Dangerous Laughter

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>5/5

Steven Millhauser’s latest collection opens with a story about Tom and Jerry—that’s right, the cartoon characters. But “Cat ’n’ Mouse” doesn’t resort to easy pop-cultural winking at the reader. Instead, Millhauser portrays this manic animated world with precise, flat descriptions that are more akin to Chekhov than Loony Tunes. It’s a risky opener, but what could have been cutesy nostalgia turns out to be a tale of concentrated dread. At the end, Jerry escapes the cat’s grasp by erasing him with a handy handkerchief. Only then does he understand that in wiping away his hunter, he’s rendered his own life meaningless.

The mouse’s realization distills a theme that recurs throughout Millhauser’s work: the possibility that our imaginations might make actual life obsolete. In the new volume, a master miniaturist creates works so small that no one can actually see them; a fashion trend obscures women to the point of oblivion; a forgotten artist named Harlan Crane creates paintings of such vivid dimension and movement that even today’s special-effects wizards aspire to his startling realism.

As fantastical as each of these stories may be, they never seem more than a notch away from reality. In fact, many of his best fictions read more like imaginative essays about a world defined by the elaborate artifice of architecture, invention and technology. Still, Millhauser, the masterful creator of these strange stories, must feel a bit like the miniaturist: “He understood that he had traveled a long way from the early days, that he still had far to go, and that, from now on, his life would be difficult and without forgiveness.” He needn’t worry if we can see the intricate work he has done. We do.

Ken Foster

By Steven Millhauser. Knopf, $24.