The New Yorker: “Coming Soon” by Steven Millhauser

CV1_TNY_12_16_13Nelson.inddDecember 16, 2013: “Coming Soon” by Steven Millhauser

Weird story. Twilight Zone? Kafka? (I couldn’t find a Q&A with Millhauser, so I guess we’re on our own.)

Levinson has moved to a small town to escape the city. He still works hard, but it’s way less stressful than it used to be. Still, he notices that it’s improving and there’s a lot of growth and activity. He goes to visit family and comes back—or does he? There’s a suggestion of a dream state. It hardly matters, though, whether what follows is a dream or an impossible reality. Growth in the town—construction of high-rise apartments, McMansions, new restaurants and shops, an expressway—has moved into hyperspeed.

What’s the point here? You can’t escape progress?

The New Yorker: “Thirteen Wives” by Steven Millhauser

CV1_TNY_05_27_13Juan.inddMay 27, 2013: “Thirteen Wives” by Steven Millhauser

I’m not sure I get this story, which you can read in its entirety for free. Go do that now: “Thirteen Wives.”

Here’s the gist of it. The speaker says he lives in a sprawling house and each of his thirteen wives has her own room. He then proceeds to describe each of the wives—listed by number, not name—and his relationship with her. All the wives are quite different; in fact, they seem to cover the universe of possible personality types, as if his wives represent all women. In contrast, we know very little about the personality of the man, except as he compares himself to each of the wives. But he is not every man—he is one man. Who, then, are the women?

As I read through all the different wives, I wondered if the narrator weren’t speaking really of just one woman, with moods or a split personality. (It’s not clear how they could play cards in small groups, as the narrator says they do, if that were the case.) It might be that the wives represent the same wife at different ages. In fact, wife number 10 is sick, and wife number 12 is a “negative woman,” as if she were really an absence, rather than a presence. And number 13 is his memory of women. He says, “ The incessant changefulness of my thirteenth wife may, of course, arise from something deceptive in her nature, as if she’s continually casting up new images in an effort to evade responsibility for any one of them,” which suggests that she is all the previous wives put together.

Millhauser is known for such slightly off-kilter, perplexing stories. As of this writing, there’s no Q&A with the author to help us with this one. So, what’s your take? Do you find this a sexist story?

The New Yorker: “A Voice in the Night” by Steven Millhauser

December 10, 2012: “A Voice in the Night” by Steven Millhauser

I encourage you to read this story, which is available for free online. But that’s only because I’m not sure what to make of it, or how I feel about it. It seems quite a departure for The New Yorker and for Millhauser, and there’s no Q&A with the author (that I’ve found) to help with explication.

The story begins with the Biblical story of the boy Samuel, working for Eli, the high priest of the temple of Shiloh. In the night, Samuel thinks he hears his name called, but it’s not Eli. It happens again and again and eventually Eli tells him that someone else—God—is calling his name. (How much of this is actually in the Bible I’ll leave to others; it’s been a long time since I’ve read that book.)

Now the story jumps ahead a couple of millennia to Stratford, Connecticut in 1950 and another boy, age 7, lying in bed at night waiting to hear his name called. Although his family is non-religious, the boy goes to Sunday school at the Jewish Community Center and he’s heard the story of the boy Samuel who hears his name called in the night.

Jump ahead again and the Author appears. He’s 68 (it happens to be 60 years after the boy in Stratford lay in bed listening for the voice in the night so we can suppose the boy is the Author) and he can’t sleep. He listens to the sounds of the nights, ponders reading something, then thinks of “the boy in the house in Stratford” and acknowledges that he thinks about that boy a lot these days. (The references are all to the boy in the third person, or sometimes second person, suggesting the Author’s distance from the boy, whether or not he is that boy.) He recalls that the boy was isolated in Catholic Stratford.

The story shifts back to Samuel, then the boy, then the Author as each prong of the story proceeds. (There’s a great section where the Author recalls that in the old days he’d recite “fistfuls of sonnets” to help him sleep, and then we get lines from a couple of familiar Elizabethan sonnets.) The Author relates the boy’s experience of family, with visiting grandmothers, living in Stratford, growing up Jewish in a Catholic neighborhood. He keeps asking himself, What is a Jew? (Or is that the boy asking?) And he recalls the lessons the boy learned from his family, including fighting against bigotry. And that his parents are both teachers—they have a “calling” (like Samuel being called in the night) and the boy, the Author, has a calling to write.