‘Snowmen’ by Steven Millhauser

Many of Millhauser’s stories have this fascinating quality of accretion. Often, some sort of aesthetic endeavor is established, and then over the course of the tale becomes increasingly, impossibly intricate. Here, children awake to a snow day, and set out together to shape the snow into sculptures, but this is not playtime—this is serious business. As they explore their changed neighborhood, the group encounters snowmen so detailed that the narrator wonders whether “bands of feverish children, tormented by white dreams, had worked secretly through the night” to create them. He and his companions, too, become fevered in their attempts to match the works of snow art. This project extends into a second day, and the act of imagination takes a turn toward mania. Beholding their creations fills the narrator with “a sharp, troubled joy.” But like snow, this is not meant to last, and like art-making, the act of finishing a work only satisfies for so long before the compulsion to make one’s mark rises again. 

First published in Grand Street, Winter 1984, and collected in In the Penny Arcade, Dalkey Archive Press, 1986

‘In the Reign of King Harad IV’ by Steven Millhauser

I first heard this story on the New Yorker Fiction podcast, being read and discussed by Cynthia Ozick. Her love of the story was evident in her careful delivery, and I was quite captivated. In this elegant Borgesian fable, King Harad IV’s court miniaturist creates beautiful, intricate works of art, including a toy replica of the King’s entire palace with 600 rooms. But soon, the artist is not satisfied by these intricacies, and begins to create smaller and smaller objects. It’s not long before he needs a magnifying glass to see what he is working on. His miniatures become almost invisible to the naked eye, then completely invisible… Is this a parable, and if so, what does it mean? That is part of the pleasure in reading this story – we envy the miniaturist his artistic vision and drive as he delves alone into an uncharted creative realm, but we wonder if it is really just madness. So, a story that is a salve for writers who wrestle with this question every day.

In Dangerous Laughter, Vintage, 2009, and in the New Yorker to read online here, or listen on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast here