four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
34-May-June-2008
user_rating: 
0

SM-DangerousLaughterDangerous Laughter showcases Millhauser’s quirky talents, as he delivers these 13 gems through his off-center version of reality. Divided into three parts—"Vanishing Acts," in which people disappear (or slowly grow dimmer); "Impossible Architectures," which offers near-future scenarios; and "Heretical Histories," about bridges to the inanimate world—and with the stand-alone introductory "Cat ‘n’ Mouse," these stories run the gamut from the mundane to the fantastic. They explore various topics—from culture (the lives of cartoon characters in "Cat ‘n’ Mouse") and space ("In the Reign of Harad IV," "The Dome," and others) to the limits of history and invention ("Here at the Historical Society," "A Precursor of the Cinema"). "A book," claims one of his characters, "is a dream-machine." And so are these stories.
Knopf. 244 pages. $24. ISBN: 0307267563

Boston Globe 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Dangerous Laughter is Steven Millhauser’s best story collection. … 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." David Rollow

New York Times Book Review 4.5 of 5 Stars
"The 13 terrific stories in Dangerous Laughter reintroduce us to this strange realm, last glimpsed five years ago in Millhauser’s previous collection, The King in the Tree. … Millhauser’s chronicles of our semi-inhabited landscape seem not just brilliant but prescient." D. T. Max

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 4 of 5 Stars
"Millhauser’s stories most often deal with fantasy and the supernatural in ways that are comparable to Jorge Borges but with a distinct American flair that puts him closer to John Barth. … Like [Tobias] Wolff, Millhauser is a superb craftsman whose quirky prose and offbeat subject matters manipulate the fictional narrative to get the most out of every page." Sharon Dilworth

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"[The collection] 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

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"[A]lmost a Steven Millhauser primer, a much needed fix for fans who’ve been waiting since The King in the Tree (2003) and a perfect introduction for those unacquainted with his writing. … In fact, with few exceptions (both ‘The Tower,’ about a building that reaches to heaven, and the book’s title story, about an unusual teenage fad, read like tendentious allegories whose referents are unclear), Millhauser has done nothing here to diminish his reputation as one of our most dazzling storytellers." Jeff Turrentine

Hartford Courant 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Interesting and deadpan as he is, skillful at playing with ideas, [Millhauser] is at his best when he draws us into the minds and hearts of high school students, with their terrible and complex lives. … Human folly and period pieces about necromancy (Millhauser wrote ‘The Illusionist’) are amusing, but the human dimension is more interesting." Kit Reed

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"When fully developed, [Millhauser’s] work is among the most thought-provoking I’ve encountered, deftly layering character, emotion and intellect, beautiful and profound. … There’s too much here, though, that reads like filler, too many short takes that go nowhere, framed around a gimmick or a conceit." David L. Ulin

Rocky Mountain News 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Millhauser is a delicately skilled author who could maintain his weight class against younger short-story stars like Dave Eggers and Amy Hempel. But he’s an acquired taste with sophisticated sensibilities that might leave some falling asleep in their chairs."Kelly Lemieux

Critical Summary

Pulitzer Prize–winner Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer) has focused his attention in recent years on the novella and short fiction. The author culls his latest collection from stories published in The New Yorker, Harper’s, and other venues over the last decade. Any collection drawn from such diverse sources and compiled over a period of time will strike some readers as disconnected. All critics welcome Millhauser’s return and compare the best of these stories ("Here at the Historical Society," for example) to the work of Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges. Less popular are "The Tower," about a literal Tower of Babel that struggles to rise, and other stories that embrace Big Ideas. Overall, Dangerous Laughter is a strong effort—"not just brilliant but prescient" (New York Times Book Review)—and reading these stories is like picking up the "best of" collection of your favorite band: good memories, catchy hooks, and always something new in the familiar.