Reviewed by Jeff Turrentine
Sunday, February 24, 2008
By Steven Millhauser
Knopf. 244 pp. $24
One reason why Steven Millhauser is consistently so much fun to read -- whether he's writing novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Martin Dressler, or the short stories he clearly loves even more -- is that he has never forgotten what it was like to be an 11-year-old boy, fueled by curiosity and wonder, trying to make the banal world around him fit his comic-book image of how things should be. But for all of their boyish enthusiasms and fantastic, even gothic, trappings, Millhauser's novels and stories deal with decidedly complex themes. Among his favorites: the price of obsession, the folly of hubris and the inevitable collapse of best-laid plans under the weight of their designers' passion.
Now, with Dangerous Laughter, he has given us a collection of stories that explore these ideas with the mixture of dark suspense and good humor implied by the title. Everything one has come to want and expect in Millhauser's fiction is here -- spooky attics, fantastic inventions, artists driven mad, and ambitious enterprises that become overattenuated and impossible to sustain. The result is almost a Steven Millhauser primer, a much needed fix for fans who've been waiting since The King in the Tree (2003) and a perfect introduction for those unacquainted with his writing.
After opening with "Cat 'n' Mouse," which hilariously describes not only the violent exploits but also the surprisingly reflective inner lives of a pair of cartoon characters, Millhauser moves past the animated short and gets right to the featured presentations. "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman" reads like collective noir, as an entire community tries to solve the mystery of a woman's vanishing and ends up implicating itself. The bookish adolescent in "The Room in the Attic" finds himself in a classic Millhauserian scenario: wandering through a friend's pitch-black attic, hidden inside which is the strange object of his growing obsession.
In Martin Dressler, Millhauser chronicled the life of a developer whose ill-fated dream was to build the largest hotel in the world. "In the Reign of Harad IV" details the obsession of another dreamy builder, this one a melancholic miniaturist in the court of an ancient king whose wish is to keep creating ever-smaller masterpieces. Though he has already built a perfect toy replica of the king's 600-room palace, he nevertheless remains convinced that his work is too large. Eventually, he determines to labor exclusively "in the realm of the invisible," crafting works whose minute details can only be guessed at.
Had Italo Calvino written for "The Twilight Zone," the result might resemble "The Other Town," a Millhauser story in which the inhabitants of a rather ordinary-seeming village devote significant resources to the construction and maintenance of a second village, perfectly identical to their own in every way. Curious townspeople like to relax by crossing through the woods and emerging in their mirror-world, checking "to see whether the new stop sign has gone up, enter a neighbor's house to explore a rumor of adultery -- the necktie over the clock radio, the blue bra draped over the cordovan loafer."
In yet another story, "Here at the Historical Society," this obsession with replicating details -- which serves as a running theme throughout the book -- is gently satirized. Written as a slightly defensive mission statement from a civic institution under critical attack, the story explains why a local historical society has decided to abandon its old mission of exhibiting muskets, arrowheads and the like in favor of exploring the present (which the historian-narrator pricelessly refers to as the "New Past"). Thus his office now employs staffers "who count the needles of every fir tree and the specks of mica in every roof shingle, others who study the patterns of grass blades flying up behind a power mower and settling onto the cut grass. We record the sounds of dishes and silverware in the kitchens of our town, the exact fall of the shadows of fence posts and street signs. We investigate the bend in a blue rubber band wrapped around a morning newspaper lying on a sun-striped front porch."
The collection's final offerings -- one about a painter who has discovered a way to bring viewers, literally, into his canvases; the other about the mysterious goings-on behind closed doors at a barely fictionalized version of Thomas Edison's research lab -- are marvelous stories that make the suspension of disbelief feel like no work whatsoever. In fact, with few exceptions (both "The Tower," about a building that reaches to heaven, and the book's title story, about an unusual teenage fad, read like tendentious allegories whose referents are unclear), Millhauser has done nothing here to diminish his reputation as one of our most dazzling storytellers. "It was said that no matter how closely you examined one of the Master's little pieces, you always discovered some further wonder," he writes of his obsessive court miniaturist. The same could be said of Steven Millhauser. *
Jeff Turrentine reviews fiction for the New York Times and The Washington Post.