When you step out of the realm of realism, more is demanded of you as a writer. Steven Millhauser is a master of building worlds that are beyond the ordinary, but entirely believable.
I just finished rereading Dangerous Laughter, which includes 13 short stories. In the section entitled “Impossible Architectures,” Millhauser lets shine his refined and enviable art of seeing. In each story, on nearly every page, there’s a moment when I feel I see the thing in the story, “old board games,” “two collections of stamps,” or the "drum-shaped transformer" better than my own hand. In the short story, “The Other Town,” in which there’s a town that has another one just beyond the north woods exactly like it, the reader is handed such pleasures as the following:
“To get there, we have only to walk through a stretch of shade, over a spongy layer of pine needles and brown-black leaves, and come out in any of the backyards that border the woods—the DeAngelo yard, say, with its flowered beach towels hanging over the back-porch rail and its coil of green hose next to the dented garbage cans, or the Altschuler yard with its tall sugar maple, its yellow Wiffle ball bat lying half in the sun and half in the shade, and its aluminum chaise longue with strips of orange and white vinyl on which a blue eye-glass case is resting, or the Langley yard with its grass-stained soccer ball, its red-handled jump rope, its tin pie-dish for home plate, and its bags of peat moss and fertilizer leaning up against the side of the detached garage.”
Millhauser paints his scene with an overabundance of adjectives, conjunctions, and modifying phrases to create a believable world in which a town would spend immense resources to replicate itself. You can almost feel the author's exuberance and love for the world on the page. The result? Never once did I doubt that such a place could exist.
He invokes the same careful attention to precise detail in the story “In the Reign of Harad IV,” in which we are transported to an imaginary world that includes a maker of miniatures. Here is the maker creating a stag so small it is now invisible: “…the head twisted to one side, the mouth slightly open, the lips drawn back to reveal the teeth. He carved it and painted it down to the last detail, tooth and hoof and pale inner ear; and it was said by some that, if you looked very closely through the enlarging glass, you could distinguish the amber irises from the bright black pupils.”
Millhauser brings this skill to realism, too, creating scenes that are brilliantly lit, exposing the ordinary to be extraordinary. When I read his work, he reminds me to look closer at the world, to consider the precise way a dog laps of water, or the flowers wilt, dropping their petals, one or two at a time, as if reluctant to relinquish their beauty.
In the story, “The Room in the Attic,” it’s not just a boy coming home and finding his mother in the kitchen: “At home I greeted my mother in the sunny kitchen, where she held up her hands to show me her flour-covered fingers and smoothed back a lock of hair with the back of a wrist.”
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