Steven Millhauser: “Getting Closer”

In 2009, after reading all of the fiction in The New Yorker, I posted one massive year-in-review post with very brief thoughts about each story.  In 2010, I posted an individual page for each story (though with one main index page), which allowed me to write more and also allowed others to leave comments as the year passed.  I have not been particularly pleased with either approach, as much as I have enjoyed reading the fiction and sharing my thoughts.  My 2009 method didn’t allow anyone else to share in the journey.  My 2010 method was too much in the background of this site, so I don’t think some people who would have liked to share comments ever knew about it.  So, in 2011 I am going to post my thoughts on this main page, and I’ll still use the same index page.  There will be drawbacks with this method, too.  One I see right away is that the discussion here will begin only after I have read the story.  On the 2010 forum several readers regularly beat me to the stories but had a place here to share their thoughts.  Also, this method will require more frequent posting on my blog’s main page, and book reviews (the regular meat) will be pushed down quicker, maybe before commenters are able to respond (for example, Eric Siblin’s great The Cello Suites will be pushed below this review after less than a day at the top).  I dread that this will make this blog a respository of my thoughts only, but I hope there will still be plenty of commentary.  All of this could be made worse since I have similar plans to start posting reviews of other short stories I read through the year (rather than only review collections).

I’m excited to begin the new year with a story by one of my favorites, Steven Millhauser, whose Pulitzer-winning Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer is sadly underread.  Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage.  “Getting Closer” was originally published in The New Yorker‘s January 3, 2011, issue.

Click for a larger image.

Millhauser’s short stories are often quite short, and this one is no exception, but in just a few columns he manages to pack more than most other do in ten of the magazine’s pages.  In “Getting Closer” we closely follow the thoughts and perceptions of a young boy who is excited because the day he waits for each year — the day when his family goes to the river — has finally arrived, almost.  Here is Millhauser’s opening sentence.

He’s nine going on ten, skinny-tall, shoulder blades pushing out like things inside a paper bag, new blue bathing suit too tight here, too loose there, but what’s all that got to do with anything?

At the end of the story, we may come to think that those details matter quite a bit, not because they are important to the plot (they aren’t) but because those details are a part of this moment and this moment a part of this young boy’s life.

This is the beginning of a very simple story.  The first few columns are a lush description of everything around them.  The boy notices and relishes everything, and we are taken into his mind:

In the picnic basket he can see two packages of hot dogs, jars of relish and mustard, some bun ends showing, a box of Oreo cookies, a bag of marshmallows which are marshmellows so why the “a,” paper plates sticking up sideways, a brown folded-over paper bag of maybe cherries.

Still, though the day has arrived, the boy doesn’t think the day at the river really begins until he steps into the river.  His older sister has already jumped in and is calling to him, but he’s not sure he wants to enter.  Unlike the typical story, this is not leading to a drowning.  The boy is simply struck by the realization that when he steps into the river, the moment will begin, and then it will be over: “He’s shaken deep down, as though he’ll lose somehting if the day begins.”  I remember when as a child I first realized that if Christmas actually arrived that would mean it was close to being over.  Consequently, I soon wished that the moments before would never end, even if that meant Christmas never came.  As an adult, the peace of a vacation has often been endangered by the realization that, once began, it would soon be over.  And each New Year is filled with hope, but subverted by the realization that with the passing of a year a bit of life is gone: my child will never be this age again — it’s over, the nine-year-old is gone forever.

However, in “Getting Closer,” Millhauser inflicts this child with all of this plus the terrible intimations of mortality.  This child has “seen something he isn’t supposed to see, only grownups are allowed to see it.”  This is, then, the day this young boy — who is nine going on ten, whose shoulder blades are pushing out like things inide a paper bag, and whose new blue bathing suit is too tight her and too loose there — realizes he and everyone he loves is going to die:

If he goes into the river he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything that matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for.  When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble.  But when you begin you’re using things up.  The day starts slipping away behind you.  He wants to stay on this side of things, to hold it right here.  A nervousness comes over him, a chilliness in the sun.  In a moment the day will begin to end.  Things will rush away behind him.  The day he’s been waiting for is practically over.  He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere.  It’s right there in the beginning.  They don’t tell you about it.  It’s hidden away in things.  Under the shining skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone.

The ending, after that very peaceful beginning, is a rush of emotion.  It’s a brilliant move by The New Yorker to place this story in the issue that would straddle the death of one year and the birth of another.  The story’s concept itself may not be original, but in Millhauser’s hands the detail, the pacing, the structure make for a very strong short story well worth the time it takes to read and reread.

23 thoughts on “Steven Millhauser: “Getting Closer””

  1. mary schlesinger says:

    So well said.

  2. Christina Hellendoorn-Cothren says:

    The pace of this story encouraged my thinking about and imagining once again that moment in time when I realized that my world was imagined…that my fanatasies and perceptions were in fact not reality…
    This moment occurred when I was around 5 years old…and ever since then I have felt feelings the author presents through the perceptions and realizations of the boy in this story. The story is both a gem and a bitter reminder that life is precious…and wilting away as we think we want what is upon us while ironically wishing that moment away as we begin to move through it…on and on this happens as we live to eventually die. A way to surmount this reality is also portrayed in this story…amazingly so! The presence of mind the boy’s musings bring to the forefront ARE life lived to its fullest…living in the present moment and experiencing life wholeheartedly and passionately. This I will aim to do as I move into a New Year…and leave behind me my lived life with memories bearing no/little regret.

  3. Aaron says:

    Uncanny. I agree with you completely (we even quoted the same bits). There was something so ordinary about this story, the meditative slowness of the first two pages, and the oddness of the voice, that I think I actually marked this lower than I should have, and in a few days of living with this, it’ll probably go up higher. In terms of what it’s trying to do, it has succeeded completely: I find myself trying to remember the day I first recognized death, i.e., that things would end.

  4. Trevor says:

    I’m willing to let our disagreements about fundamental aspects of George Saunders’ latest go, then, Aaron :) .

    Happy New Year!

  5. Betsy says:

    Because this Millhauser story was not my cup of tea, I appreciated how Trevor called our attention to the fact that the editors had placed the story perfectly – it being a meditation on beginnings and endings that thus marks the new year. In my resistance, I’d missed that.

    While it abounded in visual detail and was rooted in a simple family experience, to me this idea laden story lacked a pulse. It felt constructed. What if Walt Whitman had been ten in 1952? What if Buddha were reborn in Connecticut? What if Huck Finn were not the last word on ten year old boys? What if Henry James were to want to think about a ten year old boy thinking? And, of course, the boy himself has his own ideas, primary among them a revelation about time, change, loss, and death.

    For a revelation about the nature of life and death to succeed, there must also be a sense of the pulse of that life. Just to select one image, the possible loss of an inert picnic basket packed with dogs and relish and marshmallows is not lively enough to suggest the loss of family or the loss of enjoyment. The basket is, of course, a modern still-life, one that might more suggest the disappointment encountered when entering old age. In fact, to prepare the grill, the father is raking out the ashes. More death in life. Are these the ideas and perspective of the author or the ideas and perspective of a boy?

    Although the boy is excited about being at the river, we do not know why. Is it that he knows the current will pull him downstream into new territory? Is it that the occasional fish will brush against his leg, a silent and faint connnection with the river’s life? Is it that on the water he is on his own? We do not know, and I am not sure why the author has chosen not to tell us, except to emphasize that the boy is more in love with thinking than with the visceral life. Most confusing, the wording of the story makes it unclear whether the boy knows how to swim, and so the threat of death is woven into his excited sense of the river “getting closer”.

    The boy is at the last moment when experience is still uncomplicated by sexuality, although one could argue that his revelation about death is, in fact, a kind of thinking sparked by soon to be emerging sexuality. His is a knowing stillness before the storm, a situation that many or even most people pass through. The boy’s cool stillness, however, affects me; his serenity is not my cup of tea, though whether it is the boy, or the story’s method, or me, I am not sure.

    Of course, I have enjoyed thinking about all this, and for that I am grateful to the author.

  6. Trevor says:

    Hmmm, Betsy, I’m not sure all the things you’re looking for are in or even relevant to the story. For example, since the boy is nine going on ten, it didn’t occur to me to think that his sexual awakening is part of the story. While I can certainly accept connections between sex and death in art (it’s all over the place), it doesn’t appear to be a relevant connection in “Getting Closer.”

    To me this is a very simple story that says what it has to say clearly and very well with Millhauser’s control over detail, pacing, and voice (of course, where you admit to a certain amount of resistance, all my barriers dropped when I saw who the author was, so I may be too forgiving, though I have read the story several times since I wrote the above, and if anything it has gotten stronger). We don’t need to be told why the boy is looking forward to going to the river with his family; he’s just a young child anxious for the annual family outing, which he’s idealized in the year since the last outing. To me, this was a very familiar, if somewhat irrational, experience.

    I do agree that the threat of death shows itself through the whole story, even though nothing comes close to happening. I think that is Millhauser’s point. It’s just an uneventful day at a river beach — no one will die, it will pass much like any other — but for this boy it is agony that, once began, it will end. His hesitation to officially begin the day by stepping into the river leads to something much deeper, awakening this boy to mortality. The passing river is an apt image for all of that, but, at the same time, it is just a river.

    I also think that the simplicity of that picnic basket is at the heart of the story. Its contents have been packed in anticipation of the family outing. At this point, the contents have been undisturbed, but soon they will be consumed, leaving the basket empty. I loved the boy’s perspective on what surrounded him. At first, everything is ideal, but soon the beautiful images are tinged in darkness (one of Millhauser’s great achievements in his books, too).

    Ahh, Betsy, I’ve enjoyed thinking about this, too. I look forward to any more of your thoughts!

  7. Betsy says:

    Trevor, you remark, “At first, everything is ideal, but soon the beautiful images are tinged in darkness (one of Millhauser’s great achievements in his books, too).” On that note, it’s important to remember that the Housatonic, this family’s idyllic destination, was significantly polluted by PCB’s released by GE between the 30’s and the 70’s. One presumes that the story takes place before they could have been aware of the dangers, and so the undercurrents in the story are all the darker.

  8. Trevor says:

    Yikes! I didn’t know that fact about the Housatonic, Betsy, but that the river itself is dying is a terrible undercurrent in the story.

    Thanks for that tidbit that adds a lot. Millhauser’s stories are often filled with quasi-realized phantoms, and I can now add the Housatonic to that list.

  9. Trevor says:

    I see, incidentally, that the PCBs were released near Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which is situated in one of my favorite locations in the United States. Very sad.

  10. Little Kingdoms may just be one of my favorite short story collections (I know, I’m supposed to call it a collection of 3 novellas!) of all time. So, it’s good to see you reviewing (and praising) his short story from the New Yorker… and to find that we agree on the talent of an author other than Cormac McCarty. :)

    Betsy – Thank you for that factoid about the PCBs. It does add to the understanding and reading of the story.

  11. Trevor says:

    Surely we agree on the talent of more than two authors. Don’t we? Tolmsted?

  12. tolsmted says:

    Trevor –

    I was kidding when I wrote that… but then I decided to do a little digging into your archives by authors. It started out badly! I loved Ghost Road (Barker), Year of the Flood (Atwood) and If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler (Calvino). I did not like The Lost City of Z (Grann)and wasn’t able to make it through The Little Stranger (Waters). But we seem to agree on Ishiguro, McGrath, Plath and Roth… so there is hope. How do you feel about Michael Chabon, David Mitchell and William Faulkner? :)

  13. Trevor says:

    The good news, tolmsted, is that Ghost Road has gotten better in my memory. I’m almost tempted to pick up the first two books of the trilogy, and probably will reread it someday when I do. Bad news is that I still have little patience for The Year of the Flood, and I haven’t really cared to think much on If on a winter’s night a traveler; but perhaps good news: we will continue to enrich each other’s experiences with our conflicting opinions!

    As for the Grann, I imagine my personal connection to the Amazon helped me a lot, plus my boyish love of an adventure yarn. It was weak — very weak — in some places, though. Waters was a pleasant diversion for me — better than most of its type, but still a diversion. I am anxious to read more of her work, though.

    Now, about your others:

    Michael Chabon — The only thing I’ve read by Chabon is Gentlemen of the Road, which I read when it was serialized in The New York Times Magazine about five years ago. I liked it, but I get the impression it is not representative of his work. I have had The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay on my shelf since it won the Pulitzer, what, a decade ago now? I need to read it. I’m assuming you recommend it?

    David Mitchell — One of my favorites, though I was disappointed in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which I thought was well beneath his talent. I have been a stalwart admirer in the past, though, and that didn’t change. I’ll read whatever he puts out there still.

    William Faulkner — Another favorite. What can I say? I read As I Lay Dying straight one cold winter’s day, and I haven’t been the same since.

  14. Jon says:

    I did not like this piece, which I can’t really think of as a story but more as ruminative poetry. I agree with Betsy, it needed a pulse. It also needed fewer words.

  15. Ken says:

    I weight in late on this. I liked it. Certainly it’s got limitations-all art does-and Millhauser is a writer who has certain tendencies and often uses either a central conceit/metaphor or odd incident or a thesis to moor a story which can seem schematic. I, though, did like the ideas about how the world is our mental construction as is time, anticipation and notions of death and decay plus his style is pleasurable and impressive. The idea that anticipation is often intensely pleasurable reminds me of Proust having the narrator look over railway timetables and anticipate a journey.

  16. I am finally catching up with New Yorker stories — and (after a few disappointments to end 2010) was most impressed by this story. Its strength for me (and I think this was reflected in your thoughts) was the memories my own childhood and growing up that it awoke. The idea of anticipation and postponing a “beginning” was certainly part of my childhood so I was enrolled in the story throughout. Perhaps on a realistic level it did not succeed but for me that was not the point of the story — rather it is a study in emotion that is very well executed.

  17. Trevor says:

    I hope you enjoy the beginning of this year as much as I have, Kevin. A much stronger start than last year, I’m sure you’ll agree.

    As for this story I’ve read it a few more times since last commenting. Another great Milhauser story (he always shows that realism is not even close to his concern).

    How, by the way, is Martin Dressler sitting in your memory?

  18. Martin Dressler is aging in memory very well, thank you. I find it has become one of those novels that represents its period in New York (just as Age of Innocence does its era and Roth as well) so that when I read works set there in a different era (Steve Martin’s Object of Beauty is the most recent)it brings the entire novel — both setting and context — back to mind.

    I do keep meaning to try a volume of Milhauser stories but I’m afraid the agenda is just too full.

  19. Trevor says:

    I’m thrilled to say that this piece has found its way into Millhauser’s new book of short stories (which is a “New and Selected”), We Others.

    For the past few weeks I’ve been more and more discouraged with the short fiction in The New Yorker, but I loved this one and have been loving the new book so far.

  20. Aaron says:

    Thrilling. I’m picking up my copy in a few days, and I’m looking forward to seeing which of his selected stories he’s chosen. He’s got more range than people give him credit for, and this collection should help to illustrate that.

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