Degrees of Freedom

I found Steven Millhauser’s short story collection Dangerous Laughter in the unfamiliar territory of the fourth-floor stacks of the Folsom library, wedged between countless works of fiction I never knew our school had. I didn’t think RPI students had the time to read for enjoyment, and to some extent I was right—it’d only been punched out once before, in 2009.

Millhauser will be the guest speaker at RPI's very own 75th Annual McKinney Creative Writing Contest. The ceremony will be held Wednesday, April 13 at 8 pm in the Biotech auditorium, where he’ll give a reading of his work, answer questions, and present awards and cash prizes in the categories of fiction/drama, nonfiction, poetry, and multimedia. He published his first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, in 1972. His novel Martin Dressler won the Pulitzer Prize in 1997. His work has received various awards, and the short stories that fill his many collections have been featured in such prestigious anthologies as Best American Short Stories. His story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” inspired the 2006 film The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton. He currently teaches at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Dangerous Laughter probes the universe we live in and the people we are by taking various pieces of the world, modifying them slightly, and then watching to see what happens. In the title story, for example, Millhauser asks, “What would happen if spontaneous laugher became a fad among restless teenagers?” He takes this idea and runs with it—we observe the complete evolution of the teens’ behavior, how their love of the fad waxes and wanes. At the end of the story, he writes, “Tomorrow something was bound to happen,” which seems to cast aside the events of the story and await the new trend to grip the neighborhood. Through this, the kids seem whimsical, mercurial, and easily bored—typical of children of that awkward age. We get to see the full dynamism of adolescent caprice by exploring it in a new situation, and in doing so, perhaps we learn more about it than if we’d read a “true” account.

“The Dome” explores the ambition of the human race. It starts with a simple idea—what if we built a dome that climate controlled our yards? We already do so with our homes, our cars, our offices. The concept doesn’t seem too far off. But it doesn’t stop there—what if we climate controlled our neighborhoods, our towns, our cities? What if the entire country was environmentally controlled? The dome becomes a watermark for human advancement, and the narrator looks upon it without judgment, with a quiet acceptance, as if he never knew any different. He looks upon it as we might look today at the Golden Gate Bridge—as a timeless feat of engineering, whereas someone at the ribbon-cutting ceremony might have thought it spat at the natural beauty of the unspanned bay.

After reading some of his stories, I was fortunate enough to be able to send him along a few questions that came up as I read them.

NB: Around what age did you start writing stories? When did you realize that you wanted to write for a living, and when did you feel it became a viable option?

SM: I remember writing a story in the fifth or sixth grade, though my real passion at the time was rhymed poems. I was the kind of kid who had many passions: playing ping-pong, catching fly balls in the back yard, drawing with colored pencils, learning how to play the piano. Gradually everything fell away except the desire to write stories.

I've never connected writing with earning a living. I somehow knew, even in my early twenties, that writing for me had nothing to do with income. I had a fierce desire, in my early twenties, to write a novel, after which, I told myself, I'd figure out my life. I kept writing. When I published my first book, at the age of twenty-nine, I received a check for two thousand five hundred dollars. I thought: I'm almost thirty years old, and I've earned two thousand five hundred dollars. I was right: writing has nothing to do with income. Now what?

NB: What advice would you have for young or aspiring writers?

SM: Three pieces of advice. First, write about what feels exciting or exhilarating or urgent. This guarantees nothing about the quality of the writing, but it means that you're in touch with something important in yourself. Second, understand that it's a long apprenticeship, filled with probable disappointments. If you crave immediate approval or success, do something else. Third, confront the difficult question of how to wrest time for writing. There's no correct answer to this one. Try to stick to a regular schedule, even if it's only a few days a week, a few hours a day.

NB: Which writers do you lean on, or who are your literary heroes? How does what you read affect what you write?

SM: I don't lean on writers -- it hurts my shoulder. My early heroes are writers I discovered in my late teens and early twenties, writers like Thomas Mann and James Joyce and Kafka. As a young writer, I could feel the influence of my reading in my sentences, and I didn't like it. I wanted to hear my own voice, without knowing what my own voice was. At some point I stopped thinking about things like this.

NB: The tone of "Getting Closer" was very conversational, and read to me as, "this is what I felt at the time, or would have if I was placed in the situation." How much of yourself do you allow into your narrators or characters?

SM: I do two opposite things simultaneously: I put all of myself into my narrators and characters, and I maintain a cool distance. To do both of these things at the same time is exhausting, impossible, and absolutely necessary.

NB: How much of your fiction is fiction? Do you feel that adding the title of "fiction" in some instances allows you to write more truthfully?

SM: Another paradox: my fiction is fiction, as opposed to memoir or history, but at the same time it liberates me into a world that I would claim to be true. Fiction that's essentially autobiography holds no interest for me. But fiction that allows itself to do anything it likes, for the sheer hell of it, without any relation to whatever is meant by "truth," strikes me as frivolous.

NB: For each story of yours that's published, how many never make it out of your notebook?

SM: When I was starting out, in my early twenties, I'd begin a story in my notebook without knowing anything about it. The story often died before it was even sketched out. It's now much harder for a story to make it into my notebook -- I do a lot of writing in my mind, before I allow myself to write even a draft. These days, most of what I write makes it out of the notebook and onto the computer. But it's still a long, long way from being finished, and some stories end up in a drawer.

When we write, we inevitably explore some element of human nature. This is more constrained in nonfiction, where we’re bound to the actuality of the events—in the end we have to report them faithfully. In fiction, though, there’s more freedom—the writer faces endless possibility, which can sometimes be as crippling as it is empowering. Where does one start when one can write anything and everything?

Dangerous Laughter investigates our world through alteration. I wouldn’t be a physicist if everything didn’t remind me of physics. In my quantum mechanics class, we’re studying the subject of perturbation theory: we take a system we already know about (a cat in a box, say), change one small element of it (put a dent in the box), and see how it responds (does the cat meow?). Inside the ragged-edged pages of this collection lie a series of worlds, all slices of a continuum of possibility, differing by a range of angles. Through each perturbation, Steven Millhauser examines how we as humans react—ironically, he captures our nature more truthfully than he ever could under the restriction of reality.

Troy, New York. April 2016.

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This article, no longer available online, was originally published in the Rensselaer Polytechnic.

© 2016-2024 Nicholas Boni.

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