31 Days of Stories 2013, Day 14: “The Knife Thrower” by Steven Millhauser

May 14, 2013 by · Leave a Comment 

From We Others: New and Selected Stories

We_Others“The best thing anyone can say about any work of art,” writes Ray Robertson, “whether it’s a novel, a painting, or a three-minute rock song, is that it’s dangerous.” Robertson was referring to danger in art the way that Kafka meant it, as the axe for the frozen sea inside us. But great art is dangerous in a practical way – politically, as a mechanism for social change, ideologically. (There’s a reason why totalitarian regimes kill or imprison the artists first.)

Art can also be dangerous for its recipients. It has the power to change us, to alter our thinking, and, in some cases, to wound us. But what if those wounds were not just psychic, but physical as well? This is the question that occupies American writer Steven Millhauser in “The Knife Thrower.”

Millhauser has been compared to both Borges and Kafka, in part because of the fable-like quality of many of his stories, and in part because of the strange and unfamiliar ways he twists his materials. In his New York Times review of We Others, Jonathan Lethem writes:

Millhauser is the master of what might be called the Homeopathic School of Fantastic Writing: just the barest tincture of strangeness, eyedropped into the body of an otherwise mimetic story. The payoff for this withholding of weirdness can be a reader’s intensified complicity in defamiliarization: a sensation of slippage into the unreal just as we know it ourselves, from our dreams and fantasies.

“The Knife Thrower” employs an uncommon, but not altogether unheard of, style of narration: it is narrated in the first-person plural. This convention – attributing the narration to an anonymous “we” rather than the more specific “I” – has the effect of universalizing the story, making it appear as part of some collective unconscious. The events of the tale do not operate on a singular sensibility; they implicate us all, the reader as well as the characters in the unnamed town that serves as Millhauser’s setting. The story involves an individual (if, improbably, one assumes the royal “we”: there is nothing in the narrative to suggest this kind of affected haughtiness) or, more likely, a group of townspeople venturing out to witness a performance by Hensch, a noted knife thrower.

The first thing we learn about Hensch is that he is famous, although even this detail is not as straightforward as it seems: “Of course we knew his name. Everyone knew his name, as one knows the name of a famous chess player or magician. What we couldn’t be sure of was what he actually did.” First, consider the associations of “a famous chess player or magician.” Surely, if someone were reaching for a profession that might be commonly recognized today, one would think of a movie actor or rock star, not a chess player. Although Millhauser does not specify the time period in which his story is set, the invocation of these rather quaint diversions lends the narrative a sense of history, of time past. The business of knife throwing itself, associated as it is with travelling circuses and other outmoded entertainments, tends to confirm this. The nebulous nature of the setting – both time and place left unspecified – adds to the simultaneous universality and otherworldliness of Millhauser’s tale.

The next thing we learn about Hensch is that his performances are shadowed by rumours of something unsavoury or illicit. “Dimly we recalled that the skill of his throwing had brought him early attention,” Millhauser writes, “but that it wasn’t until he had changed the rules entirely that he was taken up in a serious way. He had stepped boldly, some said recklessly, over the line never before crossed by knife throwers, and had managed to make a reputation out of a disreputable thing.” Readers are left to ponder what it might mean for a knife thrower to step “over the line” (though this will be made clear enough as the story progresses), but what is equally interesting here is Millhauser’s commentary on the trajectory of an artist’s career. Many artists, whatever their particular avocation, begin through imitation. They spend their apprentice periods honing their skills, but remain little more than competent counterfeiters. It is only when they decide to break the rules of their profession – when they strike out on their own, discover an individual voice or style – that they truly flourish.

This can be dangerous for the artist, because it can invite misinterpretation or confusion (think of Joyce’s break from the relative naturalism of his early work to the high modernism of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake), or outright rejection and hatred (think of the reaction Bob Dylan faced after going electric at the Newport Folk Festival). In some cases, as with Harry Houdini, the artist can put his own life at risk by pushing his art to previously unheard of extremes.

In Millhauser’s story, however, it is not the effect of the art on the artist that is the primary concern, it is its effect on the viewers. The townspeople gather in the theatre to witness Hensch’s performance not just because they are interested in the practice of knife throwing per se, but because they are curious about whether the impresario would “cross the line” and, if so, what that might entail. Like spectators at a bullfight or a boxing match, the people who congregate to witness Hensch’s show are driven to a significant degree by the prospect that they might witness blood being spilt.

Nor are they disappointed. Hensch, we are told, has perfected the “idea of the artful wound,” the drawing of blood that represents “the mark of the master.” “We had even heard that among his followers there were many, young women especially, who longed to be wounded by the master and to bear his scar proudly.” The association of the wound and young women effectively sexualizes Hensch’s performance, a connection that is extended through the descriptions of his onstage assistant, with her blonde hair and pale skin, who is grazed on the neck as part of the performance: “We imagined the white bandage under the black collar; we imagined other bandages, other wounds, on her hips, her waist, the edges of her breasts.”

Hensch and his assistant are presented as opposing figures and cast in the language of myth or fable: “they stood before us, the dark master and the pale maiden, like figures in a dream from which we were trying to awake.” There is something distinctly Freudian in all of this, the conscious attempt to repress bloodthirsty impulses, the nightmare aspect of the performance, the unspoken desire to be initiated into a secret world through complicity in a forbidden act.

The knife thrower’s performance becomes increasingly hazardous, increasingly violent, to the point that the observers begin to wonder whether he has gone too far. “He had justified his reputation, of that there could be no question; without ever trying to ingratiate himself with us, he had continually seized our deepest attention. But for all that, we couldn’t help feeling that he ought to have found some other way.” Hensch’s need to constantly up the ante in his performances points to an increasing desensitization on the part of his audience, who demand ever more excess, more shock, just to feel a comparable level of sensation.

[It] was certainly true that a man in Hensch’s position had every right to improve his art, to dream up new acts with which to pique curiosity, indeed such advances were absolutely necessary, for without them a knife thrower could never hope to keep himself in the public eye. Like the rest of us, he had to earn his living, which admittedly wasn’t easy in times like these. But when all was said and done, when the pros and cons were weighed, and every issue carefully considered, we couldn’t help feeling the knife thrower had really gone too far. After all, if such performances were encouraged, if they were even tolerated, what might we expect in the future?

The artist’s dilemma: how to remain relevant to an audience that demands ever more extravaganza, ever more bloodshed? What kind of a wound is sufficient to satisfy a rapacious crowd without crossing over into the realm of real damage? Millhauser lets the townspeople off the hook at the end of his story by allowing them feelings of remorse, by making explicit the “anxiety and dismay” that haunts their dreams in the wake of the theatrical show. How much more dangerous, we wonder, is empty spectacle released on an unfeeling, unthinking audience that will not question it, but will only demand more, more, more?

31 Days of Stories 2012, Day 3: “Rat-Faced Auntie” by Barry Hannah

May 3, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

From Long, Last, Happy: New and Selected Stories

For the poet and critic Al Alvarez, true appreciation of a work of literature is “not about [gleaning] information, although you may gather information along the way. It’s not about storytelling, although sometimes that is one of its greatest pleasures.” It’s about listening to a voice “unlike any other voice you have ever heard and it is speaking directly to you, communicating with you in private, right in your ear, and in its own distinctive way.”

Real writers, like one’s real friends, don’t quite sound like anyone else: they can only be who they inimitably are, their single most praiseworthy quality. The reason so many people are boring is because they all tend to sound the same. The same, sadly, can be said for much of what masquerades as literature.

– Ray Robertson, Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live

Of course, the more individual a writer’s voice is – the more iconoclastic or idiosyncratic or eccentric – the less familiar, the less comfortable, and therefore less palatable it may appear to a reading public that wants nothing more than cozy reassurances and the reinforcement of well-worn preconceptions. This is arguably one reason why Barry Hannah, one of the most stylistically inventive, linguistically effervescent American writers of the late 20th century, is so woefully underappreciated today. His jazzy prose style and pervading themes – violence, heroism, drinking, sex – echo Hemingway, Kerouac, Burroughs, and other influences, but Hannah’s literary voice is sui generis. As Michael Schaub puts it, “The man wrote the way Django Reinhardt played guitar — you have to experience it to believe it, and even then, you’re not entirely sure how the hell he pulled it off. He was an American original, a bona fide Southern hell-raiser with the voice of a drunk angel, shot full of the world’s best good.”

“Hannah himself,” writes Marianne Wiggins, “… goes out of his way to lead us to believe he is a hard-writing, hard-drinking, hard-balling man,” and a version of this character is on display in “Rat-Faced Auntie,” about Edgar, a jazz trombonist who achieves early fame but succumbs to an alcohol addiction that leaves him destitute and beholden to his “homely and bellicose” rich Auntie Hadley. It is perhaps not necessary to know that the collection in which “Rat-Faced Auntie” first appeared, 1993’s Bats Out of Hell, was the first book Hannah published after giving up drinking – it is never a good idea to identify a writer’s life and work too closely – but this fact does appear to jump out in light of the story’s fixation on the difficulties associated with full recovery from a lifestyle of committed dissolution.

Edgar’s sobriety did curious things to him. For one thing, he had not realized he was tall. His posture was still poor, though, having been curved over in search of the pavement all those years. He had blood and air in him again, and was still a bit high on withdrawal. His face was plumper, unblotched, his hearing and eyesight better. However, he had the impression he looked suddenly older, thrown forward into his forties at thirty-four. He had intimations that he would die soon, and must hurry.

Edgar’s aunt goes out of her way to mock her nephew by comparing him to heroic figures from history who, she says, “drank for good reasons”:

Look at Grant and Churchill with their great works. Look at Poe and Faulkner and Jack London and their masterpieces. Now you’ve got a national curse of drugs and drink, millions of nobodies who never once had a great day or a fine thought. This puny selfism, uff! It seems to me you became a drunkard just for lack of something to do.

Hadley’s assessment is unfair because by the time he arrives to live off her avails, Edgar has had many “a great day” as a trombone player in Peets Lambert’s Big Thunder Hounds. But newly sober and having returned to college to study sociology, Edgar is nevertheless frankly ineffectual, scrambling around for material to fill out a vaguely defined thesis on Chicago’s “bums” and lusting after married faculty members’ wives at parties. He displays none of the heroism of the statesmen or writers his aunt throws in his face as paragons.

Thomas Ærvold Bjerre claims that the story “focuses on heroism and art,” and this is true to some extent. But in its depiction of a washed up ex-musician who is utterly beholden to his odious, hideously ugly aunt for money and validation – she provides him with a BMW motorcycle as a symbol of his ravaged manhood – “Rat-Faced Auntie” is almost a parody of a certain kind of brazen masculinity. Edgar displays a great deal of surface machismo and braggadocio, but he is utterly dependent upon the women in his life – his Auntie Hadley and his girlfriend, Emma Dean. When he and Emma fall into an argument late in the story, she compares him derisively to the soldiers fighting to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s army during the first Gulf War: “Our generals, our airmen – they’re men, and you, you don’t have … moxie.” Emma’s complete emasculation of Edgar is achieved with the hurled insult, “You ungrateful bitch!”

Edgar is able to emerge victorious – albeit physically incapacitated – by the story’s close, the power dynamic having shifted precipitously between him on one side and the two women on the other. Edgar finally spurns Emma and agrees to write his aunt’s life story, to which he appends a scabrous title that leaves him “so happy, so profoundly, almost, delirious.” He imagines the book he will compose in terms that could easily describe Barry Hannah’s own writing: “Loud and bright and full of jazz.”

The Three Stooges or Voltaire: Ray Robertson on culture, CanLit, and fifteen reasons to live

December 22, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

Don’t try telling Ray Robertson that his latest book, the essay collection Why Not? Fifteen Reasons to Live, is uplifting. “Hopefully you’re joking,” he says caustically.

To be fair, there is a certain irony in characterizing Why Not, which has recently been longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize (it was also shortlisted for the inaugural Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction this past fall), as a kind of sunny, self-help guide in the vein of The Book of Awesome or the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Although each of its short chapters is devoted to a different aspect that makes life worth living – subjects include love, art, work, solitude, and intoxication – the book is informed by the clear-eyed assessments of an unrepentant devotee of philosophers from the stoics to the transcendentalists. Robertson is a student of philosophy, and has always been more comfortable in the company of Emerson and Seneca than with the New Age platitudes of Deepak Chopra or Robin Sharma.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the author’s work that his book on the meaning of life concludes with a meditation on death. What might be surprising, however, is to hear Robertson state that, for him, the final chapter is one of the most affirmative in the entire book. “With the other chapters,” he says, “there’s always the downside. So when I talk about intoxication, I talk about how you can go the other way [i.e. become an addict]. Or how you’ve got friends, yes, but they’ll let you down. Or love, but it doesn’t last. But with death, there is always the fact that you’re going to die and I thought that, across the ages, it’s the fragility or ephemerality [of life] that provides the intensity and the supposed longed-for purpose that we often lose track of.”

Robertson himself wondered about the inclusion of a chapter on death in what was putatively a life-affirming book, but ultimately decided the subject was unavoidable. “The whole book was based on the idea that you’re going to confront unsavoury truths and affirm life in spite of them,” he says. “It became apparent after a while that there was this spectre hanging over all the other reasons, no matter how affirmative you are or how you try to wring meaning out of this stuff, and I found that it was something that had to be confronted.”

The author of six novels and a collection of literary criticism, Robertson is no stranger to confronting unsavoury truths. In this case, the confrontation was initiated in response to emotional turmoil in his own life. After finishing the first draft of his most recent novel, 2009’s David, Robertson went through a period of malaise that culminated in thoughts of suicide. “It wasn’t despair or a kind of ‘woe is me,'” he says. “It was just a kind of nothingness. What I was frustrated with was this period where nothing could have gone better in a worldly sense. It wasn’t as if I had anything to be depressed about, but I was incapable of appreciating all the wonderful things life had to offer.”

Afflicted with chronic obsessive-compulsive disorder, Robertson found that simple but radical changes in diet helped him recover from his dis-ease. Deleterious products such as processed food, white sugar, and caffeine were out; healthy alternatives like bananas, almonds, turkey, and whole grain breads were in. “I got better essentially through detoxifying,” he says. “I thought that part of my personality was panic attacks and stuff, and that was part of my edgy, intense nature. After forty-three years of that your body kind of tenses for it. Then, after six or seven weeks or so there was a situation where they didn’t come. I thought, ‘Why?’ Then I was like, ‘Oh, it’s chemistry.'”

Although Robertson is adamant that the resulting collection is not intended as a memoir of his illness and recovery, he nonetheless admits to the personal nature of the project: “It’s the closest I’ll come to autobiography.” Consequently, the essays are replete with the author’s thoughts on the things that are closest to him, including abiding concerns such as music and the nature of good art.

And what constitutes good art? In Why Not, Robertson answers the question first by defining what art isn’t: it is not entertainment; it is not an obligation; and above all, it is not culture. The author quotes Simone Weil: “Culture is an instrument wielded by professors to manufacture professors, who when their turn comes will manufacture professors.” Or, as he suggests to me when I bring up the subject of CanLit and the institutional instruments – Canada Council grants, Canada Reads, the Scotiabank Giller Prize – that provide it with oxygen: “When something becomes so aligned with the culture that it becomes simultaneous with it, most likely it’s no longer art.”

For Robertson, culture is often equated with professionalism and competence, which he acknowledges are necessary to create art, but are not nearly sufficient to sustain it. When I suggest that competence is the curse of CanLit, his eyes light up. “Competence is the enemy of excellence,” he says. “Of course you aspire to make it. And you’ve got a pretty nice lifestyle where you get a grant, you’ve got this and you’ve got this, and you’re perfectly set now, but you’re forty-five and you’ve written seven books, you’ve written out your childhood, you don’t have to worry about being published, and there’s this retreat into competence as opposed to that blazing.”

It’s the blazing – or to use Robertson’s preferred term in Why Not, the danger – that separates merely competent work from great art. The writers he admires – he names Barry Hannah, Jack Kerouac, and Thomas McGuane – were all devoted to crafting sentences capable of making a reader sit up an take notice, a quality that often goes missing in a culture that prizes books that are good for you over books that are just plain good. “McGuane and Hannah much more than Kerouac,” says Robertson, “and one book by Carson McCullers, not her whole oeuvre, but The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: that book just blew my mind. That book felt dangerous. How is she able to talk about this sixty-year-old black doctor who’s disappointed in his children? How does she know this? It’s unnerving. As opposed to, here’s a book about how racism is wrong.”

Too often, our culture promotes the latter over the former, in Robertson’s view, leading to a kind of tyranny of mediocrity. “You should stay away from the mediocre. You should have good art or bad art. It should be the Three Stooges or Voltaire.”

And how to counteract the forces of mediocrity? For Robertson, the answer is simple: ignore them. “It’s like every year with the Grammys,” he says, “there are probably a couple of good things, but for the most part, people who care about good music don’t sit around saying, ‘Oh, geez, did Jay-Z win?’ And then, of course, when Steve Earle does win one, it’s twenty years after he was dangerous and making good art, so it’s irrelevant.” But if literary tastemakers were to refuse to pay attention, it might serve to change people’s ideas about what is good and bad. “If there’s this indifference from the intelligentsia, people with taste, I think it would be cathartic,” he suggests. “It’s like trying to change capitalism. To me, I think it’s best to stand outside it and just live your life.”

Living his life, these days, means coming to grips with the fact that many of the things he values – solitude, for example – are not things that the current zeitgeist tends to promote. But Robertson is sanguine about maintaining a somewhat adversarial relationship with the modern world. “Bertrand Russell lived so long that he actually saw some of the things he had argued for as a contrarian by nature come to pass, and he said it’s a very curious thing to see your enemies embracing your arguments. It’s oddly deflating.”

Instead of being deflated, the experience of writing and promoting Why Not seems to have rejuvenated Robertson and given him the drive to return to what he loves most: writing. “I feel like you have to have the right attitude,” he says, “where you get up in the morning and you think, ‘I want to write about that‘ as opposed to, ‘I want to write.'” And if he’s mellowed a bit in the process, he considers that, too, all for the best. “I think I’m fairly clear about what my agenda is, and that is to make good art as best I can and everything else is secondary. When I was younger, that included my health. And I was mean as a snake, especially when I was trying to get situated [as a writer]. But it doesn’t happen like that anymore and so I feel a bit more human and I think that’s enriched my art a bit.”

You could do worse, I say. “You could do worse,” Robertson laughs. “That’s what you should use as the title for your piece.”

A personal challenge

September 19, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

When I had this house built – I’d bought the land first, with the initial trickle of money I’d accumulated after opening Sophia’s – the bookshelves were designed for more than just a few books: I wanted a library large enough to double as a personal challenge. Qualitatively I was fine, owned maybe two hundred good editions in total, each volume individually purchased with the understanding that you eat what’s in front of you and don’t ask for more until your plate has been scraped and scoured clean. But good intentions rarely make it past the age of forty. Halfway to the tomb, it doesn’t matter so much anymore that you’re not likely to get through all eight volumes of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or that Boswell’s Life of Johnson‘s two thousand pages are probably a thousand more than you’re ever going to read. Life’s sundial suddenly way past noon, time’s ticking shadow makes it absolutely essential to acquire every book that’s ever been written that’s worth reading, if not to actually read, then at least to call one’s own. I promised myself on my fortieth birthday that I would not die without a copy of Plutarch’s Lives of the Poets left among my worldly possessions. When the time came for indifferent strangers to haul my lifeless body out the back door of my home, I wanted it made perfectly clear that I was a man who had possessed the best that has been thought and said.

David by Ray Robertson

And speaking of “the best that has been thought and said”:


Canadian history has no shortage of underexposed dramatic tales featuring captivating, complex characters. But Canadian literature boasts but a handful of genuinely dynamic renderings of these events. Why did the historical novel become a place where our country’s real life adventures go to whither and die? And how can we reverse this trend? At the launch of his latest novel, David (Thomas Allen Publishers), noted author Ray Robertson will crack open these Can Lit chestnuts with Steven W. Beattie, Review Editor at Quill and Quire. Bidiniband will perform a live set based on their acclaimed debut album, This Land Is Wild.

Gladstone Hotel Ballroom, 1214 Queen St. West, Toronto

Wed Sept 23; 7:30 pm (Doors 7pm) $5 Cover (Free with Book Purchase)