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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. 

Comments

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.

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