I’m in the process of writing my next ‘In Short’ column for Vector, and looked back at this one for some reason. Which reminded me that I haven’t actually put it up here, even though Steven Millhauser is one of my all-time favourite writers. This column first appeared in Vector 270 (late-Spring 2012).
In the year that I taught at the Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass, I asked the students to read four pieces of fiction: Light by M. John Harrison, The Translator by John Crowley, ‘Magic for Beginners’ by Kelly Link and ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ by Steven Millhauser. These are all works that I admire by writers I admire (if I can’t indulge myself in those circumstances, when can I?). More significantly, they are linked by the fact that they are all genetically unstable, they are open to be read in different ways, and what I particularly wanted to deal with during the session was what we, as critics, bring to the work being criticised. For instance, one of the students saw nothing fantastic in Crowley’s novel, another hated Light as science fiction but when I showed how it could be read as psychological realism found he liked the book.
Of the four stories, however, ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ was easily the most problematic. Only one of the students liked it when we began the session, and I’m not sure any more of them did when we ended. Given how highly I rate this story, along with everything else by Millhauser, this in itself was interesting. I don’t suppose it was entirely coincidental that, as far as I am aware, none of them had previously read anything by Millhauser.
If we as readers change the story we are reading, then no text is entirely stable. We all have different knowledge and experience to call upon, and that affects the way we read. Even if I read a story twice in succession, the second time it is a different story because I have been changed by the experience of the first reading. And surely familiarity with an author’s work is going to be one of the key factors affecting the way we read subsequent works by the same author. The reprinting of ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ in Millhauser’s recent collection, We Others: New and Selected Stories, gives me a chance to reassess this story within the context of his other work.
‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ was first published in the New Yorker, a magazine in which quite a lot of Millhauser’s fiction has appeared, and was collected in Dangerous Laughter (2008), both venues where readers are likely to be familiar with Millhauser’s work. So what do we find in this story that resonates with his other work?
For a start, it is not a story in which suspense about what happens has any part to play. The very first words of the story tell us we are already after the event: ‘The news of the disappearance disturbed and excited us. For weeks afterward, the blurred and grainy photograph of a young woman no one seemed to know, though some of us vaguely remembered her, appeared on yellow posters displayed on the glass doors of the post office, on telephone poles, on windows of the CVS and the renovated supermarket.’ (336) This is typical of Millhauser’s prose style, specific about certain things – ‘the glass doors of the post office’, ‘the renovated supermarket’ – that don’t need to be specific (these places play no further part in the story), but unspecific about others (where is this place? We aren’t even told the name of the town). Time and again we find this in his stories: a listing of details that suggests a solidity into which something numinous or extravagant or fantastic will appear. In his Pulitzer Prize winning novel Martin Dressler he spends a lot of time establishing what appears to be a realistic account of a hotelier in turn-of-the-century New York, but once we enter his great creation we find a place that is extraordinary, impossibly extensive and magical, though the solidity of the detail makes it difficult for us to realise at what precise point the real gives way to the unreal. Similarly his short story ‘Eisenheim the Illusionist’ tells us a lot about stage magic in late 19th century Europe so that right up to the end we almost believe that the tricks Eisenheim is performing might almost be possible.
But it is not just solidity we find in the first paragraph of ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’, because the paragraph ends: ‘Gradually the posters became rain-wrinkled and streaked with grime, the blurred photos seemed to be fading away, and then one day they were gone, leaving behind a faint uneasiness that itself dissolved slowly in the smoke-scented autumn air.’ (336) Again we notice the specificity, but to numinous effect. But what we may not notice at first is that this first paragraph has given us the entire story, from the original disappearance of Elaine Coleman to the way the fading posters recapitulate her fate. The whole of the story that follows is not aftermath, but rather a restating, a questioning of and hypothesizing about all that we have learned in this first paragraph. This is an extreme example of something we find in possibly as many as half of Millhauser’s stories, from his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse to such recent stories as ‘We Others’: they are less concerned with plot than with examining the moral and emotional consequences and implications of what happened.
What is most immediately distinctive, and perhaps most disturbing for many readers, is the voice: ‘The news of the disappearance disturbed and excited us.’ The first person plural is not a common voice in fiction, we don’t know who we are or where we are within the story, but it is a voice that Millhauser persistently uses. Perhaps a third of his fictions are told from the rather nebulous perspective of ‘we’. Sometimes, as in ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’, the ‘we’ resolves into an unnamed ‘I’. Sometimes, as in the ghost story ‘We Others’, there is a named narrator, though he keeps slipping into the plural as he speaks on behalf of all his fellow ghosts. More often, however, as in ‘The Slap’ or ‘The Barnum Museum’, the narrative voice remains resolutely plural throughout. The central perspective of these stories is less an individual than a collective, a town (and it always is a town rather than a city or village or any other such grouping). They are stories of a community collectively affected by or involved in the occurrences or experiences at the heart of the fiction. In ‘The Slap’ someone begins to slap the faces of returning commuters as they make their ways to their cars at the end of the day; the attacks are minor and never escalate, but they are unexplained and the perpetrator is unknown. What we see are explanations, theories, plans, doubts and guilts echoing inchoately throughout the town; and when the attacks stop, as inexplicably as when they started, the people of the town find themselves changed in ways they can never quite admit to. In ‘The Barnum Museum’, one of a number of Millhauser stories in which impossibly vast museums, amusement parks, hotels and department stores merge seamlessly one into the other, we watch how the people of a town respond to an endless and ever-changing collection of wonders in their midst. The thing about the first person plural is that it can never be an actor in the drama, whether protagonist, victim or villain, but is rather a greek chorus of observers, distanced from events but still affected by them and, generally, suffering a form of collective guilt. Because we don’t see a first person plural narrator in many other stories we are lost. How can we know where to look or what we are seeing when the perspective is not individual but universal? The effect is alienating, we are doubly distanced from the events of the story. Doubtless this is intentional on Millhauser’s part, but that does not make it any easier for us to read ourselves into the fiction if we have not encountered such a voice before. (Though, of course, you are having no problem coping with the first person plural voice I have adopted throughout this column: it is not really difficult, just unfamiliar.)
The implication of collective guilt is what hangs over ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’, but at first that is not obvious. As in so many of Millhauser’s stories, we start with the specific and move into the numinous, start with the facts before we move on to theories. It seems, instinctively, as if this is the wrong way round, which would be true if this were a story about story, a story in which plot and incident are primary. But that is rarely the case in Millhauser’s fiction, whose interest is in the disturbance left by the plot, the sense of dis-ease rippling out behind the incident. It is not that he is uninterested in plot and incident: ‘Cat ‘n’ Mouse’ recapitulates ‘Tom ‘n’ Jerry’, ‘The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad’ revisits the Arabian Nights. Stories such as these are full of incident and colour, but the interest in ‘Cat ‘n’ Mouse’ is on Jerry’s philosophical musings about the nature of his relationship with Tom, the interest in ‘The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad’ is in the unreliability of Sinbad’s memory as he approaches death. In ‘History of a Disturbance’ we get a taste of the terror that awaits when we can no longer trust the words that create everything we know and experience and are; but all of Millhauser’s fiction is built upon this untrustworthiness of words, how the solidity of what they create leads us to what we do not know, what we cannot experience, what we are not. Once we get used to this progression in Millhauser’s fiction, we recognise that the specificity that opens ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ is there precisely to underline the non-specific hypothesizing that will follow.
The facts are quickly stated: Elaine Coleman returned to her rooms on the evening in question and the next morning she was not there. The door is locked on the inside, the windows are closed, there is no sign of a struggle or a forced entry, her keys and wallet and all her possessions are untouched. But it is actually quite surprising how quickly Millhauser undermines the solidity of the facts. The last person to see Elaine was a neighbour, but ‘it was almost dark and … she couldn’t make her out “all that well”’ (336, my ellipses); her landlady, who lived in the rooms below Elaine, heard her walking about, but ‘did not actually see her, on that occasion’ (337). All we have, therefore, is speculation: ‘we studied the posters, we memorized the facts, we interpreted the evidence, we imagined the worst’ (337). Even our sense of Elaine is imprecise: the ‘bad and blurry’ photograph shows ‘a woman caught in the act of looking away, a woman evading scrutiny’ (337), though that ‘evading’ suggests something rather more active than anything else in the story.
Our nameless narrator, who has taken on the personality of the whole town, tries to remember the girl: ‘Some of us recalled dimly an Elaine … though none of us could remember her clearly’ (337, my ellipses). He finds photographs in his old high school yearbook, in which she has turned away from the camera, ‘her eyes lowered, her features difficult to distinguish’ (338). It is as if Elaine is denying herself, almost willing non-existence, ‘the dim girl in my English class who had grown up into a blurred and grainy stranger’ (338). Later, when returning to these photographs, the narrator notes: ‘It was as if she had no face, no features. Even the three photographs appeared to be of three different people, or perhaps they were three versions of a single person no one had ever seen.’ (342) This is a woman made out in every way to be the precise opposite of the specificity of the town, when someone remembers her ‘he couldn’t summon up any details’ (339). This is a life lived not so much on the edge as out of sight.
Slowly, as the story progresses, as is the way with Millhauser’s stories, the communal becomes personal. He (we assume it is ‘he’, though the plural voice allows Millhauser to avoid any gender-specific words) starts to recall his own encounters with her, a quiet girl at a party, a half-familiar face in the street: ‘I noticed her without looking at her … Only after her disappearance did those fleeting encounters seem pierced by a poignance I knew to be false, though I couldn’t help feeling it anyway, for it was as if I should have stopped and talked to her, warned her, saved her, done something’ (341, my ellipses). Again there is that interplay between the specific and the non-specific; the more precisely our narrator recalls his own encounters with Elaine Coleman, the more inchoate the sensations evoked. But then, this fleeting poignancy is a sensation that Millhauser’s stories pursue again and again. In one of his more overtly science fictional stories, ‘The Wizard of West Orange’, an inventor working for Edison tries to create a device that will record and transmit touch in the same way that Edison’s phonograph records and transmits sound. But for the young librarian who gets to be the guinea pig in these experiments, what makes the haptograph exciting is when it creates sensations he has never previously experienced, for which he has no name. It is that striving for the subtle and indescribable that seems to be one of the guiding spirits behind Millhauser’s work, it is a reaching for the transcendent but it is often, of course, what makes the stories delicate and intangible. The Elaine Coleman who is never there throughout her story leaves behind a sensation that we can never quite name, and that is part of the point of the story.
The moral and emotional turning point comes, characteristically, with the narrator’s most specific recollection. He and his friend Roger are walking along a street when they pass a girl tossing a basketball into a hoop over the garage door. The ball hits the rim of the hoop, bounces out, and is caught by the narrator. ‘What struck me, as I remembered that afternoon, was the moment of hesitation’ (342), which he interprets as an invitation to shoot a basket, but before he can accept Roger silently mouths the word ‘No.’ ‘What troubled my memory was the sense that Elaine had seen that look, that judgement; she must have been skilled at reading dismissive signs.’ (342) From this moment, we start to doubt the rational explanations of her disappearance: ‘The bafflement of the police, the lack of clues, the locked door, the closed windows, led me to wonder whether we were formulating the problem properly, whether we were failing to take into account some crucial element.’ (343) He is no longer looking for an explanation of Elaine Coleman’s disappearance, but rather some assuagement of his new sense of personal and collective guilt. ‘What bothered me wasn’t so much the disappearance itself, since I had scarcely known her, or even the possible ugliness of that disappearance, but my own failure of memory. Others recalled her still more dimly. It was as if none of us had ever looked at her, or had looked at her while thinking of something more interesting. I felt that we were guilty of some obscure crime.’ (344)
As the missing posters fade, and with them all memory of Elaine Coleman, our narrator rejects notions that she was abducted or had simply run away, replacing them with a more emotionally satisfying theory: that she had literally disappeared. ‘If it’s true that we exist by impressing ourselves on other minds, by entering other imaginations, then the quiet, unremarkable girl whom no one noticed must at times have felt herself growing vague, as if she were gradually being erased by the world’s inattention.’ (346) And this girl who fades out of the world just as she faded out of our attention is not the only one, there are others who are ignored and so grow vague. ‘For we are no longer innocent, we who do not see and do not remember, we incurious ones, we conspirators in disappearance. I too murdered Elaine Coleman.’ (347)
And with that final, almost defiant statement of personal and collective guilt, Millhauser brings his story to an end. But how are we meant to take that ending? Are we meant to read the story as a fantasy in which Elaine Coleman really did fade out of existence? Or are we meant to read it as a metaphor for the way society does tend to ignore certain of its members? By ending at that point Millhauser does not decide for us, there is no one definitive way of reading the story. It is delicately constructed, subtly argued, beautifully written, and hesitates in a very deliberate way between possible readings. By ending with the suggestion that Elaine Coleman actually did fade out of the world, Millhauser perhaps inclines us towards the fantastic reading, but there is in fact no reason to doubt the mundane police explanations for her disappearance and all that follows is but the guilt of a man who belatedly recognises his own part in isolating her from society. How do you want to read the story? Millhauser lets us read it many different ways, it’s what he does.
Quotations taken from ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman’ by Steven Millhauser in We Others: New and Selected Stories, London, Corsair, 2011, pages 336-347.