Skip to main content

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Coming Soon" by Steven Millhauser

Story: "Coming Soon"

Author: Steven Millhauser

Issue: Dec. 16, 2013

My faithful readers (if there exist any of you out there) will remember Steven Millhauser's last NYer story, "Thirteen Wives," which I reviewed in the 6/8/13 entry on this blog. What's that? You don't remember??? Ah, well...

Anyway, I gushed over that story because of it's experimental style in which Millhauser painted mini portraits of thirteen imaginary wives, each of which represented a different facet of his relationship with one real woman: his wife. 

I throw around the term "magical realism" a bit too much. Mostly because I don't know what other term to use for a story like this. However, this story (and "Thirteen Wives") are not magical realist in the great Latino Literature sense of the word, but they sure as hell aren't straight up realism. Millhauser paints reality in his own colors, bends and compresses time, and creates a world with his own laws of physics, all in order to put forth a subtle point. Perhaps we would"cartoon realism" or "allegorical realism." Either way, this story functions more as a fable or an ode than an actual story, and the "point" is debatable, as it should be, but has something to do with the desire to run away from progress and whether or not that's possible. 

What Millhauser does in this story is to first paint a seemingly realistic scene: a small, progress-oriented town just outside New York City. Into this scene he inserts Levinson: a man who has come to the small town seeking refuge from the city and it's madness, but who admires the small town and its people for their industriousness. 

However, as Levinson soon realizes, the industriousness of the town and its denizens soon causes the town to turn into the very thing Levinson sought to escape. The town begins to change before his very eyes until he does not recognize it from one hour to the next, and ends up right back where he started: the city.

It's nice how Millhauser eases us into the "magical" element of this story. At first, we think it might just be about another Manhattan refugee and his cozy-yet-somehow-unfulfilled life in a small town. Millhauser turns that idea on its head, placing this Manhattan refugee in a town that is hell-bent on urbanization and progress. 

Millhauser has a good hand with these kinds of "magical symbolism" stories (did I just coin a term?). From another author, we might feel preached-to or we might see "meaning" too quickly. However, Millhauser is good about keeping the veil over our eyes until the very end, and creating a story that bears re-thinking and re-reading. 


Anonymous said…
I want to share with you and your readers the publication this month by U South Carolina P of my book UNDERSTANDING STEVEN MILLHAUSER. It's not the "last word," but an introduction written for a general audience so no "theory" or jargon, hopefully. Steven volunteered to read the ms., and in some cases he didn't agree with my interpretations, but readers may not either. Earl Ingersoll
imyoboy said…
I want to share with you and your readers the publication this month by U South Carolina P of my book UNDERSTANDING STEVEN MILLHAUSER. It's not the "last word," but an introduction written for a general audience so no "theory" or jargon, hopefully. Steven volunteered to read the ms., and in some cases he didn't agree with my interpretations, but readers may not either. Earl Ingersoll
Anonymous said…
This story I read when it came out. It's not exactly a knee-thumper. It builds logically enough and wherever it ended made sense, but didn't really kill.

Brent Shearer
Eric Forrest said…
This is a very cool story. It's imaginative, but not bizarre, which is refreshing. I especially love the ending when he has no choice but to take the six-lane highway. Levinson can't escape growth- maybe that's something Millhauser loathes? Hard to gauge intent, but that's my best interpretation.
There's no indication that Levinson is angered by the transformation of his town -- just disoriented. Then again, even the disorientation doesn't entirely make sense: a guy like Levinson would have his town mapped out in his head. He ends up lost on streets that Millhauser has left unnamed -- but that, even with the town changing as it develops, Levinson would have been able to follow to his destination, recognizing the new construction along the way. Rather than transporting the reader (along with the protagonist) into a Kafkaesque "nowhere land," the author seems to cheat the protagonist (by denying him information he'd have had) -- and thereby to cheat the reader, too. The net result: pointless and contrived.
...then again, Levinson has left one kind of city (with its "dirty subways") and finds himself in a what's become a hyper-developed "town" with innnumerable (unnamed) streets -- in effect, merely a different kind of city, one that resembles Los Angeles. (At the end, he even finds himself driving on a freeway!)

Nonetheless, there's still no reason for him to be lost amid the local streets (presumably with the names and layout he'd find familiar) merely because his hometown has developed and grown. It's a cute idea, but the author's conceit is counterintuitive for the character he's created - and thus it doesn't work.

Popular posts from this blog

New Yorker Fiction Review: "The Apologizer" by Milan Kundera

Issue: May 4, 2015

Rating: $$

Review: It took me five years and three separate attempts to finish Milan Kundera's famous novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but in spite of that, quotes and insights from that book still rattle round my head on a weekly basis. What I mean to say is: my feelings on Kundera are very similar to my feelings on Haruki Murakami. I enjoy reading his work, but in small doses, like this short story.

Like Murakami, Kundera uses elements of magical realism, but where in a Murakami story you might encounter a flying dolphin or a disappearing hotel or a person who has lived his whole life in the same room, refusing to leave, Kundera's magical realism offers more direct insights and perspective on real life.

In Kundera's worlds, time and space are malleable and everything that ever happened in history is happening at the same time, and the narrator is a completely omniscient, caring, witty, and hands-on god-like being.

And so it is with "The Apo…

New Yorker Fiction Reviews: "Meet the President!" by Zadie Smith

Each week I review the short fiction from a recent issue of The New Yorker. If you told me when I was 12 that I'd be doing this I'd have been like, "Dork. There's no such thing as blogs," and I'd have been right...

Issue: Aug. 12 & 19, 2013

Story: "Meet the President!"

Author:Zadie Smith

(Please note: I've developed a highly sophisticated grading system, which I'll be using from now on.  Each story will now receive a Final Grade of either READ IT or DON'T READ it. See the bottom of the review for this story's grade...after you've read the review, natch.)

Plot: Set in England, far into the future (lets say 2113) a privileged youth of 15, named Bill Peek, encounters a few poor villagers from a small, abandoned coastal town on the southeast shore. He meets a little girl named Aggie, who is going to her sister's funeral. Peek is cut-off from real life by a sophisticated video game system that is implanted in his head, therefore th…

A Piece of Advice I Learned From My Grandfather

My grandfather was one of the most learned men I know. He read widely and voraciously, and not just in the sciences (he was a doctor); he loved politics, philosophy, and great literature as well. Whenever he finished a book he would write his thoughts about the book in the front cover and then sign and date it. To this day every once in a while I will open a book from my bookshelf or my mother's bookshelf, or at one of my family members' homes, and there will be my grandfather's handwriting. He was also a great giver of his books; if you remarked that you liked a particular one or wanted to read it, you were almost sure to take it home with you.

Reading is a very solitary pursuit but my grandfather was not a solitary person. He relished having family and friends around him which is convenient because he was blessed with a lot of both. And he carried out his intellectual life in a very "public" way as well. He was, in some ways, an intellectual evangelist. If he r…