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Book Review: Disruptions by Steven Millhauser

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By Simon Demetriou

In Guided Tour, perhaps the most viscerally striking of Millhauser’s latest collection of short stories, the tour guide from AuthentiTour warns his 17 tourists to ‘beware of stories. Stories have teeth that can sink into your flesh.’ Whether this is really a warning, or in fact a recommendation, we all know that the best literature leaves marks in its readers. The stories of ordinary, largely suburban, worlds gone a few degrees askew that make up Disruptions will leave you carrying about shards of them well after you’ve put the book down.

The disorientingly captivating thing about Millhauser’s work is that the idea of normality is simultaneously exposed as utterly fragile and utterly malleable, allowing it to very quickly render acceptable everything from the absurd to the horrifying. In The Summer of Ladders, a small suburban town develops a mania for climbing ladders, erecting and climbing ever taller ladders – that is, until one resident disappears into the clouds. After the Beheading tells of a New England town that decides to erect a guillotine on the town green as a response to a minor crimewave. Ultimately, the guillotine fades into the background of the normal, leaving the narrator to arrive at the terrifyingly simple paradox that ‘All I knew was that we were a peaceful town, with a guillotine on the green.’ Both of these stories, as with the majority in the collection, utilise a first-person narration that recounts events with a tone so even and matter-of-fact that it shakes us with the seeming reasonableness of people who can get so easily caught up in new and disturbing normalities.

There are two longer short stories in Disruptions. The Little People, which presents informative vignettes about the two-inch-tall residents of another suburban town, whose presence among the normal size people provokes everything from awe to lust to bigotry, has garnered a lot of critical attention. This is not without reason, but for me, the second of these stories, Kafka in High School, 1959 deserves a special mention. It’s something of an outlier, because while it also presents vignettes (Kafka in English Class; Kafka Attends a Party – you get the picture), it is a character study written in the third person and interspersed with other characters’ memories of the young Kafka. But it is sensational. Funny and deeply resonant to anybody who has ever experienced adolescent awkwardness (and if you haven’t, you probably don’t need literature anyway – but you should know that nobody likes you), Millhauser tenderly creates a character for whom the burden of existence is such that when he hears the phone ringing, ‘He thinks: the phone is ringing, life is impossible, death is inevitable.’

These are stories with teeth, but you won’t regret being bitten.

 

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