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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.
“Millhauser’s narrative persistence, [his] insistence on spinning out more permutations, pays off as he keeps developing avenues of the story until we are forced to buy into his speculative fantasies. . . . Millhauser’s flagship skill as a stylist has to be his visual precision. He has an uncanny knack for nailing an image with few words yet with such exactitude that it appears more lifelike in your imagination than it ever could on a screen. This precise visual imagery gives him the latitude to entertain speculative notions, since once he has grounded the readers in a scene, he has enough cachet to guide us through rather heady meditations. . . . [His] skill to evoke the visual . . . will keep readers entranced while dreaming of miniature cities and impossible paintings.” —John Matthew Fox, Rain Taxi Review of Books (February 2008)
“[Millhauser] is a bit of an illusionist himself, trading in elaborate setups, allegorical sleight of hand, and fairy tales with something up their sleeves. Dangerous Laughter collects an array of successful short stories [that] take us in [two] directions at once–the laughing escape of fantasy and the dangerous proximity of the best in modern literature.” —Michael Agresta, The Austin Chronicle (February 29, 2008)
“Pristinely fashioned vignettes that explore the possibilities of magical realism . . . Millhauser’s imagination is powerful, skipping from the visual poetry of blades of grass cut down by lawn mowers to a cartoon cat and mouse with magical abilities similar to movie special effects . . . Millhauser is a delicately skilled author.” —Kelly Lemieux, Rocky Mountain News (February 29, 2008)
“Millhauser’s confident storytelling imbues his collection with an ease and versatility that is unexpected considering the complicated nature of his subjects.” —Anna I. Polonyi, The Harvard Crimson (February 29, 2008)
“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 (February 24, 2008)
“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 (February 24, 2008)
“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 (February 24, 2008)
“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 (February 15, 2008)
“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) (February 24, 2008)
“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 (February 19, 2008)
“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 (February 19, 2008)
“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 (February 13, 2008)
“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 (February 10, 2008)
“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 (February 10, 2008)
“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 (February 1, 2008)
“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 (January 1, 2008)
“[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 (December 31, 2007)
“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) (December 17, 2007)
“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) (December 1, 2007)