Originally published in The New Yorker (December 16, 2013). Grade: B.
I didn’t really like Millhauser’s modernized Rip Van Winkle, in which Levinson, a “self-proclaimed refugee from the big city,” goes to sleep one day only to find that his bustling town has simply continued to grow and change. That is, I didn’t like the story–mainly because there isn’t one, so much as there’s a series of examples that describe the normally imperceptible creep in which a town begins to change until, like Theseus’s ship, you have to wonder if it’s still the same thing. The writing, however, is impeccable, and because I don’t normally enjoy description, I want to take the opportunity to talk about ways in which you can justify description. Here, the whole point is to evoke a certain bustling atmosphere, a sensation of constant construction and shifts in the landscape, and so it’s necessary that sentences dart in and out of Levinson’s periphery. Moreover, though he could simply throw down a list of objects, Millhauser chooses instead to focus on the little details that give a sense of the bigger picture, and that works, too–it evokes the uncanny. For instance, there’s something vaguely creepy about the way he embellishes the description of a construction site: “… a man in a T-shirt and safety goggles standing on the platform of a scissor lift, and an orange safety cone with a small American flag stuck in the hole at the top.” The flag claims the entire enterprise as a American one (which is not to say that we’re the only industrious nation; I think China’s well surpassed us there), but it also evokes our culture and identity being consumed by said buildings. Our small-town values, the very backbone of America, are being sucked into the hole of a traffic cone–note the way the Chinese restaurant morphs into a Vietnamese restaurant into a fancy chocolatière. It has lost all sense of identity. If you really want to read into it, look at the American colors introduced in the next paragraph: “Levinson looked down at the reddish earth, at the blue cab and silver drum of a concrete mixer,” and then the other ones that quickly crop up around it, “at piles of mint-green plastic sewer pipes. He watched with pleasure as a yellow backhoe lifted a jawful of earth and debris into the bed of a high-piled dump truck…”
And then, of course, there’s the bitter irony of the whole story (which actually reminds me a bit of the tone Saunders uses in his work): “The city was a lost cause, what with the jammed-up traffic, the filthy subways, the decaying neighborhoods and crumbling buildings. The future lay in towns–in small, well-managed towns.” And yet, because Levinson doesn’t want a “boring backwater,” he wakes to find change taken to its natural extremes (a reducio ad absurdum argument, perhaps). Behold the excess of these lines: “On block after block, the houses were escaping their old forms, turning into something new” and “A small white house with a red roof stood entirely enclosed by the studs, beams, and rafters of a much larger house, which was being constructed around it.” A house within a house? Another floor, “a second porch above the first,” an “octagonal tower,” why not? It’s exactly what the title promised, the unfettered, unchecked growth of a future that is always Coming Soon, so soon, in fact, that you might wake up one day, like Levinson, to find yourself lost within it. No longer can you “chart its changes, pay close attention to every detail, without feeling, as you did in the city, that your head was going to crack open.” (So, too, do the descriptions slowly pile on faster and faster, evoking this skull-bursting sensation.)
But for all the stylish prose, it’s really just Levinson, lost, in a world he not-so-carefully wished for and no longer recognizes. And that’s not much of a story, is it?
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