Book Review: Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories by Steven Millhauser

A number of the characters in the short stories that comprise Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories don’t look at others straight on or are even hidden in darkness. That seems appropriate. Millhauser’s work tends to present a view of parts of life and the human experience that most others don’t see or for which they lack the imagination.

This is seen from the outset of the book. Like the movies used to, it begins with a section called “Opening Cartoon.” But Millhauser’s “Cat ‘N’ Mouse” story gives a different perspective on the never-ending battle between Tom and Jerry and actually considers what each of them may be thinking. The balance of the collection consists of three themed sections, each with four stories related to or perhaps inspired by the titles of the section, “Vanishing Acts,” “Impossible Architectures” and “Heretical Histories.” Yet each section still tends to examine people, ideas and life from a somewhat uncommon perspective or one we might overlook.

That is undoubtedly part of the reason The New York Times Book Review named Dangerous Laughter one of its 10 best books of 2008, a fairly heady accomplishment for a collection of short stories. Not only are the stories well written, Millhauser skillfully handles a wide range of styles. Some stories are cast somewhere in a ground between science fiction and fable. Others take aspects of modern society to another level while still others are based in more traditional tales to which Millhauser adds a somewhat different take.

Some of the strongest are those told from the first person, such as “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman.” Its narrator isn’t bothered just by the fact the title character disappeared from her apartment. Instead, realizing he went to school with the young woman, he struggles with his own and the community’s “failure of memory” and how that may affect being able to find her.

I felt that we were guilty of some crime. For it seemed to me that we who had seen her now and then out of the corner of our eyes, we who had seen her without seeing her, who without malice had failed to give her our full attention, were already preparing her for the fate that overtook her, were already, in a sense not yet clear to me, pushing her in the direction of disappearance.

Thus, although originally cast as a mystery of sorts, the focus is not whether the police solve the case. Instead, it asks why we so easily overlook or ignore people and things.

But Millhauser doesn’t rely only upon individuals and individual failings or problems to intrigue the reader. There is a surprisingly broad range of topics and sources for the 13 tales. “The Dome” calls to mind William Kowinski’s phrase “the malling of America” as it examines the gradual “doming of America.” Meanwhile, “The Tower” goes back further, undoubtedly having its original genesis in the Old Testament tale of the Tower of Babel. “The Other Town” examines voyeurism and reality, as well as our concepts of history, the latter also being a focus of “Here at the Historical Society.” Each of the last three carries echoes of the idea that dreams — and even what we perceive as reality — may at times be hollow or illusion, a concept explored in Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer. Even fashion trends and a fanciful invention abandoned by Thomas Edison serve as vehicles for Millhauser’s imagination.

Almost any reader will find something to their taste in Dangerous Laughter. Yet its real strength is that readers will also find jewels they may never have anticipated or expected.

I began to wonder whether anything I had ever written was what I had wanted to write, or whether what I had wanted to write was underneath, trying to push its way through.

Steven Millhauser, “History of a Disturbance,”
Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories

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