In one of the pocket universes visited in Dangerous Laughter, a new short-story collection from Steven Millhauser, the historical society of a small New England town radically redefines its mission. Dedicated to letting no aspect of history slip away, they stop sorting signal from noise and begin chronicling "every Monopoly piece and badminton racket, every cobweb in every corner of every attic." "We no longer use the word 'present' here at the Historical Society," the nameless narrator says, "but speak instead of the New Past." By tilting the world a few degrees, they've discovered a new way of seeing things, a gift they share with their creator.
Best known for his Pulitzer-winning novel Martin Dressler and for writing the story adapted into the 2006 film The Illusionist, Millhauser reproduces the world by looking at it from a skewed perspective. The collection-opening "Cat 'N' Mouse" transforms the antics of a Tom and Jerry-like cartoon team into an illustration of the kind of desire that can only be filled with mutual self-destruction.† In "The Dome," a fad for enclosed houses sparks a global craze driven by the desire to contain and compartmentalize.
Millhauser's stories resist reductive readings, often unfolding like allegories that have lost the tether to their source. Drawing distinctions between its adversaries' lifestyles and recreational pursuits, "Cat 'N' Mouse," for instance, invites a political interpretation that falls apart after too-close scrutiny. "The Other Town" explores a town that lives next to a vacant doppelgänger neighbor where visitors explore and take liberties they wouldn't take at home. Millhauser may have had the Internet in mind, but the story would work even without that connection.
Millhauser's alternate universes are simultaneously seductive and sad, places where miracles impose new limitations. "The Wizard Of West Orange" finds a Thomas Edison-like inventor laboring over a haptograph, a machine that can replicate sensations impossible in life, which might ultimately spoil the real world for its users. Several generations work toward reaching heaven in "The Tower," but once they get there, their efforts turn upon themselves, sparking a rage for life on the ground. Presenting them with the wonders of heaven, the transgressive possibilities of a place without the usual rules, or an obsessive plunge into the here and now, Millhauser gives his characters the chance to escape, but only so far.