Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories

Steven Millhauser is a virtuoso of extremes, and in particular of extremes of scale. He began with the diminutive: his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse (1972), is the biography of a novelist who dies at age eleven – think of Boswell’s Life of Johnson mixed with a sinister amount of Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and then reduced, by a process known to Millhauser alone, to the two-thirds scale of the schoolyard. His best-known book, the novel Martin Dressler, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997, reaches toward the other end of the spectrum: our hero, Dressler, builds hotels of increasing grandeur, culminating with the Grand Cosmo, which is so large that it is literally a universe unto itself. The Cosmo is a disaster, and Dressler is ruined: the extremes are not kind to those who reach them, or reach for them.

In his new collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, Millhauser marches on towards the very big, and the very small. The book is divided into four parts: an “Opening Cartoon” and then “Vanishing Acts,” “Impossible Architectures,” and “Heretical Histories,” three sections of four stories each. The architectures of the second section are natural subjects for Millhauser’s talent: the narrator of “The Dome” tells us how first houses, then subdivisions, then towns, and finally the entire United States were covered by transparent protective domes, and he imagines the day when the universe itself will be endomed. “In the Reign of Harad IV” concerns a court miniaturist who is driven by an inner compulsion to work at smaller and smaller scales until at last he “dropped fully beneath the floor of the visible.” “The Tower,” the most Borges-like of the stories, imagines a Tower of Babel grown so tall that “mathematical conclusions proved that no one could climb even that far in the course of an entire lifetime.” So, the narrator tells us, “A number of families therefore came to a decision. They chose a son and his bride and instructed them to climb as far as possible into the inconceivably high yet still far from complete Tower, there to settle in one of the new chambers that had begun to be fashioned for townspeople with a taste for height. In their new quarters they were to bear children, who in turn would one day continue to ascend.”

Even the stories that aren’t about the gigantic or the minuscule brush up, in their own ways, against the limits of what can be experienced. “A Change In Fashion” describes a fad for women’s dresses of increasing enormity, until finally the women are able to slip out of them unnoticed, and sit “in the kitchen of a neighbor’s house, dressed in old bathrobes and talking among themselves,” while the dresses stand motionless on the lawn. A group of teenage girls plumb the extremes of humor in “Dangerous Laughter”; in “The Wizard of West Orange,” an Edison-like inventor’s assistant devises a machine to make “new touches,” sensations that no one has ever felt before.

Some of these stories end happily and many do not, but all are animated by a sympathy for the doomed endeavor, the creation that goes beyond the limit of what the world will tolerate. One gets the sense that Millhauser too wants to go to the limit, or a little beyond it; his sentences, like Nabokov’s, have an acuity that feels almost insolent. Consider the following from the title story: “A clattering startled me. Along the shady sidewalk, trembling with spots of sunlight, a girl with yellow pigtails was pulling a lollipop-red wagon, which held a jouncing rhinoceros.” The colors strike you first of all: yellow, lollipop-red-Millhauser’s palette abounds in bright colors. Then you feel the rightness of trembling for the spots of sun in between the leaf-shadows; and then, perhaps a second later, you think, wait, a rhinoceros? But the story has already moved on; the rhinoceros is withdrawn behind the curtain and does not appear again.

Unlike some of his protagonists, the unhappy ones, generally, Millhauser knows when to stop. Martin Dressler, a book about enormous doomed constructions, is a pleasing 293 pages long, and apart from a few sentences that run to half a page or a little more, its prose demands no superhuman efforts of the reader. Dangerous Laughter is the same way: although it has a great deal to say about people who dream too big, or too small, or just plain wrong, the stories themselves contain little that would offend, say, a tax lawyer reading The New Yorker in his psychiatrist’s waiting room. There is much eroticism but little sex, much disappointment but little grief; much resentment but little rage. Setting aside the occasional rhinoceros, many of these stories take place in the anodyne world of cherry Cokes and drives to the beach, high-school students and marketing consultants; and many of the ones that happen elsewhere – “The Dome,” for example – are told in a sociological second-person plural.

It doesn’t feel right to fault Millhauser for this. The shady streets and lollipop-red wagons belong to his imagination, just as the world of burrow-like offices and office-like burrows belonged to Kafka. As for the ‘we’ who tell so many of these stories, perhaps a certain sociological distance is what Millhauser is aiming for: he wants us to admire his worlds from a remove, as though they were under magical transparent domes, which expose everything to the eye and nothing to the touch. And yet I can’t help but wish that, just once, Millhauser had gone past where it is good to go, and made some wild imposition on my ear, or my sensibility, or my patience, if only so that I could have felt firsthand the elation and despair of making something that is right in itself but not right for anyone except its maker and perhaps a few like-minded readers.

Which is not to say that these stories are not moving. They are moving, especially as they reach their various ends – Millhauser is a master of the last sentence, and of the first sentence, too, actually. (“The Tower,” for example, begins, “During the course of many generations the Tower grew higher and higher until one day it pierced the floor of heaven.” I won’t give its goosebump-inducing last sentence away.) Consider this passage, which comes almost at the end of “History of a Disturbance,” a story about a man who comes to find language unbearably imprecise:

Enough. You can’t know what these words have cost me, I who no longer have words to speak. It’s like returning to the house of one’s childhood: there is the white picket fence, there is the old piano, the Schumann on the music rack, the rose petals beside the vase, and there, look!-above the banister, the turn at the top of the stairs. But all has changed, all’s heavy with banishment, for we are no longer who we were.

In a certain state of mind, perhaps unfamiliar to the reader, but perhaps not, even a phrase as ordinary as “the white picket fence” can be written only with enormous effort. Words and sensations are incommensurable, just as the present is incommensurable with the past; and Millhauser, as much as anyone, knows it. When he is at his best, as he is several times in this collection, he makes us feel that the middle is just as desperate and dangerous a place as the extremes.