cover image Voices in the Night

Voices in the Night

Steven Millhauser. Knopf, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-35159-1

In this vividly imaginative new collection of 16 stories, Pulitzer Prize–winner Millhauser (Martin Dressler) draws a gauzy curtain of hyper-reality over mundane events and creates an atmosphere of uneasiness that accelerates to dread. Millhauser establishes tense yet wondrous tones while never resorting to melodrama; his cool, restrained voice is profoundly effective. In a couple of stories (“Sons and Mothers,” “Coming Soon”) the protagonist wakens in a different time zone after a nap and understands that his life has changed forever. In others, the narrator is a spokesperson for his community, places where residents get caught up in mass hysteria (“Elsewhere”), psychosis (“Mermaid Fever”), or a craving for deep emotion (“The Place”). Variations on fairy tales include a clever, humorous “Rapunzel,” which is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Less successful is “The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama,” a narrative of Buddha in his youth; the languor that evokes the heat and exoticism of India slows the story to a crawl. The gem of the collection is the semi-autobiographical “A Voice in the Night,” in which a young boy in the author’s own home town in Connecticut is transfixed by the biblical story of Samuel, who heard God’s voice and knew he must obey. The boy grows up to be a writer, with memories similar to those in Millhauser’s earlier book The Barnum Museum. This is a volume best read in small doses, since the voices throughout remain similar and the situations often echo one another. The cumulative effect is to transport the reader to an alternate world in which the uncanny lurks pervasively beneath the surface. (Apr.)