"A Voice in the Night"
by Steven Millhauser
Originally published in the December 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

Steven Millhauser’s latest, though still concerned with the passage of time and, to an extent, art, is not at all what we’ve come to expect from the great 21-century Romantic writer. Gone are the carnivalesque sets, the elaborate details, the undulating, dreamy rhythm (until the end). Furthermore, this story could be autobiographical; Millhauser is certainly inviting us to wonder. Had someone handed me this story out of the blue, in five guesses I doubt I would have come up with Millhauser, which is one reason I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re coming to Millhauser for the first time. Sure, some things are here — the broody reflection, the ambient noise of the season, the child’s perspective on the unknown — but overall this is very different. That doesn’t mean bad.

“A Voice in the Night” is subdivided twice. There are three numbered sections, each corresponding to a certain character at a certain time and each a long, single paragraph, and we hear from each four times (i.e., I, II, III, I, II, III, I, II, III, I, II, III).

I. The first character is Samuel, the young boy who, in ancient Israel, was called by the Lord in the middle of the night (as recounted in 1 Samuel 3). Three times Samuel thinks it is his master, Eli, and he runs in to say, “Here am I; for thou calledst me.” But it isn’t Eli. Only on hearing the voice for the fourth time does Samuel respond, “Speak; for thy servant heareth.”

II. We move to Stratford, Connecticut, in 1950. One calm night a seven-year-old boy lies in bed, looking at the lights coming in from his two screened windows, listening for someone to call his name (Millhauser himself was seven in 1950 and grew up in Connecticut). That day was Sunday School at the Jewish Center, and they learned the story of Samuel.

III. The boy has grown up to become “the Author,” a sixty-eight-year-old atheist who suffers from insomnia and thinks back to four sleepless nights in 1950 when he waited up to hear the Lord call his name, though nothing ever happened.

The first section proceeds much as we might expect. The four times we read section I. cover each of the four times Samuel hears his name called. Toward the end, “he wants to lie in his bed as if he could be a child forever, he wants to lie there as if his name had not been called in the night.”

The second section also keeps us on familiar ground: the four times we read section II. cover four consecutive nights when the boy waits up just in case someone calls; “he wants to be awake in case it happens. He doesn’t like to miss things.” He knows, of course, that is probably won’t happen. After all, his father has made it clear that such things are myths:

It’s only a story. His father has explained it to him: the Bible is stories. Like “Tootle” or “The Story of Dr. Dolittle.” Trains doesn’t leave the tracks to chase butterflies, the pushmi-pullyu with a head at each end isn’t an animal you’ll ever find in the zoo, and the Lord doesn’t call your name in the night. Stories are about things that don’t happen. They could happen, but they don’t. But they could.

On the third night he finds it slightly ridiculous that he’s still waiting up listening, “but his unbelief upsets him as much as belief would, if he believed. If the voice doesn’t come, it means he hasn’t been chosen.”

“A Voice in the Night” gets much more complex when we factor in section III and its four nights of insomnia. Yes, the Author thinks back to his young self, wondering if that’s how it happened or if, as a writer is wont to do, he is padding the story. But he also considers his old thoughts on what it meant to be a Jew, what it was like living by New York City as its neighborhoods evolved over sixty years, and, importantly, what it means to be called, in his case, as a writer.

Though not altogether to my taste when I’m looking for a story from Millhauser (I’m actually thrilled at how different this one was; it just didn’t seem to play to his strengths), it’s interesting, and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. Why is the Author thinking back on that time when he half-believed he might be called by the Lord? How does this relate to his calling as a writer? How does his constructing stories relate to the stories that haunted him as a child? I’m looking forward to further thoughts from others.

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By | 2016-08-22T17:18:19+00:00 December 3rd, 2012|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Steven Millhauser|Tags: |6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Betsy December 5, 2012 at 10:19 am

    Steven Millhauser’s “A Voice in the Night” is for me one of the best stories of the year, partly because it presents an inspired manner of memoir.

    A contemporary writer muses over his fifties’ boyhood and his one time obsession with Samuel, the boy-prophet of the Bible. In twelve parts, each of these characters is awake four nights in a row, and each is the subject of a section in steady succession. What is a little odd is that the sections are titled I, II, and III four times, partly, I think, to indicate a dreamlike state, and partly to indicate the way identity is a kind of multiplying or layering of the I.

    Like many of us, the Writer in the story feels himself to be indelibly enmeshed in a religious tradition, but not of it. He is not a believer, and he wonders about the true nature of his identity within that tradition. What makes this even more applicable to many of us, is that his religious identity is a mixed bag of elements, high and low, from more than one faith.

    This piece is labeled fiction, but it feels, in a satisfying way like the truest of memoir. What satisfies is its centeredness, the way it meditates on the topic in layers upon layers, and the way the writer slowly grows to a central truth about his life.

    Those of us who are about Millhauser’s age share an impulse to get at the center of things, and get it down, but most of us find the form inspires us to too much mundane detail and stultifying chronology. Millhauser’s inspired frame uses the mythical Samuel, the boy prophet, to propel what well may be a memoir (or not) into the realm of fiction. That choice provides a tight anchor, as well as an appropriate mystery, and it feels utterly true, given that the “centers” of our identity are in fact both mysterious and fluid, as well as multiple.

    The frame of the story, then, lies in the way that Samuel, the twelve year old boy is called by God in the middle of the night. When the boy resists, the voice in the night calls again. Each time, the boy thinks it is his aged rabbi and teacher, Eli. Each time, Eli says no, and finally, Eli instructs Samuel as to how to answer.

    Within this frame, Millhauser places the writer’s own boyhood yearning to be named, to be placed, to belong,to understand, to have things certain and clear, when, for instance, his own family sends him to “Sunday School”, but his unbelieving father forbids the bar mitzvah.

    In addition, Millhauser also addresses the way the writer, as a boy, was baffled by the way life presented its reality, much the way the boy Samuel was baffled, at first, by what he had heard.

    The story actually has a double frame, in that the writer’s colloquialisms and his insomnia ground the story in a very real present against Samuel’s mythical past. Mulling over the story of Samuel, the writer sifts through his boyhood, and in so doing, we realize that one of the centers of the frame is his father, the teacher. The writer recalls the way his father found teaching a calling, much as Samuel found being a prophet a calling. To be more exact, however, there’s a profound difference between the writer’s father and Samuel. Samuel called down the wrath of God upon the evil sons of Eli, and he eventually conducted a take no prisoners war that founded the kings. This was a very big and violent life in the service of the Lord.

    The writer’s father was a teacher who would choose teaching even if a million bucks fell into his lap, a teacher whose identity (post Holocaust) depended both upon defining religion as only an explanation to satisfy mystery, and being able to answer Christians who asked him what he believed with this parable-like answer: Jesus was a great teacher.

    So there is the juxtaposition of teaching as a calling and propheteering as a calling. (Mysteriously, it dawns on the reader that the voice in the night that Samuel heard may well have been Eli himself, constructing a situation where the mystic boy Samuel could rein in the sons Eli himself could not control. More mystery.)

    Writers have a sense of themselves, perhaps, from the beginning as being called to speak. The writer, at 68, is being kept awake – again – by a gnawing need to clarify just what that boyhood yearning to be called really was. As he meditates on the problem over a series of nights, he comes to the bedrock of the triple vision: “Samuel ministering unto the Lord, his teacher-father ministering unto the generations. And the son? What about him? Far, far to the west of everywhere, ministering unto the Muse.”

    The question about memoir versus fiction still interests me. What is fiction here and what is memoir? Anything I say is merely a guess, but I make the guess that the piece can be used an inspiration for the rest of us – a way, one way, near the end of life, meaning can be made of our tangled histories. A little fiction can be more true than truth, it seems.

    As to the title, “A Voice in the Night”, there is a nice evolution from that voice that Samuel heard and the voice of the modern seeker. Samuel heard God. The writer hears the voices of his past and his tradition. The writer, though, is a voice that speaks into the dark, inquires of it. But it is a life apart, I think. The writer of the story is alone, and he speaks to us, a voice in the night, out of the isolation that is the natural existence into which many of us have been born and of which, before we pass back into the night, we feel impelled to create sense and center.

    As to your question, Trevor, about why the writer was thinking back to a time when he thought he would be called by the lord. I offer this: a teacher of mine, a writer, told how as a child he knew he had been destined for great things. But what? And so, if we are lucky, aren’t all of us called to meaning? The difficulty is in finding the way. It keeps us up at night.

  2. Trevor December 5, 2012 at 12:47 pm

    Betsy, thank you so much for this comment. We are all indebted to your meticulous analyses, and this one opened up the story so much for me.

    I think you’re spot on about the layering effect of the numbering and how that relates to the narrator’s own layered identity (growing up Jewish, kind of, in New England). I hadn’t quite been able to put my finger on that aspect of it.

    Also, your thoughts on the nature of his calling and why he, as a 68-year-old man, is looking back on that night when he was searching for a calling. Your final paragraph is insightful and beautiful.

    All around brilliant and, I’d say, an important critique on this short story.

  3. Aaron December 6, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    Trevor, not so different from things Millhauser has written before if you think about it: this specific stream-of-consciousness was used to excellent effect in “Getting Closer” (2010), another New Yorker short, although I’ll agree that he’s perhaps best known for his magical realism. But the details? The memories? The description? The questioning? That’s all Millhauser, and for me, the layering has another effect, in which I is interpreted by II and processed by III, 3000 years followed by 60, to produce a new sort of religious text (and isn’t the Bible also numbered?). Isn’t III’s version of Samuel just as powerful as I’s? Or is that just my inner Negative Jew relating?

    In any case, there’s far too much to unpack, so I’ll end with the final conclusion that I posted up on my blog (http://bit.ly/WMjm7l):

    Everything shapes us: reality and fiction both. I do not wish for a voice in the night, I wish only for the night, which is voice enough, if you are wise enough and patient enough to listen . . . and brave enough to then write.

  4. Trevor December 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    I agree that you can sense Millhauser if you look closely (at least, I have to look closely), but I still feel that even these elements are done quite differently here.

    The only part in the story where I thought of “Getting Closer” was when the boy noted they were going to the beach the next day (I wondered if this could even be a cross-reference, but the boy in “Getting Closer” was older and didn’t go to the same beach). I agree the stream of consciousness is in each, though I don’t feel that is a common Millhauser technique. As here, his narrators do tend to get more energetic toward the end, but usually there’s a frantic, not reflective or, even, peaceful, resolution.

    I’m also not sure I’d say the details are the same, or, rather, typical Millhauser. I’m used to Millhauser’s long, lavish lists of childhood perspectives on seasons, love, magic, machinery, or the carnival. I’m used to him giving us a beautiful image and then outdoing himself, just as we think he’s going to move on, by adding a new layer of details even more elaborate than the first — and then doing it again and again; meanwhile, his story and narrators do the same thing, obsessively burrowing in on itself. This happens in “Getting Closer” and, therefore, that story felt to me more typical. In “A Voice in the Night,” I feel Millhauser pulled back not just a little, though not necessarily to lesser effect.

    Basically, I think of Millhauser as our greatest Romantic writer, and this piece did not come off as Romantic in the slightest.

    Of course, this is all what I think of when I think of Millhauser, and I’m delighted to have that perspective broadened. It will probably open up his other work even more for me.

  5. Ken January 3, 2013 at 5:42 pm

    I loved this. It also reminded me of “Getting Closer” but not of Millhauser in general. I like the way that he shows how the stories of religions and the stories of childhood and popular culture intertwine in many of us. For instance, the way God and Santa Claus function the same way (not mentioned by Milllhauser). The breathless, perfect style absolutely amazed and captivated me and the idea of the “calling” and how it came to various characters showed how a certain impulse whether expressed religiously or secularly is common to those who are inspired. I think this is my favorite story of last year’s New Yorker entries.

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