December 2008

Paul Kincaid

Science Fiction Skeptic

Dangerous Laughter

When I think about the stories of Steven Millhauser I find myself thinking in terms of paintings. A Magritte, maybe, or perhaps De Chirico. Paintings in which the surface reality is carefully and precisely delineated, but the more we look at it the more it seems to distort our notion of what is, what can be real.

Millhauser is, to my mind, certainly one of the finest and probably one of the most important writers in the fantastic tradition working in America today. I find his influence on Kelly Link, for instance, so obvious and so revealing that I am surprised it is not already the subject of a half-dozen academic studies. And yet, though his stories periodically appear in odd volumes of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, his work seems to be largely ignored by those in the genre. The only essay on his work that I am aware of that has appeared in any genre publication is one I wrote myself. So far I have encountered no review by a genre reviewer other than myself, in print or on line, of his latest collection, Dangerous Laughter.

Sometimes devotion to the work of Steven Millhauser can feel like being in one of his stories. You exist, in this regard, at a tangent to the world. You read books that exist only for you, written by an author who exists only for you. Re-enter the real world, as you do with a shrug and a turn you never quite understand, and you find when you speak of him that you are met with a blank regard, kindly meant but missing the point. Yet make that mysterious turn once more and there are the books, lined on your shelves, each one as haunting, as memorable as the last.

I’m not sure why this lack of attention should be the case. He has never (to the best of my knowledge) been to a convention, but he’s far from alone in that. His stories are published in The New Yorker rather than The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, but then, Kevin Brockmeier’s "Brief History of the Dead" was first published in The New Yorker and that picked up a lot of interest in genre circles. There was a film made of one of his stories (The Illusionist based on "Eisenheim the Illusionist"), but, apart from not really being that faithful to the story, it came out at about the same time as the film of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige, which was a much better film and got far more attention in genre circles. I don’t think Millhauser’s publisher even did a tie-in edition of the collection (The Barnum Museum) from which the story came.

I do not mean to suggest that Millhauser needs the attention of the genre. He has his Pulitzer, why should he care. But I do rather suspect that the genre needs to be aware of Millhauser. And not just Millhauser; there’s any number of writers within the mainstream whose work distorts reality or exploits the fantastic in novel or interesting ways that the genre should be aware of. But too few genre readers pry their attention away from the familiar long enough to notice.

For the sake of this column I’ll stick with Millhauser, not least because it is my column, so why shouldn’t I use it to write about an author I love?

The problem with Millhauser, I suspect, is that he appears to be mainstream. He uses the fantastic, but in stories that seem so remorselessly realist that you don’t really notice. His first novel, Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright, appears like a conventional account of an American childhood. It’s only when you sit back and realise that this is a biography of an 11-year-old genius writer written by another 11-year-old who is even brighter that you begin to notice how far it has strayed from straightforward realism. It is that tension, that realist presentation of the non-real, that is one of the characteristics of his fiction, but it does mean that much of what he writes cannot be readily and overtly identified as fantasy.

Take the title story from his new collection, "Dangerous Laughter." A town’s bored schoolchildren, during the long summer holiday, become addicted to laughing, forming laughing clubs and societies, staging competitions to see who can laugh the longest. When that palls, they switch to weeping. There is nothing openly fantastic in the story, it is indeed possible to die laughing as happens here, though some of the epic feats of laughter or of tears may be stretching things slightly. Yet this is hardly a realistic account of the world.

Even when the fantastic does crop up in a story it is often displaced from the centre of attention, something approached hesitantly and obliquely as if we are not meant to be too sure of our interpretation. In what may be one of the best stories in this collection, "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman," we are left with the notion that a lonely woman who had spent her entire life not being noticed had simply faded away. Yet although this conclusion hangs over the whole story, it is only towards the end that it is voiced, and then we are left uncertain whether it is not just the fancy of our narrator.

In many ways this is an archetypal Millhauser story. It is set in a small town. Apart from his masterpiece, Martin Dressler, I cannot think of a single Millhauser story that feels comfortable set in a city rather than a town. It is told in an idiosyncratic voice that no writer I am aware of employs as frequently as Millhauser: the first person plural. In this way the narrator is not a distinctive character that we pay attention to, but rather an anonymous voice in the crowd standing round and observing the strangeness. It is told with an assumption of familiarity: we are already aware of these events, all the narrator is doing is bringing together various and sometimes contradictory theories and observations about the events. And it is told without drama. Not only is the narrative voice cool and detached (wherever there is an "I" it is rarely a player in the game, just an observer); but the stories hardly ever rise to grand climax but rather diminish to a haunting stasis, much as the maker of miniatures in "In the Reign of Harad IV" ends up making pieces so small they are invisible even under the strongest lens.

All of which, of course, is antithetical to what we expect of generic fantasy, which must occur on a big stage, in a voice that pulls us in to the action rather than holding us back, revealing sweeping romantic colourful strangeness at every turn, and consisting of rousing climax built upon rousing climax. Hardly surprising, then, that he is not a natural choice for fans of Steven Erikson, though fans of Steve Erickson should be queueing up. And yet, what Millhauser does in a few quiet words is as radical as anything fantasy epics achieve in terms of building the strangeness of a new world or, more commonly, undermining our security in the familiarity of this world. It’s a form of the fantastic that doesn’t get as much attention as it deserves in our little corner of the literary universe, and Steven Millhauser is a master who deserves far more recognition than he receives.