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Disappearing acts

David L. Ulin is book editor of The Times.

STEVEN MILLHAUSER’S “Dangerous Laughter” comes billed as a book about obsession, but the 13 stories here deal more with disappearance, “the real division between the visible world and that other world.” It’s a running theme, the way reality can slide and we may truly know ourselves only in darkness, along the border between what we take for granted and what we can never take for granted, the elusive shadows at the edges of our lives.

This has long been a fascination of Millhauser’s; his first novel, “Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright” (1972), raises unsettling questions about the line between genius and adulation, while his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer” (1996) frames 19th century New York as a phantasmagoric landscape, where an Alger-esque protagonist builds a grand hotel in which he replicates the textures of the outside world.

“Dangerous Laughter” is marked by similar intentions: One story, “A Precursor of the Cinema,” reads like a corollary to “Martin Dressler,” and others revisit the suburban settings evoked in “Edwin Mullhouse.” In the tension between those elements we see the push and pull that has motivated much of the author’s career.

Millhauser is often compared to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino, and that’s fair enough, I suppose. Like them, he seeks the unsettling connection, the spectral turn by which the simplest reality becomes alien and unknown. What distinguishes him, however, is a certain homespun quality, an American faith in the very surfaces he means to strip away.

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In the title story, teens get together for laughing parties, or “laugh clubs,” where they tickle each other into hysteria as a way of heightening their lives. “We wanted to live -- to die -- to burst into flame -- to be transformed into angels or explosions,” Millhauser writes. “Only the mundane offended us, as if we secretly feared it was our destiny.” Yes, it’s a story about disassociation, but disassociation of a common sort.

The same is true of “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” a variation on the locked-room mystery in which a young woman fades to nothing after a lifetime of having gone unseen. Here too we are in the presence of the fantastic, but Millhauser writes with such precision that the story feels naturalistic in its way. "[T]here was a bright indistinctness about her,” he tells us. “She was neither pretty nor unpretty. Her face was half turned away, her expression serious; her hair, done up in the style of the time, showed the shine of a careful combing. She had joined no clubs, played no sports, belonged to nothing.” This is an unexamined life, in other words, and it could belong to anyone.

For Millhauser, the key is language, which can bridge the gap between familiar and unfamiliar and draw us in. At the same time, he knows that words can fool us, that language both illuminates and obscures. Nowhere is this made more explicit than in “History of a Disturbance,” about a man who stops speaking after realizing that words “harmed the world.” As he explains: “My vow of silence sought to renew the world, to make it appear before me in all its fullness. I knew that every element in the world -- a cup, a tree, a day -- was inexhaustible. Only the words that expressed it were vague or limited.”

Yet despite the acuity of such a statement, it also highlights what seems an unresolved contradiction the more we read of “Dangerous Laughter.” It’s not just that books are made of words, although that’s part of it; the narrator of “History of a Disturbance” has no choice but to use them to describe his renunciation of language, after all.

More to the point, what’s at issue is the balance between words and narrative, between the surfaces of Millhauser’s writing and what goes on underneath. When fully developed, his work is among the most thought-provoking I’ve encountered, deftly layering character, emotion and intellect, beautiful and profound. Such longer efforts as “The Room in the Attic” or “The Wizard of West Orange” are like mini-novels, opening our imaginations, telling a story and commenting on it all at once.

There’s too much here, though, that reads like filler, too many short takes that go nowhere, framed around a gimmick or a conceit. “The Dome” posits an enormous enclosure built over the United States as a way of commenting on “landscape as style,” the abolishment of nature, but the larger point falls flat beneath the story’s overreaching conceit. “The Tower,” about a literal Tower of Babel, struggles under the weight of its own construction, ultimately collapsing as its subject does. These pieces are stilted, with no room for engagement, no development or growth. This is what happens when language cuts itself free of character, when a writer tries to use fiction not to get at situations but at ideas.

Of course, even at its most elusive, “Dangerous Laughter” is a provocative collection, suggesting that, in our own slow fade toward oblivion, some kind of discovery may be made. Such a notion marks nearly every story here, from the silence of “History of a Disturbance” to “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” with its insistence that we disappear “gradually, over the course of time.” What Millhauser has to offer, then, are glimpses, dreamscapes. “A book,” says one of his characters, “is a dream-machine.” That’s it precisely, a dream machine in which, like all dream works, we must often be obliterated if we are to be found.

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david.ulin@latimes.com


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