Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser

I rarely buy short story collections unless I’m already familiar with the author, and before this I had never heard of Steven Millhauser (or I thought I hadn’t, anyway – it wasn’t until I finished the book and read the author bio that I realized he was the guy who wrote “Eisenheim the Illusionist,” which was the basis for the movie The Illusionist). I never would have read this on my own, but luckily I have an awesome relative who, for my Christmas gift one year, gave me secondhand copies of three of her favorite books. Dangerous Laughter was one of them, and I can see why it’s her favorite. It might be one of my new favorites, too.

None of these stories take place in the real world. It’s close to our world, but things are just slightly off. People make choices, or perform an action, or build something, and then they continue on that route, taking things to a new extreme that you had never expected: in “In the Reign of Harad IV” a king’s craftsman, renowned for making miniatures, makes smaller and smaller objects, until his work passes beyond even magnified sight. “A Precursor of the Cinema” documents the career of a mysterious Belle Epoque painter who, not satisfied with hyper-realistic paintings, creates paintings that can move on their own. In the title story, a group of bored teenagers invent a game where the goal is to laugh longer than anyone else, and it results in a girl laughing herself to death.

And then there are stories where he takes a simple idea and looks at it closer than you ever even considered, and considers aspects that you had never even thought of. The first story, “Cat and Mouse” is a straightforward, almost clinically dry description of the Tom-and-Jerry-like feud of a cat and a mouse (“The cat crashes into the wall and folds up like an accordion. Slowly he unfolds, emitting accordion music. He lies on the floor with his chin on his upraised paw, one eyebrow lifting high in disgust, the claws of his other forepaw tapping the floorboards. A small piece of plaster drops on his head.”), and then it suddenly goes deep into the psychology behind these cartoon archetypes, and I’m never going to see Tom and Jerry the same way again:

“[The cat] despises the mouse’s physical delicacy, his weak arms as thin as the teeth of combs, his frail, crushable skull, his fondness for books and solitude. At the same time, he is irritably aware that he admires the mouse’s elegance, his air of culture, his easy self-assurance. Why is he always reading? In a sense, the mouse intimidates the cat: in his presence, the cat feels clumsy and foolish. He thinks obsessively about the mouse and suspects with rage that the mouse frequently does not think about him at all, there in his brown room. If the mouse were less indifferent, would he burn with such hatred? Might they learn the live peacefully together in the same house? Would he be released from this pain of outrage in his heart?”

An eerie, surreal, and fascinating collection. Should be savored slowly, one story at a time.

Verdict: four out of five stars

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