose establishes a stable, triangular composition. The sitter’s torso turns slightly and her head tilts downward. An engaged viewer of this work searches first for the person’s eyes. That search leads to the sitter’s eyelids whose expressiveness communicate a fixed regard. Our gaze follows her gaze, alighting upon her gentle hands hovering over (and ultimately touching) the object of her regard.

There is something familiar about the composition. It somehow feels natural, comforting. The activity depicted — a person caught in the act of quietly contemplating something that powerfully demands attention — seems worthwhile and worthy.

Now suppose a male of pre-modern views, one who believed a woman should not be caught reading, came face to face with Corot’s composition. I believe something subtle but quietly powerful would have happened, because the painting’s formal qualities contain an antidote with the power to subvert his views.

What hidden thing in the composition exerts this counter-pressure? What, subconsciously, softens the viewer’s opposition? What might engender feelings of acceptance? The answer, I propose, is found in the body of images cherished in the viewer’s memory, such as this:


(Giovanni Bellini, Madonna in Admiration of the Sleeping Child )


Thus can artists leverage the power of composition to normalize new thinking.


“The Little House” by Virginia Lee Burton

Saturday, August 13th, 2011



In what ways do great children’s books influence the culture? In the era of Harry Potter the main route is via commodification. In an earlier era, influence might have taken an indirect path, mediated by contemporary literature.

Take the case of Virginia Lee Burton’s  “The Little House,” a children’s book published in 1942 that received immediate (and lasting) popular and critical success. Consider the effect its text and illustrations may have had on the imaginations of Anne Tyler and Arthur Miller.

Anne Tyler’s House

I came to read “The Little House” only recently, after learning it is Anne Tyler’s “life long favorite picture book.” Tyler explained her love of the tale in an essay published in The New York Times Book Review in 1986 entitled “Why I Still Treasure ‘The Little House’.” Tyler vividly remembers her mother reading the book to her at age four. When she became a mother herself, Tyler enjoyed reading it to her two daughters. She guesses she’s given away “several dozen copies” of the book as gifts to new babies. In a more recent written interview conducted in 2004, Tyler said she has long been in awe of how Virginia Lee Burton managed to say “everything possible about change and loss and the passage of time.” Plainly this is an example of  like attracting like, for in her own 18 novels Tyler has done the same.

In her essay Tyler mentions one thing that’s always eluded her:

I have pondered for years, for decades, over the final picture of the Little House. She’s on a hill again; she’s surrounded by apple trees again–but there is no longer a pond! It’s as if the story ended, “She lived happily ever after–but not quite.” Could it have been just an oversight? A failure on the part of the author-artist to recognize the importance of a pond? Or did she intend to remind us of the grim facts? “You can go back, but never all the way back,” she may have been saying. “What is done can be undone, but never completely.”


The Little House (note the pond to the left) before an expanding city overruns it (page 9):


The Little House after it is moved to a new perch in the country (page 39):


I see this final picture differently. Only the house and its immediate lawn survive because there is only so much room in God’s heaven. Yes, I interpret the story as a Christian allegory.

On the first page of “The Little House” the reader meets a father who is described as “the man who built her [the house] so well.” With an air of omniscience he predicts the house will live forever. His prophesy includes a stern and very Biblical sounding admonition: the house “shall never be sold for gold or silver.” I think we are meant to understand this as a warning against betrayal.

A second voice appears on page 32. Many years have passed. The house has been swallowed up by the city and is abandoned. We sense we are coming to the fulfillment of the story. Or call it “her-story,” as Burton, who created all the illustrations, wittily indicates below the front door mat on the cover illustration. This new voice belongs to one of the father’s offspring. In a clever bit of misdirection on Burton’s part, it is not the father’s son, but a more distant (female) descendant, “the great-great-granddaughter of the man who built the Little House so well.” She is here to fulfill a destiny, however. She will bring salvation to a soul true and pure (we are told that while the house is “broken … crooked … shabby,” it is “just as good a house as ever underneath.”).

Study the pictures on pages 31 and 33:




Whatever the condition of its soul, surely these are images of death. Executed in tones of gray and black (see how the fading pink of the first picture expires in the final shot), the pictures include a cross made of wood planks marking the door between dead-eyed windows.

The great-great-granddaughter’s mission is to be the house’s travel guide to what she calls “just the place” — an afterlife in a revived Eden that simulates the house’s original home set in nature. The journey is depicted in a two-page spread on pages 34-35. It is a scene akin to a traffic-stopping funeral procession:



Look closely again at the after-the-move illustration further above — the “after salvation” picture (my preferred label) that has always given Tyler pause because of the omission of a nearby pond. Notice how Burton re-conceives the house’s surroundings as a protective island of contentment. The image is gently rounded and isolated in white space, appropriate to a vision or dream. There is a free-floating — and, to my eyes, heavenly — aura to the picture. That the house is no longer earth-bound is also suggested by how the image and text are positioned on the page. Of all the illustrations in the book, those found on the final three pages — 38 and 39 (which I view as a connected spread) and 40 — are the only places where the text is allowed to appear beneath the image. The effect is telling. The image is lifted up. It rises above our focus as we read, as if to say the Little House is no longer among the creatures here below.

You may scoff at this interpretation. I suspect Anne Tyler would too. But I think we should leave open the possibility that, within her own masterful explorations of “change and loss and the passage of time,” the caution that Tyler exhibits — a sentimental reticence to stir up all that lies at the dark bottom of the river of time — may be traced back to a comfortable understanding of the world (“rescue is possible; conditions can be reversed”) she constructed when, as a child, she listened to her mother read “The Little House.”

Arthur Miller’s House

Let me turn from armchair psychologizing to pure speculation. Consider next the case of Arthur Miller, on whom the influence of “The Little House” is, as far as I know, undocumented. Will you hear me out?

In the middle section of “The Little House” Virginia Lee Burton describes and provides illustrations of the menacing encroachment of a city, bent on swallowing up a pastoral setting. What I ask is this:

Is it a coincidence that just a few years after the release and popularity of “The Little House” and at a time when Miller and his wife might well have been accumulating children’s books to read to their young daughter, the playwright chose to write stage directions for “Death of a Salesman” that share not only the dread but the specific details of Virginia Lee Burton’s vision of the city?

As a prelude before the curtain rises on “Death of a Salesman,” Miller offers the audience what an evocation in music reminiscent of the bucolic setting in initial pages of “The Little House.” He specifies: “A melody is heard, played upon a flute. It is small and fine, telling of grass and trees and the horizon.”

Fast forward: the horizon has disappeared. Here is Burton’s illustration of the urban reality (page 19 of “The Little House”):



And here is how Miller sets the scene for his tragedy:

“The curtain rises. Before us is the Salesman’s house. We are aware of towering, angular shapes behind it, surrounding it on all sides.  … As more light appears we see a solid vault of apartment houses around the small, fragile-seeming home. An air of the dream clings to the place, a dream rising out of reality.”

Burton’s lament  (“No one wanted to live in her and take care of her any more”) is echoed by Willy Loman: “Figure it out. Work a lifetime to pay off a house. You finally own it, and there’s nobody to live in it.”


[A review of “The Little House” is posted on Amazon, here.]



“Lunch Poems” by Frank O’Hara

Friday, August 5th, 2011



Frank O’Hara’s reputation seems caught in a holding period, an awkward stage preliminary to his work becoming universal and timeless. Consider, for example, the final scene in the opening episode in the second season of “Mad Men,” the cable TV series set in the world of advertising as practiced in New York in the early ’60s. We see the show’s protagonist, Don Draper, picking up a slim volume of O’Hara’s poems (“Meditations in an Emergency,” 1957). He recites the final lines from “Mayakovsky.” There is an ambivalence to the scene. Was O’Hara chosen less for the intrinsic merit of the poetry than to set an easy marker for a zeitgeist, the same thing the producers accomplish by highlighting the period-specific cut of Draper’s suit and hair? With friends like these, will O’Hara ever escape the mannerist ghetto of the “New York School“?

And so some readers may pick up “Lunch Poems” (first published in 1964) after seeing it praised as an emblematic cultural document of mid-twentieth century America. Yet even if the time-bound aura of O’Hara is the come-on, what makes you stay enthralled in his circle is his voice — a “thinking” voice as vitally American as Whitman or Frost.

There are 37 poems in “Lunch Poems” and their quality as well as their accessibility varies. The poems span a period from 1953 to 1964. This book is not a “best of” O’Hara collection, yet it does contain what may be his most durable poem.

A few of these short pieces are so recondite that they lose me. In a few others O’Hara raises an opaque scrim to suggest beauty beckoning from the other side, and these poems begin to “click” only after multiple readings. But the majority of the poems are freshly-minted coins granting immediate access to a lively, urbane worldview. While general knowledge of the New York cultural scene in the ’50s and early ’60s is helpful, these poems, at their best, easily communicate to us in a way undimmed by the passage of time.

Here is an endless succession of the poet’s friends, lovers, artists, musicians, and the parties, meals and conversation they create. Here are O’Hara’s travel experiences and his love of foreign languages (you could write an essay on the myriad uses of French in O’Hara’s poetry). The man wears his erudition lightly on his sleeve. He’s enamored by both the high and the low in American culture: “I am ashamed of my century for being so entertaining but I have to smile” (Naphtha, 1959). Another poem from the same year, Rhapsody, contains a premonition of his early death (at age 40) a few years later: “I historically belong to the enormous bliss of American death.”

Most delightful are his street-level ruminations, spinning in all sorts of directions, nurtured during mid-day breaks away from his curatorial duties at the Museum of Modern Art. A typical flight occurs in A Step Away From Them, which begins: “It’s my lunch hour, so I go for a walk among the hum-colored cabs.”

A new survey ranking the most walkable cities in America placed New York on top. Teju Cole’s recently published novel, “Open City,” set in contemporary Manhattan, is a current example of a continuing tradition of perambulating literary protagonists. A half century ago, O’Hara was walking these same streets, looking, speculating, daydreaming about the city. A fragment in an untitled poem from 1959 asks, “Where does the evil go when September takes New York and turns it into ozone stalagmites deposits of light?”

The cityscape serves as a platform for accessible philosophizing, as found in one of his best works: “The Day Lady Died”. Is there another poem where so much meaning resides in its title? At first glance the title rattled me, threw me off stride. In it I heard a rhythm, but an uncertain one. Then came the answer hit me: simply reverse “Day Lady” to reveal “Lady Day” — the nickname of blues singer Billy Holiday, whose dark night of the soul ended in 1959. The displaced “day,” her missing “day,” had to be displaced, it had to go missing from O’Hara’s page. The text of the poem recounts the day the poet walked the streets and avenues of Manhattan attending to errands. These everday events end when he spies a tabloid newspaper’s front page announcing Holiday’s death. It is the day after death, the first of many days denied her.

In the poem’s final stanza — in which O’Hara recalls hearing Holiday perform at the Five Spot Café — he accomplishes a wonder. He turns death into something other than displacement and omission. Memory overpowers death, converging time present and time past.


(An abbreviated version of this review is posted on Amazon, here.)