Steven Millhauser: “Coming Soon”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Steven Millhauser’s “Coming Soon” was originally published in the December 16, 2013 issue of The New Yorker.

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Trevor

I’m always in the mood for a new Millhauser, but this one didn’t quite do it for me. It reminded me of elements of three of my favorite pieces about the passage of time: John Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” of Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle,” and that great Twilight Zone episode “A Stop at Willoughby” (not to mention, Millhauser’s own “Getting Closer” (my thoughts here)). However, “Coming Soon” didn’t have the life those stories have.

The basic premise of “Coming Soon” is this: a forty-two-year-old man named Levinson is a “self-proclaimed refugee from the big city.” As the story begins, he’s been living in a small town for one year, and he’s enjoying a Saturday afternoon in the summer. “He felt, without vanity, the satisfaction of a man who knows he has made the right choice.” He’d been warned by friends that he’d hate leaving the city, but he knows these friends were simply wrong.

Interestingly, though, one of the reasons Levinson loves his adopted small town is because he sees its potential. He loves that he can chart its changes. If it really were inert, he’d despise it, but this place is changing: a high-tech business is coming to the town. He wishes he’d taken up city planning because “he enjoyed thinking about large spaces, about putting things in them, arranging them in significant relations.”

This Saturday afternoon, he falls asleep on his porch. When he wakes up disoriented in bed. Things feel off, but enough is familiar so he charts it up to his grogginess. But when he goes outside, things have changed. In fact, things are still changing. Buildings are different. Progress. There are signs for a “Grand Opening” and another that says “Coming Soon.”

Everywhere Levinson looked, he saw new shops, new buildings — an ad agency, a Moroccan restaurant, a hair boutique, a gelato parlor. There was even a roofed arcade, with a row of shops stretching back on either side.

The passage of time, the disintegration of small communities: these are common themes. In fact, Millhauser has covered them in some of his best works (for the crazy drive for “progress” look no further than Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer (my thoughts here).

But “Coming Soon” felt incredibly basic. I read it twice because I was confident that I’d missed some nuance that would open up the story for me, but I am no longer sure.

Most of Millhauser’s story let us into the character a bit. Here, at the beginning, we know Levinson left the big city. But when he becomes unstuck in time and watches the world around him change faster and faster, we are closed off from his inner thoughts. These thoughts should be important considering Levinson’s interesting fascination with the small town as the site of massive change.

But instead, we get paragraphs about what is changing. Such paragraph-long lists are common to Millhauser’s work, but they usually contain a charm or a grotesque quality that illuminates the beating heart of the story. Here, the lists were simply lists, and there was no beating heart.

Betsy

“Coming Soon,” Steven Millhauser’s riff on “Rip Van Winkle,” is another in what feels like a series of New Yorker story assignments. Recently, we have had a story appropriated from Munro and one sprung from Bolaño. This story, which uses Washington Irving’s as a starting point, is what I would expect from Millhauser: original and thoughtful.

But I found it slow. I admired very much Milhauser’s “Thirteen Wives” and enjoyed beyond measure his “A Voice in the Night.” In contrast, “Coming Soon” feels more like exercise than story.

A man, Levin, moves to a small bustling town north of Manhattan.

“This was no boring backwater as his friends had warned, no cute little village with one white steeple and two red gas pumps, but a lively, thriving town.”

He loves the verve of the place, but it’s a place where things are changing fast. The reader realizes before Levin does that he’s in a Rip Van Winkle kind of time — where the minute you turn your back, something else has disappeared, and the townscape is being gobbled up by creative destruction.

The story mourns the death of small cities, and it questions the way we accept daily change as natural. Will we notice, for instance, when small town North Dakota has entirely disappeared into an oil-boom exo-suburb? Will we much care if Walmart delivers by drone?

As I said, I greatly admired two recent stories by Millhauser. This one feels beside the point to me. The original Rip Van Winkle awoke to having slept through a war, a revolution in thought, and the establishment of a grand experiment — a government ruled by constitution, not king.

“Coming Soon” is a pale echo of Washington Irving. But just as Rip Van Winkle slept through the revolution, we sometimes sleep through change that’s before our very eyes. Before we know it, Muillhauser suggests, some of the best places to live in America will be gone. Just as our great natural wonders need to be preserved, the story suggests that perhaps our small cities and big towns have a unique ecology that needs preserving, too.

12 thoughts on “Steven Millhauser: “Coming Soon””

  1. avataram says:

    There is a slideshow (!) accompanying the illustration for this story:

    http://nyr.kr/18PnCPK

    I have been staring at each of the slides in the hope of gaining some insight into the story. I was expecting some kind of a hint about last month’s vote in NY permitting 7 new casinos in the Catskills region, but there was none.

  2. Trevor says:

    Yes, I was wondering whether or not to link to the slideshow above but wasn’t sure what it might add. Glad you found them and linked to them here!

    I think the slideshow is pretty great.

  3. avataram says:

    The slideshow gave me an idea what the story may be about. Each week, TNY chooses a story from a big pile of stories they have received and commissions an illustration for it. Lately, they may have realized (as have readers of this blog), that there few original short story writers (Munro, William Trevor, Bolaño) and other writers are simply paying homage to these writers. So, why not choose a very good illustration, and then commission a story to accompany it?

    As a story in itself, this Millhauser is underwhelming. But as a fictional illustration to this slideshow, it is nothing short of brilliant.

  4. Paul Epstein says:

    A completely pointless story! The narrator’s town is changing with lots of new buildings being built and refurbished, and he doesn’t like it. So what??

  5. Trevor says:

    I don’t think it happened like that, avataram, because Millhauser is a top-tier story writer in my book, and he keeps his head low. I doubt he’d accept an assignment to write anything (plus the theme is consistent). It’s baffling to me that this is what we’re getting. First, why would Millhauser submit this? Second, why would the magazine publish it?

    I am with Paul on this: a completely pointless story. Honestly, I’m not even sure the man is against the changes because we barely get anything from him. For all I know, he’s simply hyperventilating because he’s having a very strange day.

  6. avataram says:

    One useful thing the story did was to remind me of Eugenio Montale’s poem “Forse un mattino andando in un’aria di vetro”, a very good translation of the poem by Jonathan Galassi and an even more wonderful essay on the poem by Italo Calvino in “Why read the classics”. In eight lines, Montale manages to say far more than this story.

  7. Roger says:

    I’ll add to the chorus on this one – it’s pointless. Or, maybe even worse: it has a point, and the point is obvious and trivial: Woe unto the world’s Levinsons, who think they can escape the overbearing city by relocating to a plucky, vibrant town, because that town will inevitably grow rapidly and chaotically, leaving Levinson worse off than he would have been had he remained in the city. Seems like Millhauser learned a lot about construction and whimsically used it to write this shallow piece.

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  9. Aaron Riccio says:

    Yeah, I’m in agreement with everything said here (and I love Millhauser), except for your statement that “the lists were simply lists.” I tend to hate description, and yet I found myself captivating by the very rhythm and imagery of the things he chose to focus on in the constantly shifting town/city; if nothing else, he evokes an interesting pulse through the language (like Morrison’s “Jazz”).

    I wrote in more depth about a specific paragraph back on my site (http://thatsoundscool.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/523/), but I did end up with the same conclusion as all of you: at best, it’s a demonstration of what Millhauser’s capable of doing *without* a plot.

  10. danthelawyer says:

    I suppose I can just add to the chorus. I thought it was incredibly slow in the beginning (add me to the list of people who struggle even to read lists, much less enjoy them), and then gratuitously surreal. I generally enjoy surrealism, whether in art, comedy, or fiction, and Millhauser has given us some good examples, but this served no purpose.

    With so much great fiction being written and published elsewhere, why is the New Yorker fiction so consistently disappointing?

  11. Ken says:

    I liked this more than most above did and yet also agree it’s not Milhauser’s best either. I saw it as sort of a Twilight Zone like tale of poetic justice–the man who disdains nostalgia for the past and for old buildings and smugly cheers on progress becomes its victim. The New Yorker has had several terrifying articles about the smug, self-righteous anti-government tech bubble dwellers in San Francisco (the photo of one of them of all these young people staring down at gadgets was particularly disturbing) who think all progress is good; all technology benevolent. This seemed a comment against embracing change unthoughtfully.

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