Saturday, February 07, 2009

Saturday Story Hour: Millhauser On Language

This, my friends, is what we call "Saturday Story Hour."

This week, Fosco has a real treat for you: a story from one of the NYTimes's ten best books of 2008. The story collection is Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser and it's absolutely amazing. Fosco devoured this book last week and, in his estimation, it is second only to Bolaño's 2666 as the best book of last year.

You may be familiar with Millhauser, who has written several thrilling collections previously. You've probably heard of his story "Eisenheim the Illusionist," which served as the inspiration for the film The Illusionist. You may recall his 1997 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. And if you've never read Dressler's story "The Knife Thrower," you should find a way to read it ASAP.

The Times recommendation for Dangerous Laughter describes Millhauser as a

a master fabulist in the tradition of Poe and Nabo­kov [who] invents spookily plausible parallel universes in which the deepest human emotions and yearnings are transformed into their monstrous opposites.
Spooky is a good adjective here: I tend to read Millhauser short stories with a strange breathlessness.

It's hard to choose a story from Dangerous Laughter to recommend, because they're all so good. I love "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman" and "The Tower" and "The Room in the Attic." The title story is also pretty amazing. But we are limited here, to an extent, by which stories are available in full text somewhere online. And so I'm linking you today to the story published in The New Yorker as "History of a Disturbance." It's a remarkable story about a businessman who begins to suspect the inadequacy of language in the face of actual experience. As the narrator notes, in an excellent line:
I began to wonder whether anything I had ever said was what I had wanted to say. I began to wonder whether anything I had ever written was what I had wanted to write, or whether what I had wanted to write was underneath, trying to push its way through.
Fosco often finds himself talking with his undergrads about the problems with language as a "medium." He is pleased to have this story to illustrate the point quite clearly.

Read the story and drop your comments here, if you like.

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