“The Knife Thrower and Other Stories” by Steven Millhauser

I recommended The Knife Thrower and Other Stories during my “Literature for Magicians” talk at the last Mystery School. It may seem odd to recommend a work of fiction to magicians, but I feel that this book (and Millhauser’s work in general) has not only provided me with hours of enjoyment, it has taught me a thing or two about magic.

I’m of the opinion that it’s important for me to read non-magic books — that is, books that aren’t technical instruction manuals. How can I learn to construct compelling stories if all I ever read is “Begin with the packet in the Biddle Grip”? When I seek inspiration as a writer and storyteller, I generally seek it outside the field of magic.

That said, Millhauser’s writing is often quite magical and involves magical themes: flying carpets, mysterious underground passages, obsessed automaton-makers. But beyond these themes, Millhauser’s stories are important to me for several reasons:

First, his writing is a primer on how to tell a story vividly and succinctly. He packs a great deal of story into very few pages. And yet the pictures he creates in my mind are crystal-clear. I strive to capture these qualities in my magic: brevity and clarity.

Second, he creates an air of mystery that doesn’t provide easy answers to the reader. In his story “The Sisterhood of Night,” the citizens of a small community exchange conflicting reports and suppositions about the nocturnal activities of a group of young girls. Is the “Sisterhood” merely an informal club, or are they conducting weird rituals in the woods? The reader, like the narrator of the story, is left to draw his or her own conclusions. As a magician, I too hope to leave lingering mysteries in the minds of my audience — and not just of the “How did he do that?” variety.

Third, he seems to understand the symbolism that underlies our art. The title story of this book is a fine example. It concerns a master knife thrower, a man with a shadowy reputation, whose act begins as a conventional carnival entertainment but then ventures into darker ritual territory, the territory of the shaman: initiation and sacrifice. As the narrator puts it, the knife thrower carries his audience “safely . . . into the realm of forbidden things.” I try to transport my audience, if not into the realm of the forbidden, into a realm of strange and sometimes unsettling experiences.

Finally, he is able to present the impossible or the absurd with total sincerity. Modern magicians have been conditioned to view magic as a kind of fraud or con game. We lose sight of the fact that beneath all the tricks and sleights and props is the ability to evoke real and powerful emotions. (Magic is not special in this sense. Take any theatrical production, strip away the lights, the sets, the makeup, the costumes, and what remains is an effort to elicit thoughts and feelings from the audience.) Maybe this frightens us a bit, our ability to conjure up emotional responses — especially when magic involves heavy themes, as in bizarre magick, seance magic, or psychic magic. One way for me to deal with this fear is to plant my tongue firmly in my cheek and play all my magic for laughs. The problem with this approach is that my performances become little more than elaborate practical jokes. Which brings me to one of my favorite stories in this book, the story titled “A Visit.” In this superbly constructed tale, a man approaching middle age and vaguely dissatisfied with his life receives a postcard from an old college buddy, inviting him for a visit. The man hasn’t heard from his friend in years, but it seems the rebellious intellectual drifter he knew in college has changed: he’s settled down, and he’s married! I don’t want to spoil the surprise for you, but the narrator gets the shock of his life when he meets his friend’s “wife.” What impressed me most about this story is that it might have been a one-joke exercise in silliness. But Millhauser plays it straight, which encourages the reader to experience many of the same emotions as the story’s narrator: shock, amusement, outrage, curiosity, disgust, and finally an uneasy certainty. It’s a wonderful ride. And I think the ticket to that ride is sincerity.

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