Earlier this month, Steven Millhauser released Voices in the Night, a new collection of short stories. On Tuesday, the Boston Globe described the towns of many of the stories in this newest effort as “Millhauserian,” which Eugenia Williamson defines as places where “characters must process their encounters with the uncanny without breaking their rose-colored glasses.”
Such is the case in Millhauser’s “Sons and Mothers,” which first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Tin House. In this case, the uncanny is an aging, confused mother visited by her son after he’s been away many years. What makes for such a surreal, dream-like landscape is not just that we are constantly encountering the mother standing stock still and silent in weird places in the house, but also that our narrator keeps slipping in and out of sleep. Blurring the line between dreams and reality can be troubled territory for most of we fiction writers, though Millhauser makes it work here. But how?
First, we’re with a narrator who tells us he hasn’t been home in longer than he can even remember. So we know up front that he’s already looking at his neighborhood through a nostalgic and probably less-than-accurate lens. Secondly, the narrator’s mother seems to be suffering from at least some kind of dementia, a condition that is only exacerbated as the sun drops lower and lower in the sky. This confusion then works in tandem with our narrator’s own periodic dips into sleep, making every moment of waking a time to search for his mother who seems to pop up every time he lies down.
Millhauser also lays the groundwork for his dream conceit in the story very early—in the second paragraph to be exact. Our narrator has just arrived at his childhood neighborhood and is standing outside his home:
The old neighborhood unsettled me. Things had changed everywhere, it was only to be expected, yet everything had remained the same, as though change were nothing but a new way of revealing sameness. An old maple had vanished and been replaced by a sapling. … there was the old willow tree on the corner, there the black roof followed by the red roof, there the creosoted telephone poles with the numbers screwed into the wood, there the stucco house with the glider on the porch followed by the brown house with the two mailboxes and the two front doors. My mother’s house, the house that kept appearing in my dreams, was still where it had always been, tucked between two larger houses near the end of the block, and I was shaken for a moment not because I was approaching my old house, after all this time, but because it was there at all, as if I’d come to believe that it could no longer have a physical existence, out there in the undreamed world.
It’s that carefully placed doubt that then infiltrates everything that happens after. “Sons and Mothers” is an altogether heartbreaking and haunting story, definitely worth a read. Also, in honor of the first month of the 2015 Major League Baseball season, you should sample an Electric Literature Single Sentence Animation created by Ilana Simons for another of Millhauser’s stories from Voices in the Night, “Home Run.”
Graywolf Press teamed up again with Norwegian writer Per Petterson and translator Don Bartlett to bring forth a newly translated novel, I Refuse, and a linked short story collection, Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes. Petterson’s debut collection Ashes in My Mouth… was originally released in Norway in 1987. It is a series of coming-of-age stories centered on Arvid, a character whom Petterson revives in adulthood in some of his later novels.
S. Kirk Walsh reviewed both the collection and the novel for SF Gate on Wednesday. You can click to read “A Man Without Shoes,” the first story in Ashes in My Mouth… on the Graywolf homepage.