Monday, April 20, 2009

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (a review)

Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories
2.5 out of 5: As we've come to expect from Pulitzer-prize-winning Millhauser, the thirteen stories contained in this collection are expertly crafted. Each one, standing alone, is inventive and transporting. When read together as a collection, however, the stories become tedious and predictable.

In an all too recognizable way, each story in this collection is the same. Each story begins with a particular idea--for example, a teenaged party prank, the construction of a very tall tower, or an artist's creation of miniatures. Then, the idea is repeated over and over within the story's narrative in such a way that each repetition moves one step closer to the absurd. Eventually, the teenaged party prank becomes an unhealthy obsession for an entire neighborhood, the tall tower pierces into heaven, and the miniature artist works on a scale invisible to the human eye.

In this characteristic excerpt, the miniature artist is driven to ever greater feats of miniturization:

But even as he sank deeply into his little world he felt at the back of his mind a light itching, as if he knew that his [miniature] palace, even that, could not satisfy him for long. For such a feat, however arduous, was really no more than the further conquest of a familiar realm, the twilight realm of the world revealed by his glass, and he yearned for a world so small that he could not yet imagine it. As he worked on his palace the craving grew in him, and he seemed to sense dimly, just out of reach beyond his inner sight, a farther kingdom.

In this same way, each story in this collection drills deeper and deeper or broadens wider and wider or becomes more and more extreme. This amping up effect is characteristic of Millhauser's fiction, and the effect works quite well in his longer fiction. In this collection of short stories, however, the devolution to the absurd happens with such predictability that the construct becomes mundane and even annoying.

1 comment:

rjnagle said...

Wow, how disappointing.

Steven Millhauser is an idol of mine, and although I haven't read a lot, what I've read has appealed to me. But some of the short stories have been remarkable.

I imagine Millhauser likes experimenting with short forms a lot. He never was really about portraying characters; even for the novels, I feel as though the protagonist were described in a distant/impersonal way. Millhauser (if I recall) tries a lot of third person limited omniscience, but his characters don't jump to life too easily. We are always conscious of the formality and artifice. In that respect, Millhauser reminds me of Oates (another author I adore!--talk about damning with faint praise). Perhaps Millhauser has moved onto different things, but when I read a M novel, I feel as though I'm reading a gigantic fairy tale.

Thanks for the review.