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Dangerous Laughter

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 2)

Steven Millhauser is an inexhaustibly creative writer whose stories reflect a broad range of interests and a remarkable ability to shift perspective and thus examine the commonplace from a completely uncommon vantage. In Dangerous Laughter: Thirteen Stories, his influences vary from American writers such as Edgar Allan Poe (as shown in “The Room in the Attic”) and John Barth (in “The Disappearance of Elaine Coleman”) to early postmodernists such as Argentine short story writer Jorge Luis Borges (shown by “In the Reign of Harad IV”) and Italian fabulist Italo Calvino (as demonstrated in “The Tower”). The writer’s focus moves from the intensely personal to the philosophically inquisitive and to abstracted ruminations on principles. In the way that some books are considered to be “novels of ideas,” Millhauser (like Borges and Calvino) can be considered a short story writer of ideas. His eclectic and diverse stories demonstrate that Millhauser seems to see things differently than most and to notice things the rest of the world typically overlooks.

Dangerous Laughter is introduced by the story “Cat ’n’ Mouse,” which serves as an appropriate preamble to Millhauser’s postmodern sensibility. The story chronicles the eternal and continuous struggle between a cartoon mouse and his animated feline adversary, reminiscent of the Hanna-Barbera animation studio’s long-running and popular Tom and Jerry cartoons. Millhauser’s approach in rendering these characters into literary fiction could have easily been ironic. Instead, even as cat and mouse plot cruel mischief against each other (as in the Tom and Jerry cartoons, the cat is typically the aggressor, finding again and again to his chagrin that the mouse is a step ahead of him, so that the cat’s own designs return to haunt himthe trick cigar explodes in the cat’s mouth; the birthday cake with dynamite for a candle blows up the cat; the sudden blizzard brought on flash-freezes the cat instead of the mouse)they each eventually realize that he is defined by the other. In effect, the struggle of each creature against his nemesis is the only reason either animated character has for existence.

Dangerous Laughter is organized according to shared thematic motifs. Part one is titled “Vanishing Acts,” and it groups together personal stories of loss, dissolution, and disappearance. The second section is titled “Impossible Architectures,” and it groups together stories that deal in distant ways with impersonal and improbable artificesa tower breaking into heaven; a dome that covers first a house, then a city, a nation, a continent, and eventually a world; a mirror town built adjacent to a real town, the first municipality’s twin in every particular save the double’s nonexistent citizenry; and models of houses, furniture, and implements built at an almost invisible microscopic level. The last section is called “Heretical Histories,” and it offers stories that range from considerations of alternate ways to view the purpose and usefulness of history to a first-person account by a member of Thomas Edison’s laboratory, a tale about the magical, artistic excellence of a photographer and painter whose works seem to come to life, and a brief dissertation of fantastical and imaginary fashion trends.

Despite the four groupings (including the introductory story, listed as “Opening Cartoon”) used to organize the contents of Dangerous Laughter, the stories can, in a broader sense, be separated into two categories: works driven almost entirely by ideas and works driven by character (even if still extraordinarily rich with ideas). Like the books of Calvino about fictional, fantastical cities and what their cultures might be like, such as Le città invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities , 1974), many of Millhauser’s stories tend to ask “what if?” questions in pursuit of a philosophical answer. Particularly the stories listed in the “Impossible Architectures” sequence...

(The entire section is 1,779 words.)