Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Steven Millhauser, "Dangerous Laughter"

Steven Millhauser's new collection is clearly inspired by Borges' Ficciones, with eight of the thirteen short stories bound into the category of either "impossible architectures" or "heretical histories." But he's come a long way since he started chronicling lives in 1972's Edwin Mullhouse: the comically existential interpretation of a mutually destructive Tom and Jerry cartoon ("Cat 'n' Mouse") comes across as a polished George Saunders; the solipsistic refusal to speak and newfound pleasure in language ("History of a Disturbance") could be an accomplished Paul Auster. Not to mention the fainter echoes of contemporary wordsmiths like Ben Marcus ("A Change in Fashion") or the genre-dabblings of Michael Chabon ("The Wizard of West Orange"), who has an equal appreciation for the decor of an era.

This collection catches Millhauser at his inventive best, which is good, for he still has difficultly grasping (like many of the authors above) on actual characters. That is, this is a man better suited to describe situations and machinery than the people thrust into or operating them. Sometimes this has a neat payoff--in the most affecting piece of the collection, "The Disappearance of Elizabeth Coleman," the careful analysis of a mystery is turned back on the narrator, remarking on the significance of insignificance--although sometimes, as in the too-long "The Room in The Attic," it only serves to keep us in the dark. Others, like "Dangerous Laughter," fall into a middle place, where the story remains endlessly fascinating (in this case, the depiction of "laugh parlors" and their natural development in the endless quest for something new) even as the characters remain disaffecting and disaffected.

That's why Millhauser is best sticking with his Borgian instincts, and delving deeper and deeper into our the ever-changing (inwardly spiraling) trends of our world, as in the all-encompassing world of "The Dome," the dissatisfaction associated with perfection in "In the Reign of Harad IV," and the Babel-like distance created--our fluctuations high and low--by "The Tower." There's a sheer genius in Millhauser's ability to invent something totally new--and then to follow it through to its logical end, and his writing style follows that same clockwork precision. The joy of reading Millhauser may largely be an intellectual one, but it is a pleasure all the same to spend such provocative moments in the company of chroniclers of the ever disappearing present ("Here at the Historical Society") or reading the magical-realism behind a new form of highly life-like paintings (the verisimlist movement) that were "A Precursor of the Cinema."


isaac butler said...

You cannot POSSIBLY think that Michael Chabon doesn't create memorable characters. That's impossible.

Also, is Millhauser's story about the town where everyone kills themselves in this collection? i love that story.

Aaron Riccio said...

Nope, I think Chabon is great: because he started with actual fiction, he--like Rushdie--is actually able to write genre works (as with the Moorcock-like "Gentlemen of the Road") that have real substance. However, much as I like Borges, Saunders, and Auster (I'm reading "Man in the Dark" next), I never feel connected to the people, only the thoughts. Then again, I like my philosophy and psychology to have narrative drive, so . . .