I discovered Steven Millhauser on Michael Dirda’s recommendation in Bound to Please. Dirda’s review of Little Kingdoms, a book of short stories, was so intriguing that I immediately put it on my TBR list, but then the only book I could find by Millhauser was his collection of three novellas, The King in the Tree (I was not disappointed; you can read my review of it here.) My library recently acquired Dangerous Laughter, another book of short stories, and I snapped it up. These are stories of the strange, the mysterious, the dangerous, the heretical, the disturbing and the disappeared; they’re stories about painters and wizards, makers of miniatures, readers and artists, fashion victims and invisible people. Not your ordinary stories. Literally fantastic. And I didn’t want to put them down.
The opening story sets the tone for the whole collection. “Cat ‘n’ Mouse” lovingly renders Tom and Jerry cartoons, frame by frame, but with the disturbing addition of an omniscient narrator who ponders on the futility of the inner motivations of the cat and mouse: a driving hunger to consume that would render itself useless if consummated; an eternal vigilance against attack that can only deaden the sensibilities. The strong sense is of an allegory with multiple referents. Is it about class? Race? Terrorists? Capitalism? All of these?
Some of these stories have echoes of the best of our short story authors: I caught a strong vibe of Italo Calvino (if Calvino were writing for Weird Tales) in “The Other Town,” in which the inhabitants of an ordinary village devote their tax money to the creation and maintenance of another town exactly like their own in every way. Townspeople can cross through the woods to go visit, open drawers and closets, investigate what is hidden in their own town, what is secret. Then there is “A Change in Fashion,” which I felt could have been written by Margaret Atwood: it nuzzles curiously at the fashion industry, and then takes a juicy bite out of it with its sharp fangs.
Secrets and disappearances take precedence in this book. Women and men disappear, language fades, memories crumble, light flickers, fads pass, towers fall. Even the stories that are ostensibly about preservation (“The Dome,” “Here at the Historical Society”) are about evanescence, impermanence, the impossibility of keeping what we have. Millhauser takes a world that is just outside of reality, just out of sight of the history we know, and implicates us all in its disappearance. While a couple of these stories are not as good as the rest (“The Tower” got tiresome, though the ending was effective — it felt like a sermon, but it wasn’t clear about what), the overall effect of the book is mysterious, intriguing, and lovely. Like his miniaturist in “In the Reign of Harad IV,” the longer you look at his work, the more wonders you see.