The Eyes of Our Skin Are Closed

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The enchantment of Dangerous Laughter is not merely a function of the tales themselves, but also of the way in which Millhauser tells them – with careful, attentive prose that is rich in detail yet never overwhelming.

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I will occasionally experience, upon waking from a good sleep, a momentary, acute disorientation. You may know what I’m talking about: Those first five seconds after a particularly vivid dream, just before the world comes into focus, when the laws of imagination and the laws of reality are blurred.

For me, this is a pleasing juxtaposition – an instant of magic during which the awareness of my own mental/corporeal disconnection provokes in me a state of quiet awe, the realization that even as my brain lingers in the dreamscape, my body attunes to the physical. Between these realms, there is space enough for a quiet truth to reveal itself: We humans, with our capacity for both complex thought and emotional attachment, are strange creatures indeed – far too irrational to be trusted.

This poses a sort of dilemma to the fiction writer: How do you aspire to veracity while maintaining a safe distance from the individual?

The answer for Steven Millhauser is to give reality the funhouse-mirror treatment: distorting the recognizable, exposing the hidden, and then presenting it all objectively. The thirteen beautifully crafted stories in his new collection, Dangerous Laughter, are not tales of love or sadness, of determination or redemption; they are not character-based introspections into the dark nature of man, or chronicles of steadfast struggle. They are presentations of alternate realities, wholly conceived other worlds at once familiar and foreign – where a worker from an unusual Historical Society ruminates on the value of his life’s labor and an adolescent feels the inevitability of summer’s end; where cities are sealed in domes and towers reach to the heavens.

The collection divides into three parts. The first, “Vanishing Acts,” considers the idea of discovery through withdrawal. In “The Room in the Attic,” a boy’s unorthodox relationship with his friend’s sister alters his perception of perception; in “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” a woman’s mundane life becomes the subject of intrigue after she mysteriously ceases to exist. The main character of the title story derives unbridled pleasure from a ritual steeped in taboo.

Part Two, “Impossible Architectures,” chronicles feats of daring engineering on scales both grand (the aforementioned dome and tower to Heaven, as well as the ambitious other town of “The Other Town”) and miniature (a model-maker’s painstaking construction of a world too small to be seen by the naked eye in “In the Reign of Harad IV”). The section titled “Heretical Histories” delves into an imagined past, where the Age of Concealment gives rise to a series of outlandish dresses (“A Change in Fashion”) and an artist of the Verisimilist school elicits curiosity and condemnation when he begins experimenting with animate paint (“A Precursor to Cinema”).

The enchantment of Dangerous Laughter is not merely a function of the tales themselves, but also of the way in which Millhauser tells them – with careful, attentive prose that is rich in detail yet never overwhelming. He accomplishes something truly admirable in these pages, capturing the sentiment of the intangible and giving it a form, allowing us glimpses into a wondrous world that is simultaneously plausible and implausible, real and make-believe, with no clear line to distinguish one from the other.

In the final story, “The Wizard of West Orange,” a librarian in Thomas Edison’s laboratory has a disturbing experience when he becomes the test subject for a machine that simulates the sense of touch. The haptograph, as the machine is called, has the ability to transmit both recognizable tactile sensations – a handshake, a pat on the back – and ones that are alien and indescribable. Thus, our narrator arrives at the following conclusion, which may be handily applied to Millhauser’s work as a whole: “[T]he world is hidden from us… our bodies, which seem to bring us the riches of the earth, prevent the world from reaching us. For the eyes of our skin are closed.”

And so I return to those blissful seconds at the beginning of my day, before the door to my unconscious has shut completely, when the physical and logical rules of the world do not yet apply, when I am neither holding onto what has passed nor waiting for the next thing to come. Because the real achievement of Dangerous Laughter is that no matter how outlandish, how distant from our reality these stories seem, there is always a kernel of truth that speaks to our humanity and reveals something profound about our world: that the potential for magic is ubiquitous, if only we open ourselves to its possibility.


Alexander Brasfield is writing a collection of short stories. He is a native of San Francisco. More from this author →