Dangerous Laughter 13 Stories
Reviewed by Jane Zwart
Of course, either answer to this question troubles us. We cannot consent to label art as either mere pretense or outright tutelage. Neither can we say whether we thrill or cringe, on reading a story like "The Dome." For the dome, a continental bell jar that puts the United States on display, simultaneously beautifies and belittles all that it contains. In other words, anything under the dome—like anything in a frame or on film or after a title page—becomes at once more picturesque and less significant than "real life." So when Millhauser writes that "the Mississippi is nothing but a trickle of water in a child's terrarium," the image charms us, but the sensibility that makes that image thinkable also makes possible what follows it: the callous definition of death as "little more than a brilliantly contrived effect."
The best plots in Dangerous Laughter, then, orbit indispensable questions. And if these stories leave the questions that they tinker with unanswered—and even, in large part, unasked—nonetheless we know what inquiries matter most to them. We know because Millhauser's tales chart such a tight orbit around the kernel where art and the actual overlap.
"The Other Town," for instance, spurs us to ask how far art's detailed semblance of human being can go before it begins to trespass on the actual stuff of human grit and the human heart. Likewise, when the naïve narrator of "Here at the Historical Society" smugly announces that the society's "meticulous and passionate researches multiply the details of the world and increase its being," we hear an inverted repetition of the physicists' old question—at what point does observation skew truth? Although for the fabulist, maybe we should phrase the question differently. Maybe we should ask at what point craft disfigures verity.
And somewhere at the back of these tales that interrogate themselves, in a room furnished with an old library card catalogue, its drawers filled with pince–nez and bottle stops, I imagine Steven Millhauser, their author, querying himself. In particular, I imagine him second–guessing his weakness for simile, for fictions swarmed by detail. I imagine him asking whether a weakness for the "licorice–colored abdomen[s]" of flies and "yellow yarn [ … ] as heavy as candy" is really is a weakness—a retreat from the palpable world—or whether it might be a rehearsal for that world, a practiced fondness for whatever might turn up.
For my part, I believe the latter.
Jane Zwart is assistant professor of English at Calvin College. She has poems recently published or forthcoming in Rattle, Boston Review, and Free Lunch.
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