Friday, July 10, 2009

Dangerous Laughter by Steven Millhauser (revisited)

I already posted on this book once, but I found myself thinking about a number of the stories a lot, long after I read them, and so I read it again recently (with the thought I'd teach it in my grad workshop in the spring, which I probably will). And it really is a pretty great collection. The stories are big in the way of Alice Munro's, but often reaching into some alternate history or alternate future and they're full of both science and wonder.

What I was paying most attention to this time was how unflashy the sentences are, and yet how there is always a moment in the story where what is said is so much more surprising or profound than what has come before that the story steps to a new level. A lot of the stories are heavy on concept, something student writers often respond to, but that moment has to come when the concept goes where the reader couldn't have imagined. The danger with heavy concepts is the summary of the story (it's about high school students who form a laughing club) can be as good as the story itself if you don't take it past what the ordinary reader would imagine on his/her own. And Millhauser is really good at examining an extraordinary idea in a believable way and then connecting it to some deeper emotion or less directly connected thought...leading to that moment of surprise. Which he then goes past. The moment of surprise is not the end of the story, it's more like the middle or the beginning of the last third--so a whole chunk of the story arises out of the unexpected shift.

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