It’s All An Illusion

I teach an advanced English comprehension class to third-year university students a few times a week.  As the textbook I was given for the class is abysmal in both content and organization, I often end up preparing my own lessons.  For the past three weeks, my classes and I have been discussing, and watching, the 2006 film The Illusionist starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti.  The movie, about a pre- World War I era Austrian magician, is based on a short story by Steven Millhauser.  I’ve never read the short story – I looked for it while I was visiting the US this summer, but with no luck.  However, as I was reading Dangerous Laughter, Millhauser’s 2008 short story collection, it struck me how the themes of The Illusionist (the film) run deeply through Millhauser’s other work.

*WARNING- some possible spoilers below, although none of them really that egregious*

All of the stories in Dangerous Laughter deal explicitly or implicitly with the disconnect between reality and perception – a miniaturist who constructs entire cities so small that no one else can see them, a woman who simply vanishes inside a locked apartment, a town where the residents maintain an exact, up-to-the-minute replica of their own lives only a few steps away.  Illusions, as they were, abound.

More significantly, he probes the ways in which our perceptions actually give shape to the reality around us.  In a story titled “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” the narrator becomes consumed with a missing woman, a woman he vaguely recollected from high school though not in any detail.  In fact, no one in the story can recall any specific details about this woman – “Another recalled her in English class Senior year… he couldn’t remember anything more about her, he couldn’t summon up any details.”  By the end of the story, having ruled out foul play and the chance that Elaine Coleman may have simply left town on her own volition, the narrator comes to a startling conclusion explaining her disappearance.  “If it’s true that we exist by impressing ourselves on other minds, by entering other imaginations, then the quiet, unremarkable girl whom no one noticed must at times have felt herself growing vague, as if she were gradually being erased by the world’s inattention.”  Her corporal disappearance hinged upon other’s perception of her.

In “History of a Disturbance,” my favorite story in the collection, a successful marketing executive makes the decision to abandon words, spoken and thought, because the narrator “had the sense that words concealed something, that if only I could abolish them I would discover what was actually there.”  A word, according to the narrator, tries to “compress within itself a multitude of meanings, was trying to take many precise and separate meanings and crush them into a single mushy mass.”  As the narrator gives up the use of words, he finds the reality around him changing – “The old world of houses, rooms, trees, and streets shimmers, wavers, and tears away, revealing another universe as startling as fire.”  As a first-person narrative, the story also takes on a slyly ironic undertone – the narrator skillfully argues his case against words themselves using precise and effective language.

As in any short story collection, there are some weak points.  A story about women’s fashion, for example, falls a bit flat, as did another story about a dome erected over the entire continental United States.  Overall, however, Dangerous Laughter was a worthwhile collection, one that admonishes the reader to never fully trust your senses and to always look beyond the obvious.

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2 comments

  1. Millhauser won the Pulitzer in 1997 for his novel Martin Dressler. This was the first of Millhauser’s works that I’ve read and I’ll certainly read more. I believe that The Barnum Museum Stories contains the short story “Eisenheim the Illusionist.” That may be the next one I look for.

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