Short story: “The Knife Thrower”

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“The Knife Thrower,” by Steven Millhauser

First appeared in the March 1997 issue of Harper’s (subscribers can read here); collected in The Knife Thrower and Other Stories; reprinted in the New York Times here

About 4,584 words (which sounds high to me, but the arithmetic checks out—there are 16 pages in my edition, 29 lines per full page, and slightly under 11 words per full line; I guess it’s a fast-moving story); 5012 words, based on the NYT version

As much as I like this story and the other Millhauser stories I’ve read, I sense something pat about his fiction, something too easy. It might be the vividity of the writing that puts me on my guard. “The Knife Thrower” is full of dramatic black and white and red and glittering silver, all the expected colors of a gothic carnival show. Or it might be that I find it a little too easy to despise the point-of-view characters for their agitated complacence (if that’s the expression I want). They patronize Hensch’s act and disapprove of it, rationalize their inaction and sleep badly. They’re stand-ins for the audience of any truly transgressive piece of entertainment, too fascinated to take responsibility for the ethical choices involved (think of high-brain-injury sports like boxing and football, think of reality TV); or the audience of any truly transgressive work of art; or citizens who rely on their leaders both to make the hard decisions and to bear the blame. I guess what I’m saying is that I feel comfortable about the characters’ discomfort. They don’t make me uneasy about my own complacence.

The plot reminds me a lot of “Le tigre mondain.”

Section Notes Approximate number of full pages
Before the show 1.5
Hensch and his assistant appear; hoops Most of the opening acts are extremely conventional, but these lines establish Hensch’s power over his audience from the start: “The hoops struck the floor, bounced singly, and began rolling like big dropped coins across the stage. Hadn’t he liked the throw? We felt like looking away, like pretending we hadn’t noticed.” Slightly over 2
Butterfly trick The first sign of cruelty, but only to an insect. The point-of-view characters express no qualms whatsoever, and in fact the sight makes them nostalgic for some reason. .5
Hensch’s hand Danger, but innocent danger. 1
The assistant’s dress Slightly more danger. Plus sex, I guess. 1
The assistant’s apple .5
The assistant’s gloves The reason I decided to make this chart is that I’m impressed by Millhauser’s decision to spend so much time on mostly innocent knife tricks. My instinct would be to cut to the chase after one or two. But the multiple acts go by swiftly for me, whetting my taste for bloodshed. .5
The assistant’s mark Until the first mark, each trick took an average of .9 pages. From here on, the average naturally goes up to 1.75. 1
Susan Parker’s mark 2
The young man’s mark The second hand trick. 2
The final mark 2
Close 1
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