Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories

by Steven Millhauser

Hardcover, 2008

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

New York : Alfred A. Knopf, 2008.

Description

A collection of darkly comic stories united by their obsession with obsession.

User reviews

LibraryThing member ChazzW
One thing about Steven Millhauser. He writes a damn good first sentence. The kind where you snuggle down in your chair a little deeper, ready to settle in for the tale.

His story collection Dangerous Laughter starts like you’ve sat down at an old style neighborhood movie theater - with an “Opening Cartoon” - this one called Cat ‘N’ Mouse. It’s unlikely you’ll ever read a more visual short story. His powers of observation and description are uncannily precise. Close your eyes and if you could listen to this story, it would be as if you were watching the cartoon in living, saturated color.

After the “Opening Cartoon”, Millhauser gives us three ‘featurettes’ of four thematically related shorts each. The first on “Vanishing Acts” has characters at various stages of disappearance or non-existence, including the story whose title names the collection.

The four stories contained in “Impossible Architectures” all relate to just that - ways in which Millhauser envisioned societies strive to makeover or preserve or interpret their relationship with nature or the heavens. The Dome and The Other Town both are slyly funny and creepy at the same time. And eerily familiar.

Speaking of eerily familiar, I could swear I’ve read a story somewhere very similar to The Tower. The building of a tower that inevitably must come crashing down…in Yourcenar? or maybe it just has a Pynchon Chumps feel to it.

During the course f many generations the Tower grew higher and higher until one day it pierced the floor of heaven.

Finally in “Heretical Histories” Millhauser takes a look at fashion, the penchant for historical preservation, imagined ways in which ‘the cinema’ may have evolved differently, and a manic look at Thomas Edison in The Wizard of West Orange.
Overall an uneven collection, with mostly interesting stories - but a few throw aways. In the end, I’d have to say I really prefer Millhauser’s longer fiction.
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LibraryThing member kmaziarz
The stories in Millhauser’s collection unfold with a inspired simplicity and precision that imparts utter believability to the satirical and often absurd events described. Often feeling more like essays than fiction, these stories train an shrewd eye on contemporary society, pushing fads and fashions to their logical—and ridiculous—extremes, before slowly and almost ruefully backing away.

Stand-outs in the collection include the first story, “Cat ‘n’ Mouse,” chronicling the violent adventures and reflective inner lives of two familiar cartoon icons; “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman,” which discusses the alienation of modern society and lays blame squarely at the feet of the culprits; and the highly entertaining satire “Here at the Historical Society,” in which historical researches devote their time not to the distant past but to past times as recent as a few seconds ago—the present, in other words.
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LibraryThing member zip_000
At the time of my writing this review, there are three other reviews, and it is interesting to note that the standout stories from this collection mentioned in the other reviews are not the same stories that standout for me.

My favorite stories in the collection were, "The Tower," "Dangerous Laughter," and "The Room in the Attic."

Millhauser writes beautifully; his stories are like well crafted wooden puzzle boxes with hidden compartments or secret latches. I would agree to some extent with one of the other reviewers in that I think I prefer his long fiction to his short stories. The problem I think is in the collection of stories; all or most of these stories have been published individually elsewhere, and I think that is a preferable format for reading them.

What I enjoy most about Millhauser is when he subtly introduces the fantastic into a story. He can do this so subtly that you may not even understand that it was fantastical until you've finished reading the story. With all of the stories collected together however, you begin to see the fantastic elements a little too quickly.
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LibraryThing member flourishing
Hauntingly beautiful stories that remind me of the flights of fancy I'd have as a child. My favorites: "History of a Disturbance," "The Other Town," "A Precursor of the Cinema." But they're all wonderful, all quite mad, all make you wonder what lies in the spaces we can't see.
LibraryThing member flourishing
Hauntingly beautiful stories that remind me of the flights of fancy I'd have as a child. My favorites: "History of a Disturbance," "The Other Town," "A Precursor of the Cinema." But they're all wonderful, all quite mad, all make you wonder what lies in the spaces we can't see.
LibraryThing member LouRead
This book of short stories is fascinating, in a bizarre kind of way. The stories are grouped into 3 sections (Vanishing Acts, Impossible Architectures, and Heretical Histories) with an opening story section called Opening Cartoon. The section titles describe the stories to follow. For example, all the stories in the Vanishing Acts section are about people who, literally or figuratively, vanish. I felt this configuration was like a piece of classical music with an opening theme and then variations on that theme brought forth in different ways in the sections that follow. As I read through the stories I began to see that they all reflected that first opening piece (Cat 'N' Mouse).

The stories in each section reflect the name of their respective sections. Some of the stories seem to border on the realm of science fiction (especially, “The Dome”) but they are all more about language and the human condition than anything else.

This collection is fun to read if you are drawn to strange tales. The most enjoyable story for me was “A Change in Fashion” (one of the Heretical Histories), about the bizarre trends in fashion of a fantastical society. My least favorite was the title story, which managed to make me squirm while reading it. All in all, this collection was entertaining and thought-provoking. I recommend it.
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LibraryThing member theageofsilt
These stories are reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, Italo Calvino and Borges -- a bit too reminiscent. They are all quite enjoyable and written in simple, straightforward language that allows the reader to fill in the emotion. This is a great collection for a teenager with a taste for the surreal and fantastic.
LibraryThing member figre
Really, this collection of stories should not work. 1) Many are in a style that I can only describe as “Essays on things that have happened” (heck, the essay is hard to pull off when it is based on something real – how much harder when the writer is making it up), 2) many explore themes that have been mined to death in effective science fiction stories, and 3) many start so mundanely that the reader is tempted to think there will be nothing within.

Which just goes to show that Millhauser is a powerful and talented writer (and reminds all of us that any writing rule can be broken – but only if you really know what you’re doing.). There is not a story in here that did not leave me thinking – wondering about the insights I had just seen and also wondering how Millhauser took that simple subject and brought it new depth. 1) The “essay of what happened stories” (again, just a term I made up) could easily become nothing more than a dry recitation of facts built on an interesting theme. But Millhauser takes his kernel of an idea (the tower of Babel was real, a historical society that recognizes today as tomorrow’s history, an exact copy of a town) and, by reciting the facts of their development (the essay), leads us to a better understanding of how we react to real-world situations. 2) There is not a story here that would not be at home in an SF or Fantasy collection. The concepts are familiar. As one example, the great story by Ted Chiang – “Tower of Babylon” – posits that the Tower of Babel was real. The minute an author takes on a subject done so well by another author, they are facing a significant challenge. But these similar concepts are written to a different depth that, again, sheds new light on who people are and what they do. 3) Yes, it is easy to think these stories will go nowhere. But, within a few pages, you will find that you have moved into new and different territory. You won’t be able to say when it happened – you will just know you are there.

The perfect example of this is “The Dome”. In this short 8-page story, Milllhauser describes the history of how the fad of using domes to cover houses eventually spreads to towns, and to countries, and to the world. Standard SF fare and, in describing this as history through essay form, two strikes to completing a successful story. Yet, as he describes these changes, he describes the people that are making (and fighting) the changes. And he makes us ask questions about ourselves and what the domes really mean. Two strikes that lead to a home run.

They are all fabulous stories, each of which deserves a separate description and discussion, but I’ll only bring up one more – the first story “Cat ‘N’ Mouse”. As I’ve said, it is easy to dismiss these stories in the first chapter or two because you think you know where they are going. In this story, Millhauser seems to be doing nothing more than describing scenes from a Tom and Jerry cartoon. An interesting approach, but it feels like a writer’s exercise rather than a story. Soon, he starts to explore what is really going on with the cat and mouse and the reader thinks, “Okay, that is interesting”, but may not expect much more. Yet, at the end, the exploration is new, different, and worth every word.

I had never read Millhauser’s work before and did not know what to expect. I was surprised, thrilled, and sorry the journey ended. If his other works are anything close, it is no wonder he is a Pulitzer Prize winner. Jump in and enjoy this collection.
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LibraryThing member sweans
Most of these stories fell a little short for me. One story, "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman", did stand out, however. It was well written and thought provoking. I finished the book hoping that another story might be just as good, but was disappointed.
LibraryThing member DCBlack
Very rarely do I find a short story collection in which I like every story, but this is one such collection. Divided into three sections with four stories each, and adding an introductory tale to make a baker's dozen, this collection holds together better than any I can remember reading. This is even more amazing considering these previously published stories first appeared separately in various literary periodicals. Each story takes a simple idea which could be described in a short paragraph and pulls the string to look at consequences or look beneath the surface of events. Shared themes and ideas, such as the dangers of obsession or the human tendency to pursue transient fads, provide connecting threads that bind the stories together into a unified whole. Different narrative techniques are used. "The Wizard of West Orange" is written as the diary of the librarian at Thomas Edison's laboratory who gets to be the human "guinea pig" in testing a new invention. "History of a disturbance" is written as a somewhat apologetic letter from a husband to his wife explaining why he has felt compelled to take a vow of silence despite the consequent strains it has placed on their marriage. Other stories are written in first person, third person, or omniscient narrator, providing a variety of narrative styles. Overall, the best short story collection I have read in a long time, and I'm not surprised to see it on many critics' "Best of 2008" list.… (more)
LibraryThing member AustereAdam
Summary:
Steven Millhauser’s Dangerous Laughter is a collection of 13 short stories, separated into 3 “categories” or “studies:” 1) Vanishing Acts 2) Impossible Architecture and 3) Heretical Histories. The collection also begins with a short story called “Cat and Mouse,” which Millhauser classifies as his “Opening Cartoon.” The whole effect of this sub-divided compilation with cartoony introduction is to make the collection come across similarly to a 1950s late-night Hitchcockian television series. The first category, Vanishing Acts, contains four stories which attempt a discussion on unhappiness and loneliness, the result of these feelings being the slow disappearance of someone (the self). The second category, Impossible Architecture, contains another four stories and, while the idea of smallness and invisibility still registers, the main theme here is this idea of creating amazing, masterful designs – impossible scientific feats – which, rather than satisfy the creators’ appetite, instead leave them feeling less satisfied than they were before they started. There is a constant need for “more” and “better.” The final category, Heretical Histories, contains four stories which take an alternative approach and view of the study of history – history in general, fashion/social culture history, art and cinema history, and scientific history.

The Good:
What I like most about these stories is that they border on terror. There is something strange and disturbing about each story, even though many seem to be simple stories about a different time or place, or a different sort of people. There is a sense of “something wrong” in each of the stories. For instance, in the cover-story, “Dangerous Laughter,” we see a group of teenagers who meet to have “laughing parties.” A safe, even cute idea, at first, but one begins to wonder what these children lack, what are they missing that they must seek each other out and force themselves to laugh themselves almost into insanity? These laughing parties turn into crying parties, which become the new vogue, and the shy girl who was forced to “come out” at a laughing party, and who became the reigning champion of the laughers, gets left behind. It is the eerie touches to everyday life that I find most intriguing. The girl in “The Room in the Attic” who may or may not be whom we are expected to believe she is – and, if she is not, what does that say about her entire family? The pioneering families and communities in “The Dome” who, by seeking to make their lives just a bit easier, just a bit better, come to isolate themselves completely from one another, to exist in a world unknown and unidentifiable, where even the grandest schemes of nature become playthings. And the poor villagers in “The Tower,” who become so disillusioned by their great adventure into the Heavens that they actually begin to seek the only opposing adventure, into the depths of Hell. The idea behind each short story in this collection is truly inspired and wonderful. I imagine someone like Hitchcock or Poe or even Dennis Cooper could push these stories into the stratosphere, but Millhauser holds back. Millhauser explains just enough, describes just enough. Is it enough?

The Bad:
While each of these stories is inspired, as I said above, I couldn’t help but to be left feeling slighted. I imagine these visions in the head and hands of Edgar Allan Poe, for instance, and the horror I imagine, the true sense of terror – and not just the anticlimactic tease the reader is allowed here – is almost unimaginable. I can’t determine whether Millhauser held back on purpose or not. If he did, I could understand reasons for doing so. Many of these stories are believable in many ways and the slight creepiness, the eerie but unidentifiable makes it all the more real because, in life, some things do just “weird us out.” We find ourselves in situations that make us uncomfortable, with people who make our skin crawl, and there may not always be evidential reason for it, but the feeling remains. This could be what is happening with Dangerous Laughter. Still, I can’t shake the part of me which feels that, brilliant ideas are here, but the story-telling prowess is just lacking. The brilliance with which this collection could shine is dimmed by the fact that, when it comes down to the language, the words, well, the beauty of the stories just aren’t translating. I also think Millhauser left too many loose ends, where nothing gets explained. Who is the girl in “The Room in the Attic?” What happened to Earnshaw in “The Wizard of West Orange” to change his disposition so drastically? How can one really just disappear, even with practice, as the main character eventually does in “History of a Disturbance?” So much wonder, such brilliant places Millhauser doth go – but it’s almost as if he wipes out the path to and from, and we’re left standing a crossroads, with no street sign to indicate the way.

The Final Verdict: 3.5/5.0
While I was underwhelmed by the majority of these stories, I was also intrigued by most. The writing did not necessarily inspire or move me, but many of the themes and ideas did. I found MIllhauser to be echoing Poe and Hawthorne on many levels, though his mastery of story-telling and the written word are not quite in the same league. There is an element of terror to these exploratory/fantastical stories that could have been greatly developed but which were ultimately underdeveloped and, therefore, left me feeling a bit detached and cold. Still, a part of me can’t help wondering if this was intentional, as much as I want to stray from this inquiry (because I would be disappointed if it were the case). Yet, Millhauser writes in “History of a Disturbance” these words: “Always I had the sense that words concealed something, that if only I could abolish them I would discover what was actually there.” Perhaps this is Millhauser’s point, after all. That the words don’t matter so much as the story does – the “what happened,” “how did it happen,” and the why did it happen?” I would tend to agree, except that, in written form, stories and words tend to need one another equally, and Millhauser makes a habit of leaving out the “how” and the “why” altogether in Dangerous Laughter.
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LibraryThing member hardcastle
I picked up Dangerous Laughter after reading its review as part of the The New York Times 10 Best Books of 2008. Normally I'm pretty skeptical of such lists, but this book does not disappoint. The collection starts somewhat slow, but once you move into the second set, "Impossible Architecture," Millhauser's creativity really begins to show through. One reviewer commented on the sort of detached, observational quality of many of the stories - to me this is a unique strength of the stories, an interesting mix of storytelling and analysis. Overall, a great read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Big_Bang_Gorilla
Being short stories by a master novelist whose stories I fear I will always find frustratingly synoptic. All the ingredients from his masterpieces are here, but in an abbreviated, less rich form that is redolent of a Readers Digest condensed book. It's well worth reading, but not the place to start in his corpus.
LibraryThing member ImperfectCJ
I really enjoyed this book.

The first story, "The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman," borders on perfection. A well-crafted locked room mystery, this story has themes and characters that transcend the pages of the book. It had me thinking (and still has me thinking) about what happens when people stop noticing other people.

The other three stories in the first section (entitled "Vanishing Acts") were good, but as a friend mentioned in her review, they were somewhat repetitive. A couple of specific images reappeared often enough that I found them a little annoying (eg, the image of the pocket torn from the back of a pair of jeans, a character looking as though they were coming down with something). I found it satisfying, however, to watch Millhauser explore his theme through different characters and situations. It inspired to me to do some more experimenting with my own writing.

The other two sections, "Impossible Architectures" and "Heretical Histories," are pleasant all the way through. There's a Tower of Babel story followed to its possible conclusion had God not intervened and changed everyone's languages ("The Tower"). There's the story of the craftsman of miniatures who pushes his art to see how far he can move the limits ("In the Reign of Harad IV"). Then there's my favorite of the latter half of the book, the story of a painter experimenting with the properties of paints and unleashing unexpected forces ("A Precursor of the Cinema").

When I was a child, I would get a thrill imagining things that were infinitely large and infinitely small. The sensation of letting my mind expand beyond the boundaries of the physical world as I could perceive it with my senses was exhilarating and terrifying all at once. Millhauser's stories reawakened this sensation in me.
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LibraryThing member thatotter
Creative, but often felt contrived or artificial. The extremely detailed descriptions were almost tiring to read. In general, I feel like these stories are not full-fledged stories, but fleshed-out ideas. There is a distinct question behind each story: What if historians were obsessed with cataloging what happened today instead of what happened long ago? What if being ignored made people physically disappear? What if the next town over was an exact replica of your town, only no one could live there? What if we could delve into the psyches of Tom and Jerry? and so on. But while these might be interesting questions to explore, you need more than that to make a successful short story.

I enjoyed the later, more Borgesian stories in this collection more than the earlier ones.
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LibraryThing member Rincey
I don't understand what all the hubub was about with this book, but I didn't get it. I'm not big on short stories in general because I enjoy books that are more character-driven, so that might have been the first problem. The words themselves are beautiful and Millhauser does a great job painting a picture because I really could imagine these people and situations. However, in the end I just didn't care about them, which meant I didn't really care about the stories he was telling.… (more)
LibraryThing member bongo_x
I appreciate the fact that the stories can’t be easily put in the same old categories, and there were no middle aged men or women at a dinner with their odd collection of friends who wander outside and stare at the stars and smoke a joint, but this collection just didn’t do it for me. It seems to be made up entirely of things I would like, but didn't.

All the stories have elements in common, maybe too much. It almost seems like variations on a theme at times. There is usually an interesting, and somewhat unique idea at the core, and they’re mostly told in a fable or fairy tale style. There are elements of SF and Fantasy, but these are not genre stories at all, he very naturally ignores genre and just tells tales. The style is very distant, there are no characters to get to know. Often there are literally no characters, just “the people”.

A few of them I enjoyed; Cat ’n’ Mouse, A Precursor of the Cinema (my favorite) and the tower story. The laughing story, and others I can’t remember, were tedious, silly, and made me think of writing class assignments, young writers trying way too hard to be meaningful. All of them, even the ones I liked, were too long, often way too long.
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LibraryThing member TheBookJunky
Great. Today showed up on the NYT top 5 fiction books of the year. I picked a winnah!The Dome was particularly good. Great riff.

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