February 7: “A Report on Our Recent Troubles” by Steven Millhauser

The casually dedicated reader of Story366 might look at this weekend’s selections and think that I’ve drifted into some state of depression. Yesterday, I featured a post-apocalyptic story, Judy Budnitz’s “Dog Days,” and today, the story of choice, Steven Millhauser’s “A Report on Our Recent Troubles,” is about mass ritual suicide. That’s a coincidence, I can assure you, as I’m really, really busy this weekend (see previous posts concerning a deadline I have tomorrow), but not at all sad. Manic is a better word for it. And exhausted.

Choosing Millhauser for today was no accident, as I knew I’d want to get down to it with today’s reading and blogging, and there’s maybe no author I can talk about more easily than Millhauser. I’ve read all of his books, and for writers who have as many as he does, he’s the only one I can say this about. I got hooked with The Knife Thrower when it first came out, worked my way backwards, and now anxiously await everything that he does, reading as soon as it comes out.

Except, I guess, Voices in the Night, his 2015 story collection, which I’ve delved into many times, but have never quite finished. It’s a long book, sure, but really, it just fit into my reading pattern for collections in the past few years, reading in until I found something I loved, then using that story to share with my students. It’s cheating, surely, posing as someone who read a book, but with Millhauser, every story is worth reading and sharing, so it didn’t take me long to find something I was excited about. “Miracle Polish” is one such story, and “Phantoms,” which I’d already taught from the O. Henry and Best American anthologies, start the book off, and are both excellent and tremendous and teachable in such different ways, and my students read those stories in various classes over the last couple of years.

In finding another story to write about today, I faced a difficult task. Not because there weren’t any more great stories to discuss—don’t many collections, like many records, have one or two hits?—but because all of the stories I read were worthy of such an honor, so easy to talk about. One thing I like about Millhauser, maybe the thing, is how he puts his stories together, his approaches, his structures. As I teach a lot of 200-level, intro-to-fiction-type classes, I always have my finger on the pulse of Freitag’s Diagram, that go-to plot structure that so many stories, as well as movies, TV shows, greeting cards, and ingredients lists, tend to follow. At the end of my Freitag lecture—which I gave for the umpteenth just this past Wednesday—I make sure to note that only most stories follow this mold, and there are of course many exceptions. When they ask for examples, it’s more than easy to think of just about every Steven Millhauser story I’ve ever read. In fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of a story of his that does follow Herr Freitag’s pattern (okay, “Eisenheim the Illusionist” is pretty staight-up Freitag, so there).

“A Report on Our Recent Troubles” is told in first person plural, meaning Millhauser uses a “we” as its protagonist, so that’s different right there. First plural isn’t as rare as, say, second plural or third plural—everyone’s read “A Rose for Emily”—but I still love the occasional communal narrator. As it turns out, the “we” in this story is made up of the people of a small town, filing a complaint/motion with the city council, to change some laws to help with a problem: the aforementioned mass ritual suicide. Seems as if suicide in this town is no longer for the mentally ill, terminally ill, or extreme attention-seeker. Suicide has become a trend, a phenomenon, even a religion; groups, complete with name and logos, form. Of course, suicide isn’t like any other trend, yoga or low-carb diets or blogging—with suicide, it’s easier to stay committed once you commit. This troubles the “we” in this story, their population steadily disappearing, and for no good reason except “everyone’s doing it!” Every block has a victim of this craze, and everyone knows someone, then several someones, who have succumbed. I half expected Millhauser’s protagonist to just keep talking its way through the narrative as the suicides multiplied, until the “we” became and “I,” and then the story just ended, mid-sentence, nothing but white space to fill the rest of the page. His ending to this impossible dilemma is better than my prediction, though, completely unpredictable and shocking and intense, what this story deserves, as opposed to my little wink-wink trick.

Like Millhauser’s other stories, he seems to be getting at something bigger, and a story about a town growing infatuated with suicide offers a plethora of themes and commentaries and metaphors. All theories are easily applicable, none which are hard to discern. I remember having to assign a composition essay for several years while at Bowling Green, one in which students tracked a phenomenon—Starter jackets, wraps, hacky sack, that sort of thing—but also explain why we as humans were drawn towards trends, how trends dug in and became phenomena. There was an essay in our reader that covered this, an the assignment more or less was to find something to write about, then tie in this one article, just to show them how to tie an article to an argument. I don’t remember that article, and never liked grading that assignment—ninety papers all using the same exact thesis and source—but I’m sure the lesson of that essay could easily be applied here, that it’s human nature for people to grasp onto something, then become sheep, more or less. Millhauser’s doing that here, but in more of a Heathers sort of way. It’s much more interesting than why those darned kids’ pants are hanging around their knees, showing everybody their drawers.

I could go on and on about Millhauser, this story, this book, his body of work as a whole, as a progression, or as an institution in American letters. I’ll just impart you, Story366 reader, with this: If you haven’t read any Millhauser, you should go read it. All of it. Then let me know what you think. That would make me happy.

Steven Milhauser