Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Stop reading this and start reading The Knife Thrower

As difficult as a novel can be to talk about, a collection of short stories is even harder. A collection of highly metaphorical, offbeat short stories like Steven Millhauser's The Knife Thrower is even more difficult. But it's the best thing I've read in quite a while, so I owe it to all of you to try.

There are few things more frustrating than a book that promises a lot, from its title and appearance, and fails to deliver. I talked about Houdini's Box: The Art of Escape in a previous post. Toni Morrison's Jazz is another offender. Even if I liked the book (which I didn't) it had nothing to do with jazz whatsoever. Millhauser promises a lot with his titles: in addition to the title story, there's "Paradise Park", "Beneath the Cellars of Our Town", "The Sisterhood of Night" and others ( full table of contents). And he delivers, every time.

The stories have a fantastical, dreamlike quality to them. They start grounded firmly enough in reality, describing the opening of a new department store, for instance, or a lost amusement park. But they spin off-kilter quickly. I mentioned earlier that they are highly metaphorical, but they can be enjoyed on their simplest level too. Millhauser has a gift for using things that naturally intrigue us, like amusement parks, automatons, flying carpets and sideshow acts, to talk about larger currents in society, like the nature of consumerism and the hungers that drive it.

And I've just made this book sound unspeakably dull. I can't think of enough positive things to say without wrecking the book, so I will conclude this post by saying that I recommend you head down to your local library and experience it, or another of his short-story volumes, for yourself.

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