Review: Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter is a collection of 13 short stories, separated into 3 “categories” or “studies:” 1) Vanishing Acts 2) Impossible Architecture and 3) Heretical Histories.  The collection also begins with a short story called “Cat and Mouse,” which Millhauser classifies as his “Opening Cartoon.”  The whole effect of this sub-divided compilation with cartoony introduction is to make the collection come across similarly to a 1950s late-night Hitchcockian television series.  The first category, Vanishing Acts, contains four stories which attempt a discussion on unhappiness and loneliness, the result of these feelings being the slow disappearance of someone (the self).  The second category, Impossible Architecture, contains another four stories and, while the idea of smallness and invisibility still registers, the main theme here is this idea of creating amazing, masterful designs – impossible scientific feats – which, rather than satisfy the creators’ appetite, instead leave them feeling less satisfied than they were before they started.  There is a constant need for “more” and “better.”  The final category, Heretical Histories, contains four stories which take an alternative approach and view of the study of history – history in general, fashion/social culture history, art and cinema history, and scientific history.   

The Good:
What I like most about these stories is that they border on terror.  There is something strange and disturbing about each story, even though many seem to be simple stories about a different time or place, or a different sort of people.  There is a sense of “something wrong” in each of the stories.  For instance, in the cover-story, “Dangerous Laughter,” we see a group of teenagers who meet to have “laughing parties.”  A safe, even cute idea, at first, but one begins to wonder what these children lack, what are they missing that they must seek each other out and force themselves to laugh themselves almost into insanity?  These laughing parties turn into crying parties, which become the new vogue, and the shy girl who was forced to “come out” at a laughing party, and who became the reigning champion of the laughers, gets left behind.  It is the eerie touches to everyday life that I find most intriguing.  The girl in “The Room in the Attic” who may or may not be whom we are expected to believe she is – and, if she is not, what does that say about her entire family?  The pioneering families and communities in “The Dome” who, by seeking to make their lives just a bit easier, just a bit better, come to isolate themselves completely from one another, to exist in a world unknown and unidentifiable, where even the grandest schemes of nature become playthings.  And the poor villagers in “The Tower,” who become so disillusioned by their great adventure into the Heavens that they actually begin to seek the only opposing adventure, into the depths of Hell.  The idea behind each short story in this collection is truly inspired and wonderful.  I imagine someone like Hitchcock or Poe or even Dennis Cooper could push these stories into the stratosphere, but Millhauser holds back.  Millhauser explains just enough, describes just enough.  Is it enough? 

The Bad: 
While each of these stories is inspired, as I said above, I couldn’t help but to be left feeling slighted.  I imagine these visions in the head and hands of Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, and the horror I imagine, the true sense of terror – and not just the anticlimactic tease the reader is allowed here – is almost unimaginable.  I can’t determine whether Millhauser held back on purpose or not.  If he did, I could understand reasons for doing so.  Many of these stories are believable in many ways and the slight creepiness, the eerie but unidentifiable makes it all the more real because, in life, some things do just “weird us out.”  We find ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable, with people who make our skin crawl, and there may not always be evidential reason for it, but the feeling remains.  This could be what is happening with Dangerous Laughter.  Still, I can’t shake the part of me which feels that, brilliant ideas are here, but the story-telling prowess is just lacking.  The brilliance with which this collection could shine is dimmed by the fact that, when it comes down to the language, the words, well, the beauty of the stories just aren’t translating.  I also think Millhauser left too many loose ends, where nothing gets explained.  Who is the girl in “The Room in the Attic?”  What happened to Earnshaw in “The Wizard of West Orange” to change his disposition so drastically?  How can one really just disappear, even with practice, as the main character eventually does in “History of a Disturbance?”  So much wonder, such brilliant places Millhauser doth go – but it’s almost as if he wipes out the path to and from, and we’re left standing a crossroads, with no street sign to indicate the way.  

The Final Verdict: 3.5 Out of 5.0
While I was underwhelmed by the majority of these stories, I was also intrigued by most.  The writing did not necessarily inspire or move me, but many of the themes and ideas did.  I found Millhauser to be echoing Poe and Hawthorne on many levels, though his mastery of story-telling and the written word are not quite in the same league.   There is an element of terror to these exploratory/fantastical stories that could have been greatly developed but which were ultimately underdeveloped and, therefore, left me feeling a bit detached and cold.  Still, a part of me can’t help wondering if this was intentional, as much as I want to stray from this inquiry (because I would be disappointed if it were the case).  Yet, Millhauser writes in “History of a Disturbance” these words: “Always I had the sense that words concealed something, that if only I could abolish them I would discover what was actually there.”  Perhaps this is Millhauser’s point, after all.  That the words don’t matter so much as the story does – the “what happened,” “how did it happen,” and the why did it happen?”  I would tend to agree, except that, in written form, stories and words tend to need one another equally, and Millhauser makes a habit of leaving out the “how” and the “why” altogether in Dangerous Laughter.

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