By Steven Millhauser
Alfred A. Knopf, 256 pp.
“There are two kinds of people,” says a character from Steven Millhauser’s new short story collection, “wakers and dreamers.” The author is among the latter. Few writers tap the oneiric muse as deeply as Millhauser, who tampers with the boundary between reality and dreams until it dissolves.
His prose is dreamily lucid. It alights on one vivid image after another, in a staccato rhythm, unfolding with a relentless internal logic. Castles, miniaturists, artificers, geniuses, magicians and mechanical reproductions so cunning they verge on life recur in his fiction with dreamlike intensity. And his dreams are more than passing fancies. They’re carefully erected systems where the reader becomes a heavy-lidded variable, swept along by secret algorithms.
Millhauser is a successful writer: he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler, and his brilliant story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was adapted into a feature film, The Illusionist, in 2006. The film was mediocre, but Millhauser’s spirit showed through in its blurry distinction between technology and magic. Nevetheless, he’s far from a household name, because his stories are too dangerous, too close to the bone of desire. They’re so compelling to me because by getting everything inside their hermetic borders, Millhauser obliterates everything outside of them. They are sovereign psychic spaces where I love to go.
What’s really astonishing about Millhauser is how many times he’s successfully told what is, at root, the same story, which is always about desire. For Millhauser, desire begins at the outer edge of the skin, and his characters’ feverish longings urge them toward transcendence, disappearance or death. In “The Room in the Attic,” a young man visits a young woman in a dark room, playing games of sense but never seeing her. (Tantalizing cycles of concealment and revelation are among Millhauser’s favorite gambits.) The young man’s desire increases proportionately to the young woman’s inaccessibility, and the story builds with livewire intensity toward the moment of revelation, from which the protagonist averts his eyes.
Millhauser is also obsessed with scale and symmetry, so he always stages his single story on multiple orders of magnitude. While his characters pursue their dark games toward their logical conclusions, the systems of which they’re a part elaborate themselves toward moribund excess. Each of his constructs has a physical and metaphysical dimension, like a tree and its quivering reflection in the surface of a pond, although we’re never sure which is realer: This is a writer who sees gears turning behind the sun and hearts beating in machines. His narrative architecture is so perfectly harmonized that each story, whether set in a castle, a suburban neighborhood at night or a woman’s dress, becomes a microcosm of the universe. Describing a stockroom, the narrator of the “The Wizard of West Orange” also summarizes his creator’s work: “[A] finitude with aspirations to allness[.]”
If you’re new to Millhauser, Dangerous Laughter comes highly recommended, as it so perfectly distills his perennial themes. One story arc Millhauser has revisited time and again goes like this: A genius is engaged in some endeavor revolving around illusions of time, scale or appearance. He becomes restless with the limits of his art and enters a period of prodigious virtuosity; his obsession peaks, and he achieves the ultimate expression of his craft. Nonetheless, the genius feels a lingering dissatisfaction that cues a dark turn in his practice, and we arrive at the metaphysical endgame that always lurks at the end of Millhauser’s ramifying systems. This is precisely the arc that guides “In the Reign of Harad IV,” where a court miniaturist pursues smaller and smaller arrangements until his miniatures are too small to perceive and questions of their existence come into play.
Millhauser also likes to blur or invert closely related concepts by seamless increments, and Dangerous Laughter plumbs the tension between painting and film, reality and replica, clothing and architecture, laughter and tears (in the brilliant title story), cartoon cat and mouse, concealment and disappearance, speech and silence, protection and imprisonment, present and past, heaven and hell. These are such archetypal Millhauser stories that longtime fans might occasionally feel a twinge of the same ennui that drives his characters deeper into their obsessions. As soon as a dome goes up around a house in “The Dome,” you know the entire world will be domed in the end. When a tower to heaven gets built in “The Tower,” you can predict that eventually it will be twinned by a tower to hell. But even the experienced Millhauser reader will find plenty of astonishment in Dangerous Laughter, as the predictable bits are so well-turned that, arriving at them, I felt I had “come to a forbidden door at the end of a private corridor and heard, as [I] slowly turned the key, a sound of distant music.”
This is the first of a new, occasional feature in which writers discuss a particular enthusiasm.