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?

About the author


  1. University of South Carolina Press is bringing out my book Understanding Steven Millhauser next month, the first book in English concerning his writing. Although I obviously don’t talk about this recently published story, you might find my discussions of his work useful. The book is an introduction to Steven’s fiction, written for a general audience, occasionally puzzled by his stories. Steven asked to read the manuscript and made suggestions, in a few instances disagreeing with my readings.

    1. Excellent. Thanks for letting us know. Sounds like a helpful book. I’ve always enjoyed his writing, even when I find the stories “puzzling” as you say.

  2. Thank you. I chose to work on this project because I’ve been convinced that his work is too brilliant to not have the readership it deserves.

  3. Having heard a broadcast reading of this story tonight on NPR’s “Selected Shorts,” I came upon this post while pursuing further info on-line. To respond to your now years-old question, the overwhelmingly pleasing resonance I felt with Millhauser’s story must assuredly come from my being a peer in age with the author. The perspective of a certain age readily encourages a generously broad interpretation of Levinson’s woozy odyssey through the shifting suburban landscape. I’d say the point is not only that we cannot escape change but, with a particularly immediate and individual emphasis, we also DO not and WILL not.

    On the surface, the piece clearly depicts the inexorably self-destructive paradox of gentrification with its built-in cultural decimation. The very vitalizing surges Levinson loves in his adopted town are simultaneously making it unrecognizable, confusing, and discomfiting by undermining the quaint traditional details he also finds attrative. But the increasing time elisions he experiences suggest some internal change in his person. The escalating confusion might have physical and/or mental sources, but he is certainly in major flux, grasping for familiar and stabilizing anchors in the shape-shifting environment. His shift from perambulating to motoring also implies an acceleration of the whole process which could be interpreted as impending coma or death. I find it significant that his final route is an unpaved path through an enveloping forest and emergence onto a major highway with a multitude of “souls” moving in both directions. Perhaps the exit sign and number which he doesn’t recognize reads “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here” or whatever more gratifying greeting tops the celestial portal.

    For me personally, this more cosmic interpretation was probably also encouraged by having just previously wakened from a night of similarly disconcerting dreams. However, Millhauser’s oeuvre is replete with themes and narratives embodying a very plastic magical-realism, and I like to think he’ll be pleased if we greet all the possible options positively, if not equally. I concur with Mr. Ingersoll’s conclusions above, and stumbling upon tonight’s broadcast leaves me determined to complete my previously derailed reading of Millhauser’s “Edwin Mullhouse.”

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