Late by Steven Millhauser, 2015
The magic trick:
Changing the reader’s perceptions of the narrator’s reliability very quickly
I can’t help but think Millhauser wrote this in about 20 minutes. It bears the distinct whiff of B-side. Nevertheless, it’s a worthy read. Some bands’ B-sides are better than others’ greatest hits, right?
The first-person narrator establishes the reader’s sense of reality, so from the start we see Valeria as significantly flawed and irresponsible. The narrator is so neurotic and so obsessive, though, that by story’s end (and that isn’t a very long span of words) the reader has abandoned the assumption that the narrator was a reliable compass and now, if you’re like me, is probably wondering if Valeria even exists. It’s a quick change. And that’s quite a trick on Millhauser’s part.
As six o’clock draws near, customers continue to enter, including one unaccompanied woman, who looks in my direction. She is not Valeria. I study my glass of water. I glance up, from time to time, at the opening or closing door, and down, now and then, at my watch. At six o’clock I deliberately look over at my waiter, who is standing at another table and writing on his pad, before I turn my attention to the door. No one is entering. By 6:10 I feel a first faint stirring of impatience. I remind myself that Valeria is only ten minutes late, that traffic is always unpredictable, that it’s often difficult to find a parking space near the restaurant, that the parking garage is always full at this hour, that, although Valeria is ten minutes late, it feels like twenty minutes because I arrived ten minutes early, which should not, in all fairness, be blamed on Valeria, and that, apart from such considerations, if she’d arrived at 6:10 she would have been a mere ten minutes late for our six o’clock dinner but an immense fifty minutes early for our seven o’clock dinner, in which case my plan would have been a disastrous failure, since it would now be necessary to have dinner almost an hour earlier than I’d like to do. It is, therefore, I say to myself, pleasing to me that she hasn’t yet arrived, and I should be grateful to her for not disappointing me by an unexpectedly early appearance.