Book Review: Readings
Millhauser is a bit of an illusionist himself, trading in elaborate setups, allegorical sleight of hand, and fairy tales with something up their sleeve
Reviewed by Michael Agresta, Fri., Feb. 29, 2008
Dangerous Laughter: 13 Storiesby Steven Millhauser
Knopf, 256 pp., $24
Steven Millhauser is not your typical Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist. He won back in 1997, wedged between Rich-ard Ford and Philip Roth, two standard-bearers of the realism-and-infidelity tradition in American fiction. Millhauser has always been drawn to more fantastic themes. The author of the story on which the film The Illusionist was based, he is a bit of an illusionist himself, trading in elaborate setups, allegorical sleight of hand, and fairy tales with something up their sleeves.
Dangerous Laughter collects an array of successful short stories, the majority of which have previously appeared in the likes of Harper's, The New Yorker, and McSweeney's. Many are set in idyllic suburbs, where high schoolers ride bikes around town looking for metaphysical escapes from youthful boredom. The title story describes a game invented by students who gather in attics to laugh hysterically for hours, pushing the limits of humor and sanity. It could be an allegory for drug culture, but, as with most of Millhauser's work, it remains richer if left open to the imagination.
Other stories do away with characters altogether, reverting to the first-person plural or essayistic accounts, channeling Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. "The Dome" witnesses the downward spiral of an American fad for weatherproofing family yards. "The Other Town" presents two identical towns, separated by an expanse of woods. One town is an exact replica of the first, open to visitors from the original town. Civic employees work all day to ensure that each change in the first town is mirrored in the second. The relationship of the two towns evokes our odd human habit of learning most about ourselves from our fictional creations.
Millhauser writes: "It's almost as if we can't feel our town, cannot know about it, until we're there, in the other town, imagining our town on the other side of the woods. So perhaps it's true, after all, that when we visit the other town we aren't escaping from our town, as some say, but entering it at last." Millhauser's stories take us in both directions at once – the laughing escape of fantasy and the dangerous proximity of the best in modern literature.