Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser is a difficult book to rate. It is a collection of short stories, but one has stretch the definition of “story” by quite a lot to call some of them by that name. Many are what can be called “sketches” – of an idea, of a person or of a situation. All of them are idea driven: the characters are placed there just to serve as vehicles for the ideas (in this aspect, and with respect to the weirdness of the tales, Millhauser resembles Lord Dunsany to a great extent).
These stories are weird – seriously. The author does not want to present us with a set of believable characters and describe a situation in which they develop; rather, he throws us an idea which is taken to its logical extreme by the characters involved. This method, while it provides some startling reading experiences, pales after a time and begins to feel seriously gimmicky.
Millhauser has structured the book in four parts: the first one, a prologue of sorts, containing one story and the remaining three four stories each. Each of these three sections have a certain thematic unity, and encourages the reader to explore various aspects of the same meta-theme.
The first section is an “Opening Cartoon”, the familiar Tom & Jerry animated short I used to love before each MGM movie as a kid. The story, titled “Cat and Mouse”, gives a blow-by-blow description the endless rivalry between Tom Cat and Jerry Mouse. The language is simple, and one can visualise the scene with each sentence. However, as the tale progresses, both the mouse and the cat begin to introspect and bring their existential angst on to their Sisyphus-like antagonistic existence. This is a fantastic story, and pulled me into the book.
The second section, “Vanishing Acts”, is about human beings and their existence in the temporal world. In a sense, this is also an existential analysis. There is a vanished girl, who slowly fades from the communal memory but comes to haunt the memory of the narrator, even though he is not sure he knows her; the asexual relationship between a boy and a girl in a totally darkened room, relying only the verbal and the tactile; dangerous infectious laughter which kills off its addicts; and a person who gets increasingly alienated from the physical world through the perceived insufficiency of language.
The third section (“Impossible Architectures”) is about the relation of man to the structures he builds up. They contain the unbelievably large (a climate-controlled dome covering the whole of the United States of America, an engineering analysis of an alternate Tower of Babel), the impossibly small (miniatures so small as to be totally invisible) and the totally meaningless (a town which is a carbon copy of the one inhabited by the protagonists).
The last section, which is titled “Heretical Histories”, gives us four tales of impossible historical happenings in what must be a time stream totally different from our own. The first story in this section about a historical society which is obsessed with preserving history down to the last detail, because the past is the only thing that really “exists” – the present is ephemeral and the future, nonexistent. Of the remaining three stories, one talks about a weird fashion fad where the dress grows in opacity and size and ultimately ends up concealing the woman totally and taking on a life of its own; one is about a painter who apparently discovers a way to incorporate time and motion into his creations; and the last one is about an alternate Edison, one of whose assistants invents a machine which can simulate the sense of touch.
This book made me think a lot about my experiences as a human being – about time, objects, experiences and emotions. Lacking sympathetic characters, one is immediately drawn to the idea behind the tale. The stories are very readable and enjoyable as a sort of brain exercise. However, they felt repetitive after a while.
An enjoyable read, if you are a person who reads with the intellect.