Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Realm of Perfection

In Steven Millhauser’s essay, “The Ambition of the Short Story,” he pits short story's David against the novel’s Goliath in a paean to the perfection of smallness. “Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection.” After reading his essay over and over again the week it appeared in the New York Times Book Review, I put his latest collection of short stories, Dangerous Laughter, on my to-be-read list.

Millhauser divides his collection into three sections (plus a cartoon!). The stories fit so perfectly into these groups, that it’s almost as if Millhauser planned his collection out before the stories were written. His repetition of themes and various visual motifs add to the notion. In the first section, Vanishing Acts, he conjures a number of shy, withdrawn young women, like the title character in “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” the sister who never leaves her darkened room in “The Room in the Attic,” and Clara Schuler, an unassuming, quiet girl who catches onto the fad of ecstatic laughter in the title story.

Millhauser also likes to contrast the sunny new ranch houses of a coastal New England town against the dark, multi-story homes in the established older neighborhoods across town. Everything on the new side, including the beach, seems to glisten with a technicolor shine, as if it just fell out of a David Lynch movie. In two different stories, Millhauser shows us a bright soda bottle tilted in the sand, it’s liquid appearing slanted against the glass as it seeks a new level. On the gloomy side of the town, the resemblance is closer to a Poe story. The brother and sister of “The Room in the Attic” could easily be stand-ins for the ill-fated brother and sister from “Fall of the House of Usher.”

Millhauser uses a stylized, miniature fly in the same manner in stories of the second and third sections. The miniaturist of “In the Reign of Harad IV” places a fly on the dollhouse-scaled model of an apple and becomes so enthralled with working at that scale that he begins making smaller and smaller creations until they are invisible to the naked eye. The notion of the inexhaustible attention to detail reflects Millhauser’s ability to pinpoint such precise details in his stories. Like the tactile descriptions of objects placed in the narrator’s hand in both “The Room in the Attic” and “The Wizard of West Orange.” Or this description from “The Other Town:”
the DeAngelo yard, say, with its flowered beach towels hanging over the back-porch rail and its coil of green hose next to the dented garbage cans, or the Altschuler yard with its tall sugar maple, its yellow Wiffle ball bat lying half in sun and half in shade, and its aluminum chaise lounge with strips of orange and white vinyl on which a blue eyeglass case is resting, or the Langley yard with its grass-stained soccer ball, its red-handled jump rope, its tin pie-dish for home plate, and its bags of peat moss and fertilizer leaning up against the side of the detached garage.

Several of the stories are, in fact, about details. In “The Other Town,” a small town maintains an identical, unoccupied, second town just beyond its limits in the woods. Every quotidian detail of the original town is duplicated by a team of “replicators.” In “Here at the Historical Society,” a New England town’s historical society begins to concentrate its efforts on documenting every aspect of the most recent past, with the understanding that “recent past” can refer to minutes ago.

As a fan of more realistic fiction, I found the lack of dialogue in some of Millhauser’s stories oddly disconcerting and the effect made them more memorable to me. Stories such as “A Change in Fashion” and “The Tower” and “The Dome” are presented more like tales, some strange fable from a Twilight Zone era.

Millhauser’s themes and interests of details and the vibrancy of all of the senses culminated in the final story of Dangerous Laughter, “The Wizard of West Orange.” A librarian in Thomas Edison’s West Orange Invention factory, finds himself involved in a secret experiment to test the haptograph, a machine that mimics the tactile impressions made on the body by stimulating the skin. The journal entries of the librarian’s obsession with the machine describe the experience with the devotion of a religious experience.

I found myself thinking about the stories in Dangerous Laughter days after I’d read them, wondering what part of my surroundings had triggered the connection, what detail I'd noticed that I hadn’t before. I have Millhauser’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Martin Dressler on a shelf somewhere. It’s moving into the top of the to-be-read pile.

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