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…”