"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.