In “A Report on Our Recent Troubles,” one of my favorite stories in Stephen Millhauser’s “Voices in the Night,” an American town becomes infatuated by suicide.
At first, the losses seem senseless: People with no outward signs of trouble top themselves for unknown reasons. Soon, however, local students start a “trend for eye-catching death,” ending their lives with increasing alacrity in ways both gruesome and picturesque. A fourth grader shoots himself in the head by placing his father’s shotgun into a mouth “recently . . . fitted with braces decorated with metallic blue brackets”; a “group of sixth-grade girls initiated a brief vogue: wearing jean shorts, bathing-suit tops, and bright red lipstick, they dragged a barbecue grill into a backyard toolshed, shut the door, and inhaled the fatal fumes of charcoal briquettes.”
This masterful story, told in the first-person plural, is written in the form of a committee report. Though the narrator(s) affect an air of impartiality, their feelings about the suicides keep peeking through. Awe, horror, and lurid fascination color an oftentimes giddy account of a town’s sensational attrition and its concerned citizens’ attempts to impart meaning onto it. The end result is a meditation on art and death and man’s futile desires to ascribe order to chaos and thwart order with same.
Millhauser’s readers have grown accustomed to these sorts of spectacular feats of literary derring-do thanks to a splendid four-decade career spent enriching the world with narratives that trigger every possible emotion. His last book, “We Others,” consisted of previously collected stories and a few new ones; it was a fine primer on Millhauseria like dreams, lost innocence, the march of progress, and towns where romantic nostalgia dukes it out with disquieting realities. Many of the stories in “Voices in the Night” are set in these Millhauserian towns; characters must process their encounters with the uncanny without breaking their rose-colored glasses.
“Phantoms,” another collective account of a town both besieged with and defined by weird goings-on, finds residents dealing with “wary, elusive, secretive, haughty, unfriendly, remote” spectral beings that fill some with pure joy and most others with an inchoate anxiety. The story, made up of case studies of phantom encounters and labored analyses of their every potential cause and significance, puts forth a reckoning so thorough that it resolutely obliterates any hope for meaning. In “The Place,” a town squabbles over the fate of a scenic hilltop with mysterious powers. “Mermaid Fever” considers what might happen when a dead mermaid washes up on a beach. In Millhauser’s hands, the townspeople put her on display in the historical society and get fish scale tattoos on their lower bodies while she rots naked in a tank.
“Voices in the Night” contains its share of fairy tales, too. In these stories, mystical happenings are not unexpected but remain unnerving. In its take on “Rapunzel,’’ the prince is in the midst of an existential crisis brought about by his equal enthusiasm for the beauty in the tower and his life at court; the witch a vengeful, suffering lover of beauty. “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama” imagines the Buddha’s life to be one plagued by too much sensuality.
“American Tall Tale,” the funniest of the fairy tales, is a soufflé that images the sibling rivalry between Paul Bunyan and his ne’er do well brother, James, a “slump-shouldered knob-kneed stick-shanked droop-reared string-necked pole-armed shuffling husk of a man, with shambly shovel-feet that went in two directions.” The narrative voice in the story, a more flowery version of Joad Cressbeckler, “The Onion’s” semi-literate former gold prospector, gives Millhauser an excuse to come up with scores of superlatives to describe the world’s manliest man and its weakest.
“You know the kind of man Paul Bunyan was,” he writes. “He could out-run out-jump out-drink and out-shoot you. He could out-cuss out-brag out-punch and out-piss you. He could swing that axe so hard, the wind it made would blow the needles clean off all the pine trees in ten acres of good timberland.”
In this collection as in others, Millhauser’s feats are just as outsize as Paul Bunyan’s; “Voices in the Night” is as intriguing as a naked mermaid, as disturbingly intoxicating as the fumes from charcoal briquettes.Eugenia Williamson is a writer living in Somerville.