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Dangerous Laughter: 13 Stories

Steven Millhauser

The words I had always used had a new sheen of strangeness to them. I found it necessary to interrogate them, to investigate their intentions"

Reviewed by Stevan  Allred

The central issue in a Stephen Millhauser story is never the characters, never the plot. Millhauser's preoccupation as a writer is always with the issue of "what if?" What if, as in The Other Town, the inhabitants of a small town in New England built an exact replica of their town and maintained it in real time? What if, as in A Precursor to the Cinema, a painter invented paint that allowed the two-dimensional figures in his paintings to reach out and touch the viewer? What if Thomas Edison, The Wizard of West Orange, had devised a way to record and play back the sensory experience of touch? It is the quality of Millhauser's imagination that is on display in his work, the sheer power of his ability to wonder "what if..?" 

Dangerous Laughter is organized into four sections that neatly categorize the broad strokes of Millhauser's speculative musings. "Vanishing Acts" are concerned with characters in recognizably contemporary settings, characters who disappear not suddenly, "but gradually, over the course of time". "Impossible Architectures" are stories in which the premise is some deep alteration of physical reality. Domes are built to enclose single houses, then entire towns, and finally the entire country (The Dome), or something closely resembling the biblical Tower of Babel actually succeeds in piercing the floor of heaven, allowing access to mere mortals (The Tower). It is in these stories that the premise most clearly trumps the conventions of plot and character. 

"Heretical Histories" present alternative histories, or in the case of Here at the Historical Society, explore the nature of historical investigation itself. "Opening Cartoon" contains the opening story in this collection, Cat 'n' Mouse, and is another Millhauser foray into the intersection of speculative fiction and form. (See A Game of Clue from his earlier collection The Barnum Museum for another example.) 

In the hands of a lesser writer these stories would be the literary equivalent of The Twilight Zone. Millhauser never stoops to the level of Rod Serling's overly obvious sense of irony, and his characters, when he chooses to employ them, are more carefully nuanced than Serling's quickly sketched central casting types. His stories work best when those characters actually inhabit his wonderfully detailed speculations, as in the titular Dangerous Laughte", wherein a group of bored teen-agers entertain themselves with competitive laughing jags. 

In the Reign of Harad IV a court miniaturist builds smaller and smaller replicas of reality until his objects become so absurdly small that no one can see them, and through this lens we are given a portrait of artistic obsession. History of a Disturbance gives us a market researcher, an apparatchik of the consumerist apparatus, whose ability to use language dissolves in the space "between words and whatever they were supposed to be doing." 

Those stories that eschew conventional characters succeed when they are brief. Millhauser's imagination, powerful as it is, can hold our attention for eight or ten pages without offering any human contact other than the narrative voice itself. When he stretches these premises out too long, indulging himself, as he does in Cat 'n' Mouse, in an extended description of the frenetic activity of a Tom & Jerry cartoon, he becomes a bit tiresome. 

The brilliance of these stories lies in the visionary quality of their conceits. Their titles are descriptive, never ironic or clever, and in this we can find what it is that makes Millhauser a writer worth reading: he speaks to us directly from his imagination, with a decidedly adult sense of wonder.

Stevan Allred is a poet, essayist, and short story writer, a Pushcart nominee, and the recipient of an Oregon Literary Fellowship. He has recently been published by Bewlderingstories.com, Windfall, and Perceptions.

Stevan's other Short Reviews: Rebecca Barry "Later at the Bar"   


PublisherAlfred A. Knopf

Publication Date: Feb 2008

Paperback/Hardback? Hardback

First collection?No

Author bio: Steven Millhauser is the author of five previous collections of short stories and five novels, including the Pulitzer Prize winning Martin Dressler. His story Eisenheim the Illusionist, from his collection The Barnum Museum, was the basis for the 2006 film The Illusionist. Millhauser lives in Sarasota Springs, New York, and teaches at Skidmore College.

Read an interview with Steven Millhauser

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