The human imagination is often overwhelming, and in We Others, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser offers imaginative perspective on this. Millhauser blurs the lines between the real and surreal in a collection of short stories that encompass the wondrous and bizarre and how those themes affect the human mind.
Of these stories, seven are new, while the remaining fourteen are selected from other works. The small amount of new stories may make readers somewhat huffy about paying the price for a massive hardback that is mostly old news. Considering the remarkable lack of variety between these stories, even staunch fans of Millhauser may want to wait for the paperback release. Not that the tales lack for imagination; from a space invasion of the simplest kind, to strange museums and disturbing tales of reality, there is plenty for the reader to think over.
Readers will dwell on these tales, just as some of Millhauser’s characters are prisoners to their ponderings, as evidenced in some of the best stories of the new seven. “Getting Closer” makes conscious the horror inherent in life itself, and “Tales of Darkness and the Unknown, Vol. XIV: The White Glove” is a poignant tale about lost love from a boy who - to his own detriment - must satisfy his curiosity. The weakest story of the new seven is the title story - a ghost story, told from the ghost’s perspective. The concept of a restless spirit stuck with eternal desire for companionship and other mortal happiness is a concept that has been around almost as long as death has. The commonplace theme makes for a dull story and, combined with the fact that it’s the longest of the seven new tales, makes it boring and redundant.
Millhauser’s writing style is detailed and very descriptive. Many of the stories (both old and new) are told with a bare minimum of dialogue. This creates long paragraphs, and the amount of text on one page may be intimidating. A writing style of this kind can be too text-heavy and make a story seem dull, as it does in “August Eschenburg,” or it can successfully produce great imagery, as it does in “Snowmen” and “Flying Carpets” - wonderful tales focusing on the ephemeral moments of childhood.
Yet while many of the stories are wonderful, they are so remarkably similar that the collection suffers. Writing this way brings unity to the stories and appeals to readers of the genre, but it becomes so that even the best of the stories have trouble standing out against the backdrop of similar themes of magic and the human imagination. The wildly imaginative becomes less and less interesting if everything is wildly imaginative. Fortunately, there are some more realistic tales like “A Protest Against the Sun,” which narrowly saves the collection from becoming monotonous.
Despite all this, it isn’t the writing style that is responsible for the failings of We Others. If anything, it’s an inherent flaw in the arrangement of the book itself. The new stories are the first seven, and after that each section is separated into selections from a particular work. This smacks of a marketing ploy. Those reading Millhauser for the first time may like a particular group of stories, prompting them to go out and buy the collection those stories are from. Why not wait till Millhauser had more than just seven new stories (four of which are good) and publish an entirely new collection? It seems as if We Others was put together as a tool for making money, rather than to contribute to the canon of literary works.
This will resonate with readers. Some of the stories are great and some are not, but in essence they’ve all been done before. Millhauser is an accomplished writer, as evidenced by the better tales. But an evaluation of the book as a whole will leave readers wondering if the quality of the stories really makes up for the way they are seemingly being manipulated.