The first of the 13 stories in the new collection from Pulitzer Prize-winning author Steven Millhauser is called "Cat 'n' Mouse." It describes, in scene after scene, a cartoon cat's attempt to catch a cartoon mouse. The cat uses every trick in the Warner Bros. book: He dresses up like a lady mouse. He rigs a guillotine with a piece of cheese. He unleashes a wrecking ball on the mouse's home. Every plan, of course, humiliatingly backfires.
In between these episodes, which precisely conjure the iconography of old cartoons, we're treated to a bit of the players' inner lives:
"[The cat] despises the mouse's physical delicacy, his weak arms thin as the teeth of combs, his frail, crushable skull, his fondness for books and solitude.
"He thinks obsessively about the mouse and suspects with rage that the mouse frequently does not think about him at all..."
The mouse, meanwhile, knows that he will always outsmart the cat, but also knows that he can never let down his guard.
"Sometimes he thinks, if only I could stop watching over myself, if only I could let myself go! The thought alarms him and causes him to look over his shoulder at the mousehole, across which the shadow of the cat has already fallen."
This "Opening Cartoon," as Millhauser labels it, about two characters playing the same game over and over, sets the tone for a collection whose stories are unified stylistically by the precision of Millhauser's language, meticulous whether describing futuristic, planet-engulfing biodomes or young women who slowly fade from existence. In these stories, characters strain to find different, transcendent modes of experience, hurling themselves at the limits of the perceivable world like moths against a window.
While the moral of these stories is largely metaphysical, Millhauser is not without a certain humor—witness "A Change in Fashion," a wry little commentary about women's apparel, in which women eventually disappear beneath their dresses. Evoking both Jorge Luis Borges and George Saunders, Millhauser's collection will appeal to fans of both: Recurring motifs and images bind these stories together, and though each capably stands as a thought-provoking whole, the collection is resolutely, stunningly more than the sum of its parts.