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.
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.
“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.