By Ted Gioia

Steven Millhauser is obsessed with obsession.  Each of
the stories in his collection
Dangerous Laughter presents
an unhealthy fixation—sometimes exhibited by an
individual, at other times by a small cadre of friends,
or even a community or entire nation.  All in all, this
book could stand as a series of fictional case studies in
obsessive-compulsive behavior
and the madness of crowds.

Or the madness of fictional
animals. The opening story,
"Cat 'n' Mouse" is presented in
the form of script treatment
for an animated cartoon, a
"Tom and Jerry"-ish story of a
cat in constant—and constantly
unsuccessful—pursuit of his
mouse nemesis.  Here the
obsession is one of natural
instinct, heightened by the
slapstick comedy one associates with the oeuvre of
Looney Tunes or Hanna-Barbera.  But Millhauser
periodically interrupts his narrative to insert
Dostoevskian asides on the psychology of the conflict.

The cat pauses in his pursuit to ponder the existential
nature of his plight: "His life, in relation to the mouse,
is one long failure, a monotonous succession of
unspeakable humiliations….Although he knows that
he will never catch the mouse, who will forever escape
into his mousehole a half inch ahead of the reaching
claw, he also knows that only if he catches the mouse
will his wretched life be justified…."  Then Millhauser
cuts off these musings, and continues on with his cat-
and-mouse story—involving dynamite, decoys, large
pieces of cheese in elaborate mousetraps, etc.  The
story is clever and funny, but also thought-provoking
—its power derived from its odd juxtaposition of
psychological reflection and crude pratfalls.  

Other stories in
Dangerous Laughter present less
familiar obsessions.  The hero in "The Room in the
Attic" becomes romantically drawn to the sister of a
friend—even though he has never seen her.  After a
nervous breakdown, the young lady isolates herself in
an unlighted attic, where he visits her day after day,
conversing and exchanging innocent caresses in the
enveloping darkness.  In the title story of the
collection, a group of teenagers become addicted to
bouts of irresistible laughter or weeping, with startling
and destructive consequences.  In "The Other Town,"
an odd compulsion takes over an entire city: the
citizens are intent on maintaining an exact replica of
every building, street, tree, plant or object in a mirror-
image community that they have built on their city
limits.  

In several of Millhauser's stories, unhealthy fixations
spread throughout society—developing into a kind of
mass hysteria.   In "The Dome," a fad for enclosing
buildings in transparent plastic coverings starts out as
a mere architectural quirk but escalates into an insane
desire to turn the great outdoors into an even greater
indoors.  In "A Change in Fashion," women suddenly
decide that the best outfits are those that allow them
to remain unseen, an object of imaginative fantasy
rather than mere vulgar sight.  But here too, the new
style gets out of hand.  Dresses "grew in every
direction; in some instances they exceeded the size of
rooms and had to be worn in large outdoor spaces,
like backyards or public parks….One dress contained
in its side a little red door, which was said to lead to a
room with a bed, a mirror and a shaded lamp…."

The oddities in Millhauser's stories often take on
fantastic or phantasmagorical qualities.  "A Precursor
of the Cinema" is written in the form of a scholarly
treatise, but soon collapses into unabashed magical
realism.  The narrative focuses on the experiments of
Harlan Crane (1844-88?), a painter whose canvases are
capable of coming to life.   Objects and people in the
painting can step out of the picture and move among
the onlookers, and sometimes the viewers can even
enter into the canvas.   Crane's work is presented as an
alternative to the motion picture technology of
Thomas Edison, who serves as inspiration for another
story in this collection, "The Wizard of West Orange"
—built on the premise that the great inventor had
some dark and twisted technology locked away in his
basement, an invention far too dangerous for the
general public.

Millhauser's stories are typically quite simple in their
underlying premise, yet he manages to flesh out his
feverish conceits in dramatic fashion.  As many have
noted, his writing is very much in the spirit of Kafka
and Borges, but also wickedly attuned to the particular
craziness of our own times—when the most bizarre
concepts and ideas can go "viral" in a heartbeat.  We
have the technology to raise our madnesses to levels
previously unknown, and this very escalation is a
recurring subject in Millhauser's work.

Perhaps the best description of Steven Millhauser
comes from the mouth of one of his characters, a
bohemian outsider at a local high school who is a
frighteningly well-read intellectual, yet shows no
interest in getting good grades or high test scores.  
His justification for his indifference both applies to
Millhauser himself and also serves as a fitting defense
of conceptual fiction as a whole:

"Art, he said, was a controlled madness, which was
why people who selected books for high school
English classes were careful to choose only false books
that were discussable, boring, and sane, or else, if
they chose a real book by mistake, they presented it
in a way that ignored everything great and mad about
it. …He said that books weren't made of themes,
which you could write essays about, but of images that
inserted themselves into your brain and replaced what
you were seeing with your eyes."

Millhauser achieves just this in
Dangerous Laughter.  By
his own definition, he has delivered a "real book"—
albeit one packed to the brim with unrealities.  And it
is to the credit of this obsession obsessed author that
he has delivered a volume that also makes for
compulsive reading.  
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL READING
Dangerous Laughter
by Steven Millhauser
Click on image to purchase
The Year
of
Magical
Reading
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works
share.  

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
by
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter
Grass

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by
Apuleius

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa
Obreht

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
by
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
by
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark
Helprin

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.
Delany

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz
Leiber

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.
Tolkien

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas
Mann

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.
Thomas

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil
Gaiman

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis
Borges

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki
Murakami

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice
Hoffman

Week 38:  Blindess by José
Saramago

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev
Grossman

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
www.twitter.com/tedgioia

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.
Flatland

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian
Hothouse

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

Apuleius
The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.
Crash

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis
Ficciones

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.
Moderan

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.
Babel-17

Delany, Samuel R.
Dhalgren

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.
Nova

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.
Ubik

Dick, Philip K.
VALIS

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fowles, John
A Maggot

Fuentes, Carlos
Aura

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil
Neverwhere

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William
Neuromancer

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John
Light

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank
Dune

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Houellebecq, Michel
Submission

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Jackson, Shirley
The Haunting of Hill House

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

King, Stephen
Carrie

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw
Solaris

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mandel, Emily St. John
Station Eleven

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni
Beloved

Murakami, Haruki
1Q84

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry
Ringworld

Noon, Jeff
Vurt

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Poe, Edgar Allan
Tales of Mystery & Imagination

Pohl, Frederik
Gateway

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José
Blindness

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert
Mindswap

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary
Frankenstein

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert
Nightwings

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford
City

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer
Norstrilia

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stoker, Bram
Dracula

Stross, Charles
Glasshouse

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.
Slan

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack
Emphyrio

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt
Slaughterhouse-Five

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim
Cloudstreet

Woolf, Virginia
Orlando

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal


Special Features

Notes on Conceptual Fiction
My Year of Horrible Reading
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
The Most Secretive Sci-Fi Author
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List



Links to related sites

The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

_____


SF Site
io9
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog


Disclosure:  Conceptual Fiction
and its sister sites may receive review
copies and promotional materials
from publishers, authors,  publicists
or other parties.

All rights reserved.