Book Review, Fiction, Short Story, Steven Millhauser

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.
Book Review, Fiction, Kurt Vonnegut, Short Story

Review: Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

It’s hard to believe that a person could be such a brilliant, en pointe writer for so very long. Many of the stories (if not all?) in Look at the Birdie seem to have been written later in Vonnegut’s life. The illustrations are all from the few years before Vonnegut died in April, 2007. Somehow, incredibly, these works are as mesmerizing, as darkly humorous, and as meaningful as any of his previous works – including Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five. I have more experience with Vonnegut the novelist than I do with Vonnegut the essayist or short story writer (though I did read A Man Without A Country – also brilliant!) but, I must say, I am so grateful to the publishers and family for allowing a posthumous printing of these incredible pieces. Particular favorites include “Petrified Ants,” “Confido,” and “Hall of Mirrors.” The Sci-Fi/Fantasy element is certainly still there, as well as Vonneguts interest in the super/paranormal; still, as always, Vonnegut manages to incorporate these elements so naturally, so realistically, that it’s almost impossible to separate them as fiction from the fiction. This is an absolutely solid anthology of short fiction from one of the best and greatest American writers and satirists of all time – and a must for any Vonnegut fan.

African-American, Andy Behrman, Book Review, Drama, Fantasy, Fiction, Gay Lit, J.D. Salinger, Langston Hughes, Rick Riordan, Scott Heim, Shakespeare, Short Story

Review: Previously Read, Briefly Reviewed

Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger

This collection of short stories has been sitting on my shelf for about a year. I love J.D. Salinger, but I suppose I was a bit leery of reading his short stories, as I’ve only read his novel The Catcher in the Rye and his dual-novella Franny and Zooey (Both of which I highly recommend). I had nothing to worry about, though. These short stories – admittedly, some more effective than others – are pure Salinger. They’re witty, sarcastic, sad, entertaining, and original. I particularly enjoyed the elliptical stories (the first and last stories in the collection) “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” and “Teddy.” They were incredibly moving and fantastically written. I will definitely read most of these stories, if not the whole collection, many times over.

Mysterious Skin by Scott Heim

Probably one of the best gay fiction(?) novels of all time. Painful, funny, dangerous, sexy, mature, and playful. Fantastic read.

Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman

Nothing special. Behrman tries too hard to be psychotic.

The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes

Absolutely beautiful collection of short stories, chronicling race relations in the American Jazz Age. Hughes writes a stunning anthropological study of the white race, in response to Dubois’s The Souls of Black Folk.

The Titan’s Curse (Percy Jackson & The Olympians #3) by Rick Riordan

Just another fantastic installment of the great “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series. Each new story is better than the last – the action is getting more intense, the danger more real and more powerful. Plus, Riordan’s knowledge of Classical Greek Mythology is superb. He turns that knowledge into something both useful and entertaining – education can be fun! I would recommend this series to anyone who enjoyed Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, or similar fantasy genre series’. It’s not nearly as sophisticated as Lord of the Rings and the narrative construction doesn’t “progress” through time the way that the Harry Potter novels do, but it’s still a worthy, exciting read. Light but fruitful. Can’t wait to get number four!

Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s exploration of the human conscience – the meaning of “madness” – is what made this play so revolutionary and it is what has kept the play so popular for over 300 years. Hamlet breaks tradition from previous revenge tragedies of the Jacobean, Elizabethan, and classical tragedies in that Shakespeare provides a “method” for the madness. The purpose of the “ghost” of Hamlet’s father remains debated today. The discussion of protestant vs catholic vs pagan beliefs is exciting.

The Arden edition is especially beneficial to students of literature or of Shakespeare because it provides excellent explanatory notes, appendices, introductions, etc.