‘Coming Soon’ by Steven Millhauser

Coming Soon by Steven Millhauser, 2013

The magic trick:

Relying on description and repetition to make a point

Amy Hempel, in her intensely intelligent Paris Review interview, talks about the internal pressure to make every sentence count because the reader could lose interest in your story at any second. It’s an admirable attitude, I think. Generous. It also means her stories will always verge on the desperate.

Steven Millhauser does not appear to subscribe to the same theory in today’s feature. This story hits a note and then repeats it and tweaks it slightly, maybe adds to it a little and then repeats it again. Essentially, there are two sections: a before the protagonist falls asleep and an after. Each section spools out descriptions and the aforementioned repetitions in a slow burn kind of way.

It is not an Amy Hempel story. That is not to say it isn’t a good story. I like it very much. Taking the silver line in D.C. everyday to work, I can personally attest: the view of Tysons Corner and Mclean, VA, and the like looks a lot like the town in this story. New buildings growing overnight, impossibly fast development, gaudy tastes, corporate interests. It’s all very familiar, and this story – repeatedly and repeatedly and repeatedly – describes that sensation perfectly. And that’s quite a trick on Millhauser’s part.

The selection:

One thing Levinson liked about his adopted town was the way you could follow its daily evolution, chart its changes, pay close attention to every detail, without feeling, as you did in the city, that your head was about to crack open. Sleepy villages held no charm for him. His interest had quickened when the real-estate agent told him about high-tech businesses coming to town, bidding wars being waged for prime locations, fancy condos on the way. The housing market was on the upswing. Lately he’d been noticing even more activity than usual, as shops and restaurants changed hands, apartment complexes sprang up, old buildings came crashing down. Fields of shrubs and weed clumps sent up clouds of brown dirt under the blades of dozers.

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