Understanding Steven Millhauser
Part of such resistance, Ingersoll argues, arises from Millhauser's belief that if readers have too many questions about an author's work, the author has failed, and no amount of response can redress that failure. Millhauser's central characters, such as August Eschenburg and J. Franklin Payne, are often themselves artists or technicians who are "overreachers," and Ingersoll shows that Millhauser's early expressions of literary realism have given way to interest in departures from the "real." For Millhauser, "stories, like conjuring tricks, are invented because history is inadequate to our dreams." Millhauser's strength is the ability to sustain obsessions because works of fiction succeed insofar as they are able to supplant reality.
As a master fabulist, Ingersoll argues, Millhauser is preoccupied with extravagance both in the subject matter of his fiction and in his style. Whether it involves Martin Dressler doing himself in by designing and constructing increasingly complex hotels or the miniaturists in the short story "Cathay" pushing their impulse to extremes, past the eye's ability to see their art objects, Millhauser's fiction is full of such an impulse, which can produce prolific artists as well as compulsive lunatics. The triumph of Millhauser's craft, Ingersoll shows, is that it merges a fascination with the relationship between imagination and experience with a precise and allusive prose to produce works seamlessly joining the everyday with the radical and fantastic, in forms ranging from travelogues of the imagination to works merging the waking world with the world of dreams.
"Much like the characters in his uncannily-crafted stories, Steven Millhauser has remained an elusive and enigmatic figure, always just outside the margins of our admiration. Earl G. Ingersoll's thorough and incisive study enables us to grasp his evolution as a writer, his themes, and his craft, bringing us as close as we are ever likely to be to understanding his significance in American letters."—Russell A. Potter, professor of English, Rhode Island College
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