Dangerous Laughter

Thirteen Stories

By Steven Millhauser
(Knopf, Hardcover, 9780307267566, 256pp.)

Publication Date: February 12, 2008

Other Editions of This Title: Paperback

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Description

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning author hailed by The New Yorker as “a virtuoso of waking dreams” comes a dazzling new collection of darkly comic stories united by their obsession with obsession. In Dangerous Laughter, Steven Millhauser transports us to unknown universes that uncannily resemble our own.

The collection is divided into three parts that fit seamlessly together as a whole. It opens with a bang, as “Cat ’n’ Mouse” reimagines the deadly ritual between cartoon rivals in a comedy of dynamite and anvils—a masterly prologue that sets the stage for the alluring, very grown-up twists that follow.

Part one, “Vanishing Acts,” features stories of risk and escape: a lonely woman disappears without a trace; a high school boy becomes entangled with his best friend’s troubled sister; and a group of teenagers play a treacherous game that pushes them deep into “the kingdom of forbidden things.”

Excess reigns in the vivid, haunting places of Part two’s “Impossible Architectures,” where domes enclose whole cities, and a king’s master miniaturist creates objects so tiny that soon his entire world is invisible.

Finally, “Heretical Histories” presents startling alternatives to the remembered past. “A Precursor of the Cinema” proposes a new, enigmatic form of illusion. And in the astonishing “The Wizard of West Orange” a famous inventor sets out to simulate the sense of touch—but success brings disturbing consequences.

Sensual, mysterious, Dangerous Laughter is a mesmerizing journey through brilliantly realized labyrinths of mortal pleasures that stretch the boundaries of the ordinary world to their limits—and occasionally beyond.




About the Author

Steven Millhauser is the author of numerous works of fiction and was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Martin Dressler. His story “Eisenheim the Illusionist” was the basis of the 2006 film The Illusionist, starring Edward Norton and Paul Giamatti. His work has been translated into fourteen languages. He teaches at Skidmore College.




Praise For Dangerous Laughter

Dangerous Laughter / Steven Millhauser

We have received the following praise for the above:

Dangerous Laughter groups three sets of smart, darkly obsessive stories around the themes of risk-taking, imaginary places, and ersatz biographies, all led off by a crazy cartoon cat-and-mouse slapstick drama rendered with pure cloak-and-dagger delight.”

–Lisa Shea, Elle

“Tales fueled by curiosity and wonder, from a master . . . [who] is consistently so much fun to read . . . Everything one has come to want and expect in Millhauser’s fiction is here–spooky attics, fantastic inventions, artists driven mad, and ambitious enterprises that become overattenuated and impossible to sustain. The result is almost a Steven Millhauser primer, a much needed fix for fans . . . and a perfect introduction for those unacquainted with his writing. . . . [‘A Precursor to the Cinema’ and ‘The Wizard of West Orange’ are] marvelous stories that make the suspension of disbelief feel like no work whatsoever . . . Millhauser has done nothing here to diminish his reputation as one of our most dazzling storytellers. ‘It was said that no matter how closely you examined one of the Master’s little pieces, you always discovered some further wonder,’ he writes of his obsessive court miniaturist [in ‘In the Reign of Harad IV’]. The same could be said of Steven Millhauser.”

–Jeff Turrentine, The Washington Post Book World

“Steven Millhauser’s best story collection. [Dangerous Laughter] sums up everything he has been driving at since the beginning of his writing career. Adolescents sulk, break down, and die. Other characters–artists and ordinary people alike–disappear except for the barest trace, or create works of art impossibly small (really invisible) or structures impossibly large (encompassing the world). . . . [‘The Room in the Attic’] is the most powerful evocation of adolescence that Millhauser has ever given us. . . . It is as if Millhauser imagined his stories so meticulously that he brought their contents into being . . . Every reader knows of writers who are like secrets one wants to keep yet whose books one wants to tell the world about. Steven Millhauser is mine. Of course, having won the Pulitzer Prize, he is no one’s secret, but he is the writer I tell people about, confident they will be enthralled.”

–David Rollow, Boston Sunday Globe

“Prose wizardry . . . infused with magic: readers seeking the perfect introduction to Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Millhauser need look no further. His latest book, Dangerous Laughter, draws on every facet of his imagination, using bright, homespun Americana as a springboard into the cosmic and surreal. It lifts pop-culture artifacts and fairy-tale motifs into rich cerebral spheres. It delights in the paradoxical, the outlandish and the out-of-this-world. And it delivers its treats in a prose of such melodic wit and finesse that it’s more akin to musicmaking than storytelling. Dangerous Laughter reminds us once again how lucky we are to be privy to Millhauser’s shadowy, funhouse visions.”

–Michael Upchurch, Seattle Times

“Reviewers use words like enchantment recklessly, as though it happens to us all the time. Book reviewers are especially prone to describing books as ‘enchanting,’ pretending that a spell has actually been cast over us.
If only it were so. As often as not, it is a spell of boredom. Steven Millhauser’s books are the exception. . . .
[‘Cat ‘n’ Mouse’] sounds like a ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon as written by Franz Kafka. Or Sigmund Freud. . . .[It is] indelibly vivid . . . hard-edged and bright as a plasma screen . . .
In ‘The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,’ a young woman disappears from inside her apartment without a trace. . . . Millhauser turns an ordinary whodunit into a tale of obscure people who slowly disappear out of apparent volition. . . . There is no more poignant note in Millhauser than this: the sense of life that has come to nothing, as we understand that Elaine Coleman has committed a metaphysical form of suicide: willing herself out of existence because in the eyes of others she has already been erased.
In the most haunted story of them all, ‘The Room in the Attic,’ Millhauser introduces us to a high school boy whose friend’s sister, Isabel, lives in an attic shut off completely from light. . . .
There are few writers in America better at striking the note of longing, of missed opportunity, of life taking uncanny and unfathomable turns. The utter weirdness of the young man in a pitch black room, held rapt and immobile by the lure of an unseen and teasing young woman is the very essence of estrangement itself.
Millhauser is the maestro of the creepy. In reading [Dangerous Laughter] the reader experiences what Millhauser himself must feel as he writes these Kafkaesque stories of real mystery in imaginary suburbs.”

–Mark Shechner, The Buffalo News

“A sense of mystery and strangeness pervades these 13 stories . . . Millhauser’s intelligence and originality shine through on every page. Recommended.”

–Lawrence Rungren, Library Journal

“Steven Millhauser doesn’t traffic in emotional upheaval or interpersonal conflict. Most fiction writers try to make characters seem like real people, but Millhauser flattens them, giving his books the paradoxical effect of seeming realer than reality. For him, meticulous observation does the work of psychology. Millhauser is also our foremost animist . . . His vehicles for these effects are the parable and the confession. There is a disquieting quiet to every Millhauser sentence that makes it immediately recognizable, a feeling that each was recorded for posterity by the last man living.
The 13 terrific stories in Dangerous Laughter reintroduce us to this strange realm. . . . Together, they present the typical Millhauser gallery of obsessed miniaturists, bookish adolescent boys in thrall to mysterious evanescent girls and reports from a dystopian near-future told with ill-considered confidence by town leaders. But over the years Millhauser’s elegant midcentury prose has only gotten stronger, and here he moves his chosen themes forward with additional confidence and power.
In the remarkable ‘Here at the Historical Society,’ an unnamed narrator defends his small-town society’s decision to supplement its exhibits with ephemera of what he calls the ‘New Past’ . . and concludes that the present–here he offers the passkey to Millhauser’s fictional universe–is ‘the only past we’ll ever know.’ . . . One suspect[s] that Millhauser’s real subject is contemporary America. But in his postmodern world, meanings are never unpacked. These are fables, not allegories, and their hermetic quality discourages us from wandering outside the text. . . . Since [his debut work of fiction], although the heightened visual awareness that has always been Millhauser’s trademark has grown even more extraordinary, and its possessor has achieved some fame, little has changed for Millhauser. Not so for us: more than 30 years later, with lived life everywhere giving way to the Internet and ‘reality’ TV, Millhauser’s chronicles of our semi-inhabited landscape seem not just brilliant but prescient.”

–D.T. Max, The New York Times Book Review (cover review)

“Millhauser has stayed true to the fantastic tradition that extends from Scheherazade to Poe, to Kafka and Barth. He rejects the ordinary world of the merely real, and playfully and powerfully explores the incredible world of purely aesthetic creation. . . . The 13 stories [in Dangerous Laughter] are united by the quest for transcendence. Even the first story, which uses fast-paced present tense to create the illusion that you are watching a ‘Tom and Jerry’ cartoon, concludes with erasure of the physical, and the reinstatement of illusion. . . Millhauser takes an ordinary truth and pushes it to extremes both amusing and pathetic. . . [to] intriguing transformation[s] of the mundane into the miraculous. [But] Millhauser’s stories are not mere ingenuity, although they are devilishly clever. He is motivated by the desire to see a world in a grain of sand, to affirm that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. Millhauser is our most brilliant practicing romantic, for whom surface reality is merely an uninteresting illusion.”

            –Charles May, San Francisco Chronicle

“Exhilarating . . . [Millhauser] has taken strange, magical ideas and crystallized stories around them. . . . He takes abstractions and fleshes them out, without ever losing sight of their wonder, or of the inherent humor of human desire. He’s like Borges, but funny. And while there aren’t really characters, in the sense of people with feeling and motives (other than obsession), you come to know these outlandish ideas like old friends. Millhauser explores every nook and cranny of the strange, and shows us what it might be like to live in a world where we pushed just a little further–or rather, much, much further–into the realm of the mysterious and unknown. . . . Dangerously good.”

            –Cris Rodriguez, BostonNow.com

“Enchanting . . . Steven Millhauser is a marvel. . . . Dangerous Laughter shimmers with eccentric research, sinuous explorations of the mysteries of artistic creation and his preternatural sensitivity to the inner lives of children and adolescents.
Like a Saturday morning serial of yesteryear, the book begins with a ‘cartoon,’ a series of comically violent vignettes featuring a feckless cat in fierce pursuit of a much brighter mouse. Millhauser shifts easily between their minds. The mouse wonders if the two could ever be friends; the frustrated feline despises the mouse’s insouciance.
The cartoon ends, connecting us playfully to the first section of stories, ‘Vanishing Acts’ [which includes] a languid, lovely tale about a traumatized teenage girl who, by choice, resides in darkness–and about the gentle boy who visits her and wonders what she looks like. . . .
In ‘Impossible Architectures,’ the second group of stories, Millhauser holds to the world his uniquely distortive mirror. . . . In ‘The Tower,’ one of his best [stories], Millhauser imagines a Babel-like structure that reaches heaven and pierces the floor. The final paragraph, relating the inevitable, is gorgeously underwritten. Heralding the end are startled birds and a running child, not the crash of havoc. . . . ‘The Wizard of West Orange’ describes a machine that introduces users to the world’s tactile richness, an experience that leaves them dazzled, enchanted.
Which is precisely how the fiction of the marvelous Steven Millhauser leaves us.”

–Daniel Dyer, Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Imaginative . . . masterful. [Dangerous Laughter] opens with a story about Tom and Jerry–that’s right, cartoon characters. But it 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. . . . As fantastical as each of [Millhauser’s] stories may be, they never seem more than a notch away from reality. . . . Five stars.”

–Ken Foster, Time Out New York

“In this absorbing, impeccably imagined collection, [Steven Millhauser] plays the illusionist himself, crafting beguiling alternative universes in which a miniaturist constructs a toy palace invisible to the naked eye, villagers spend generations building a tower that reaches to heaven, and a cartoon cat and mouse duke it out to the death. . . . The best [stories] linger strangely, like ghostly taps on your shoulder.”

–Gregory Kirschling, Entertainment Weekly

“Excellent . . . a substantial treat. Millhauser may criticize the pleasures of escapism in his fiction, but he provides them himself. . . . He takes the institutions of fun–parks, pleasure domes, fun houses–as his subject matter, [and] describes just what it feels like to enter these magic kingdoms . . . capturing the very feeling of childhood innocence. The title story imagines laughter that is literally dangerous–a teen cult of extreme, hour-long laughter grips a suburban community for one summer–and thereby brings the idea of danger back to the point where fantasy takes control. That moment of release guides almost all of his plots. It is true that one character, a previously quiet girl who becomes queen of the uninhibited laugh, actually dies. But the sense of danger upon which the story balances is that of midsummer restlessness–of initiation. The danger is, in a word, sweet . . . ‘In the Reign of Harad IV’ deserves special mention: It concerns a man of ambition who is not a master builder, but an artist. He has been working for years on a miniature version of King Harad’s palace, but his taste for the nearly invisible leads him to create objects so deliciously tiny that they actually are invisible–and thus his fame and fortune ends.”

–Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun

“Provocative . . . beautiful and profound . . . a deft layering [of] character, emotion and intellect . . . The 13 stories here deal with disappearance . . . the way reality can slide and we may truly know ourselves only in darkness, along the border between what we take for granted and what we can never take for granted, the elusive shadows at the edge of our lives. . . . Millhauser is often compared to Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino . . . Like them, he seeks the unsettling connection, the spectral turn by which the simplest reality becomes alien and unknown. What distinguishes him, however, is a certain homespun quality, an American faith in the very surfaces he means to strip away. . . . For Millhauser, the key is language, which can bridge the gap between familiar and unfamiliar and draw us in. At the same time, he knows that words can fool us, that language both illuminates and obscures. . . . Longer [stories] such as ‘The Room in the Attic’ or ‘The Wizard of West Orange’ are like mini-novels, opening our imaginations, telling a story and commenting on it all at once. . . . Dangerous Laughter suggests that, in our own slow fade toward oblivion, some kind of discovery may be made. . . . What Millhauser has to offer are glimpses, dreamscapes. ‘A book,’ says one of his characters, ‘is a dream-machine.’ That’s it precisely, a dream machine in which, like all dream works, we must often be obliterated if we are to be found. Millhauser’s work is among the most thought-provoking I’ve ever encountered.”

–David L. Ulin, Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Entrancing . . . Millhauser’s stories of obsession and paranoia explore the bewitching, undefined space between perception and reality, evoking a disquieting supernatural realm that threatens to disrupt the everyday.”

–Sara Cardace, The Washington Post

“There is a ferocious restlessness in Steven Millhauser’s stories, a mingling of desire and dread. Among the showpieces in his mesmerizing new collection, Dangerous Laughter: ‘Cat ’n’ Mouse,’ which amazingly puts into words the familiar cartoon to bare the existential angst behind the familiar slapstick, and ‘A Change in Fashion,’ a tale of sartorial design gone mad that makes the emperor’s new clothes look uninspired.”

–Cathleen Medwick, O, The Oprah Magazine

“Excellent . . . beautiful. Millhauser is a writer of high degree, and he definitely knows his way around a sentence. . . . My favorite of the thirteen [stories] is “The Room in the Attic,” a story of a high school boy who visits a mysterious girl in a pitch black room. . . . It’s a riveting read, and the conclusion took me by surprise. It’s not difficult to recommend Dangerous Laughter . . . If you’re looking for a quick read [with] substance, give it a shot.”

–Branden Johnson, Static Multimedia

“Fantastical fashions, pastimes, and pursuits consume whole communities, only to disappoint them (or worse) in Millhauser’s newest collection of stories. Dresses balloon to the size of houses (and women slip out from under them unnoticed). A Babel-like tower finally reaches heaven, only to lose its mystique. Best, there is the pseudoerotic game in which friends stimulate each other to paroxysms of laughter . . . This is classic Millhauser, and it won’t disappoint newcomers or longtime fans.”

–Amanda Schaffer, Slate


“Only Millhauser could pull off a story modeled after a Tom and Jerry—like cat-and-mouse cartoon; no one else is as attuned to the poetry hidden under pop detritus, or as capable of bringing it to light. . . . 13 deadpan fantasies featuring alternate histories, otherworldly architecture, and teenagers at (deadly) play.”

Details

“A collection of gossamer yet substantial entertainments from the ineffably graceful stylist well on his way to becoming America’s Borges (or, perhaps, Cortázar). If that seems paradoxical, so does Millhauser, who has spent decades perfecting a minimalist art that nevertheless encompasses the history of our culture, its predecessors and its oppressors. . . . Marvels within marvels, from a writer whose prose possesses the equivalent of what musicians call perfect pitch.”

Kirkus Reviews

“[A] gem . . . comes from Mr. Millhauser with ‘The Room in the Attic.’ In this haunting tale [from his collection Dangerous Laughter, due in February], a teenager befriends a classmate’s sister, who has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and remains sequestered in a darkened attic room. . . . The two teenagers engage in innocent games in the dark that slowly evolve into electric scenes of tender foreplay. [Millhauser] conjures a convincingly dreamlike world, highly charged with desire and suspense, yet the characters barely touch or see one another. . . . Masterly storytelling.”

–S. Kirk Walsh, The New York Times

“Phenomenal clarity and rapacious movement are only two of the virtues of Millhauser’s new collection, which focuses on the misery wrought by misdirected human desire and ambition. . . . Millhauser’s stories draw us in all the more powerfully, extending his peculiar domain further than ever.”

Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Millhauser is one of our most inventive writers. . . . The curious opening story in his new collection, which sets the stage for further hilarious and creative delights in stories to come, is titled ‘Cat ’n’ Mouse,’ which puts into narrative form a typical cartoon struggle between two archenemies, à la Tom and Jerry . . . Demonstrating equal ingenuity is the three-part ‘Room in the Attic,’ an enigmatic, surreal piece about a boy’s obsession with his friend’s sister; the fairy-tale like parable ‘In the Reign of Harad IV,’ and the sly social satire, ‘Here at the Historical Society’ . . . Thirteen stories are gathered here–an unlucky number? Certainly not for the reader.”

–Brad Hooper, Booklist (starred, boxed review)

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