cover image Dangerous Laughter

Dangerous Laughter

Steven Millhauser, . . Knopf, $24 (244pp) ISBN 978-0-307-26756-6

Phenomenal clarity and rapacious movement are only two of the virtues of Millhauser’s new collection, which focuses on the misery wrought by misdirected human desire and ambition. The citizens who build insulated domes over their houses in “The Dome” escalate their ambitions to great literal and figurative heights, but the accomplishment becomes bittersweet. The uncontrollably amused adolescents in the book’s title story, who gather together for laughing sessions, find something ultimately joyless in their mirth. As in earlier works like The Barnum Museum , Millhauser’s tales evolve more like lyrical essays than like stories; the most breathlessly paced sound the most like essays. The painter at the center of “A Precursor of the Cinema” develops from “entirely conventional” works to paintings that blend photographic realism with inexplicable movement, to—something entirely new. Similarly, haute couture dresses grow in “A Change in Fashion” until the people beneath them disappear, and the socioeconomic tension Millhauser induces is as tight as a corset. Though his exaggerated outlook on contemporary life might seem to be at once uncomfortably clinical and fantastical, Millhauser’s stories draw us in all the more powerfully, extending his peculiar domain further than ever. (Feb.)