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Inside the "controlled madness" of creation

Email|Print| Text size + By David Rollow
February 24, 2008

Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories
By Steven Millhauser
Knopf, 244 pp., $24

"Dangerous Laughter" is Steven Millhauser's best story collection. This baker's dozen sums up everything he has been driving at since the beginning of his writing career. Adolescents sulk, break down, and die. Other characters - artists and ordinary people alike - disappear except for the barest trace, or create works of art impossibly small (really invisible) or structures impossibly large (encompassing the world).

Several stories involve disappearances, not only those explicitly grouped under the heading "Vanishing Acts." A colorless young woman disappears, suddenly, it seems, until the narrator realizes she has been growing dimmer for years. "By the time she returned from college, the erasure had become more advanced. The woman glimpsed in town without ever being seen, the unimagined person whom no one could recall clearly, was growing dim, fading away, vanishing, like a room at dusk."

In other stories, artists vanish into their own work, or it vanishes from view. A miniaturist creates smaller and smaller work that becomes so finely wrought that it is invisible - it disappears. Harlan Crane, a painter and failed inventor, becomes a member of the Verisimilist movement. "What set them apart from other realist schools was their fanatically meticulous concern for minuscule detail." Once that would have described Millhauser, but now he jokes about it. The artist vanishes into his work: Crane steps into one of his own paintings and is never seen again.

The eccentric, brilliant adolescent aesthete who often figures in Millhauser's fiction states a theory of art that can be taken as the premise underlying much of Millhauser's work. There are no themes, he says, pointing out that what is central to the work of art is not its meaning. "The difference between human beings and animals was that human beings were able to dream while awake. He said the purpose of books was to allow us to exercise that faculty. Art, he said, was controlled madness. . . . He said that books weren't made of themes which you could write essays about, but of images that inserted themselves into your brain and replaced what you were seeing with your eyes. There were two kinds of people, he said, wakers and dreamers." Millhauser then proceeds to tell a story from which the sense of sight is literally absent, which takes place in the darkness of a bedroom where a neurotic girl is recovering from a breakdown. It is a story of preadolescent sexuality or adolescent presexuality, everything hinted and hidden. It is the most powerful evocation of adolescence that Millhauser has ever given us.

A story about a cat and mouse (the short before the main feature) attempts to bring to mind an animated cartoon. Does it play cat and mouse with the reader? The mouse is an elegant aesthete type who reads too much, and the cat is the crude embodiment of force who is always trying to devour him. Allegorical implications seem to lurk in the situation, if not in the action of the cartoon. Millhauser means these creations to be as literal as they can be. Isn't the imperturbable mouse an artist who attempts to evade the cat so as to find food and set time aside for contemplation? Isn't "finding food" a way of talking about the artist's need to make a living? Isn't the cat the consumer society that devours everything?

Sometimes Millhauser takes a figure of speech and literalizes it, as in the story of a man who goes silent. As often happens in relationships, he has withdrawn from his wife. "You never talk to me," she might have complained; Millhauser takes the complaint literally and writes a story about what such a silence would be like.

A story describes "another" town just like ours, only it isn't. What the narrator calls "our" town is an ordinary place. But it has a companion town a little to the north, as nearly as possible its replica. The replication calls into question, perhaps, the reality of the original, but the author's real business is with the relationship of art to reality, and in this story he explores the likeness and difference. If the work of art is close enough to the thing it represents - life in some aspect - is there a difference? Of course there is, for no matter how far the artist goes, he falls short of duplication. Millhauser writes of a middle path between the outer and inner worlds - our shared town and the other, imagined one - which is the tightrope all artists walk. Curiously, the copyright page carries the type of disclaimer normally associated with thinly disguised autobiography. It is as if Millhauser imagined his stories so meticulously that he brought their contents into being, and the inhabitants now threaten to sue him for verisimilitude, if not for the worse crime of imprisoning them in a reality from which they would rather be released. I think the point of the disclaimer in this case, however, is strictly parody. The whole book is impossible. It might have been written by Bartleby the Scrivener.

Every reader knows of writers who are like secrets one wants to keep yet whose books one wants to tell the world about. Steven Millhauser is mine. Of course, having won the Pulitzer Prize, he is no one's secret, but he is the writer I tell people about, confident they will be enthralled.

David Rollow is a writer and a painter who lives in Boston. He often writes about visual art.

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