Monday, May 18, 2009

Review - Dangerous Laughter

What follows is a short, uncompleted review of Dangerous Laughter, Steven Millhauser's latest collection of short stories. Originally I had intended to write about the entire book, but then I a) ran out of energy, b) discovered that many better reviewers had already written about the book at length, and c) realized that the review I had started would be so long, hardly anybody would read the entire thing (kind of like my "Love & Rockets X" review). At any rate, I decided to go ahead and post this partial review, focusing on the book's opening story, and encourage everyone who appreciates good fiction to read this excellent, excellent book.

Steven Millhauser is one of my favorite writers, and Dangerous Laughter, his new collection of thirteen short stories, which was just released in paperback, may just be the best single book he's ever written (which is saying something considering he won the Pulitzer for Martin Dressler).

The book opens, as did many of the old silent movies in the 30s and 40s, with a cartoon.

Actually, the opening story, "Cat 'N' Mouse," is less a cartoon than a meditation on the classic cartoon dynamic of Tom & Jerry (or Sylvester and Tweety). Now, I realize that calling something "a meditation" is somewhat cliched, and in and of itself kind of meaningless, but here I think the term is apropos. Millhauser conjures many colorful and exquisitely described mental cartoon scenarios, each of which are so familiar, they are a part of the pop-culture-saturated social fabric, a familar cartoon lexicon of unrealistic accidents and exaggerated conflicts which we all have imprinted on our collective memories. But what makes this story "a meditation" are the thoughtful passages interspersed between these familiar confrontations, in which the cat and the mouse reflect on themselves and their relationship, each recognizing their diametric hatred for the other, and yet also understanding the duality and dependency of their eternal conflict. In this sense, the psychology is not unlike that of the Joker/Batman paradigm which Christopher Nolan explored in the Dark Knight. Neither the cat nor the mouse quite understands what a final victory over the other would mean, or even if that would ultimately be fulfilling, and that sad revelation leads both characters to their only natural conclusion (which I won't spoil for you).

Of course all of these cartoonish scenes are written in Millhauser's typically sublime prose, which is among the most evocative and poetic of any modern writer, while still managing to be remain surprisingly natural and wholly accessible (unlike so many authors whose overblown descriptive prose can become tedious and alienating after a few pages).

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