You know, I have to admit that I have no idea how to review a short story collection like Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser. I liked it a lot, so it’s tempting to go and tell you about every story in the book, but I think I that would get tedious if you haven’t read them. So instead I’m going to give you my overall impressions of the book, which I hope will be enough to entice you into picking it up .
Dangerous Laughter is a collection of thirteen short stories divided into four sections — “Opening Cartoon,” “Vanishing Acts,” “Impossible Architectures,” and “Heretical Histories.” Within each section, the stories connect to each other by topic. In “Vanishing Acts,” for example, all of the stories have to do with a disappearance. In one, a woman disappears because no one notices her. In another, a young boy befriends a girl who will only allow him to visit her in complete darkness so he can’t actually see her at all.
The way each section goes together by topic is pretty cool, but I think it’s even more impressive the way the entire collection ties together thematically. The major similarity I saw throughout each story in the book was the way they were set up. Each story started with something familiar — the construction of a tower, the chase between a cat and a mouse, or the introduction to a local local historical society — but within a few paragraphs the story shifts to something unfamiliar, odd, or deviant. The reader discovers that the tower is being built to heaven, the cat and mouse have a psychology that influences their interactions, or the historical society seeks to chronicle history by counting the blades of grass in a lawn or collecting the trash discarded on the street.
It’s this sense of deviance (that’s the best word I can think of) that ties the stories together and makes them see dangerous. Millhauser takes a behavior or concept, then stretches it to some sort of logical extreme to see what might happen. In every story, that logical extreme tells the reader something about our own human flaws and foibles. The stories are humorous and you want to laugh, but they are also a little uncomfortable because they’re just real enough to feel plausible.
Like I mentioned earlier, I’m not much of a short story reader, but I’m very happy I picked up this collection. It was interesting to read and try and see the themes throughout the collection, tying the stories together into the logical structure of the book. Millhauser is an effective short story writer because he’s good at quickly setting up the normalcy of the story and then twisting it without feeling like I had the rug pulled out from under my feet. If you’re looking to try and quirky short story collection, and don’t mind your stories a little strange, I’d go pick this one up.
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