“Coming Soon,” by Steven Millhauser

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…”

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“Bad Dreams,” by Tessa Hadley

Originally published in The New Yorker, September 23, 2013. Grade: C.

The chairs in the lounge, formidable in the dimness, seemed drawn up as if for a spectacle, waiting more attentively than if they were filled with people: the angular recliner built of black tubular steel, with lozenges of polished wood for arms; the cone-shaped wicker basket in its round wrought-iron frame; the black-painted wooden armchair with orange cushions; and the low divan covered in striped olive-green cotton. The reality of the things in the room seemed more substantial to the child than she was herself–and she wanted in a sudden passion to break something, to disrupt this world of her home, sealed in its mysterious stillness, where her bare feet made no sound on the lino or the carpets.

I’m at a loss with this story: for the first half, the objects appear to have taken over, with Hadley losings herself in lengthy descriptions of an apartment shrouded in darkness, a nine-year-old girl walking through the sleepy gauze that separates a bad dream from reality. It’s evocative, if nothing else: I found myself reminded all too well of the bad dreams I had once woken up from, of the “familiar forms” that would pop into existence as my eyes adjusted to the light–the window, the bookshelves, the bunk bed. “It was strange to stare into the room with wide-open eyes and feel the darkness yielding only the smallest bit, as if it were pressing back against her efforts to penetrate it.” As far as I can suss out, the little girl has had the dream-equivalent of an existential crisis: a gloomy epilogue has appeared in her favorite book, detailing the ways in which her beloved characters die–only the most boring of the six adventuresome, fictional children survives to a “ripe old age.” Desperate to shake things up, the girl literally upends the furniture in the living room: “She was shocked by what she’d effected, but gratified, too . . . her whole body rejoiced in the chaos.” Continue reading

“Katania,” by Lara Vapnyar

Originally published in The New Yorker, October 14, 2013; D

I hate to be reductive, but then again, the very act of writing about a short story of thousands of words in a blog that spends only a handful of hundreds on it can’t help it. And so some of the rich textures, the build-up of the pacing (which covers nearly eleven years), and the the characters get shortchanged in order to better discuss the theme, and whether it works or not. And so: the title “Katania” refers to the imaginary country created by the protagonists–two poor Russian girls, Tania and Katya–and inhabited by dolls. Because the two girls have so little–at one point, Tania judges freedom not by the number of rooms you have, but by the ownership of a key that lets you enter and exit those rooms at will–they compete over the smallest of things: the “correct” color of teacup, or, in the crux of this story, a male doll. The significance is immediately clear: fathers were in short supply, we’re told, and Russia covered this up, as they did most shortages, by refusing to acknowledge them (hence the father doll coming from an uncle who’d recently visited Bulgaria). And so when Katya shows Tania the doll, she lashes out with a jealous anger, belittling the doll’s lone imperfect, a bad hip. Why should her best friend get to have a father figure, no matter how shabby, when her own father has defected to the United States and been absent the last several years? In case it wasn’t clear, Vapnyar specifies this by cutting ahead ten years, with both girls having immigrated to the U.S. and catching up over Facebook: as Tania brags about her home and husband, Katya can only observe that “Tania had built herself an exact replica of my old doll house, down to the chicken coop” and that her husband “walked as if his left leg didn’t work. He walked as if it were detached at the hip.” Continue reading

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