Sunday, February 13, 2011

Steven Millhauser, "Getting Closer"

I have always had this nagging notion that if I could figure out what makes a short story by a great short story writer so…well, you know…great, I could come close to figuring out what the basic characteristics of a great short story really are.

I know, I know, it is not that clear-cut. After all, in seeking to find out the generic qualities of the short story generally, one first has to admit that there are many different sub-genres of the form. There certainly seems to be significant differences between the short stories of that great short story writer Alice Munro and that great short story writer, Steven Millhauser. The former seems bound to some notion of realism (whatever that means) and the latter seems more aligned with the imaginative. This does not mean that Munro’s stories lack imagination or that Millhauser’s stories have no contact with reality. After all, the conventions of realism are no less literary conventions than the conventions of irrealism (whatever that means). It just means that knowing how to read a story by Alice Munro does not necessarily mean one knows how to read a short story by Steven Millhauser.

Or does it? Because they are short stories, regardless of the seeming difference of their “reality assumptions,” do the short stories of two seemingly different short story writers, such as Alice Munro and Steven Millhauser, have qualities that are common to the short story generically but that are not common to the novel?

At least one thing that Munro and Millhauser have in common: The New Yorker is willing to pay them a fairly decent fee for the right to publish one of their stories. Good on you, New Yorker, good on you! I have read Steven Millhauser’s story “Getting Closer,” which appeared in The New Yorker on January 4, 20111, five times now, and I have read Alice Munro’s story “Axis,” which appeared in The New Yorker on January 31 five times as well. I like both these stories very much and could, with pleasure, read them several more times, and I probably will. They do indeed seem radically different. I will try to understand the Millhauser this week and the Munro story next week.

Steven Millhauser, “Getting Closer”

Millhauser’s “Getting Closer” is quite short, taking up about two and a half New Yorker pages—about seven columns. The central character is a boy, “nine, going on ten.” The point of view is third-person limited, meaning that the narrator is inside the boy’s mind, but not inside the mind of the minor characters—the grandmother, the sister Julia (13), the father, the mother. The event is a Saturday family outing to Indian Cove to go swimming in the river there. Those are the characters, the point of view, the setting in time and space. The question the reader asks next, of course, is: What happens?

But “happens” is precisely what Millhauser’s story is about. This is not a story about a particular happening, but rather a story about the essential significance of “happening.” The story begins with the boy’s readiness to begin the day’s activity. But as soon as the narrator (who is not the boy, but who stays within the mind of the by reflecting his thoughts in a much more sophisticated way than the boy could express) says the boy is “ready to begin,” the narrator reflects, “Though who’s to say when anything begins really?” After considering the various possibilities of when the day begins, the narrator reflects that the boy knows that it will truly begin when he enters the water. But the boy is not eager to rush into things; he enjoys prolonging the excitement of moving toward the moment he enters the water.

The story then shifts to the activity around him—his sister, Julie, age 13, splashing in the water, his mother telling him to run along, his grandmother sitting in a chair under a pine tree, the details of the physical world around him, his memory of the way his father and grandmother talk to him. The boy stands in a specific place in space and thinks that behind him lies the entire world and before lies the entire world. He likes standing there thinking such things. As he moves toward the water’s edge, he feels everything has led up to this moment when the day will officially begin. But he wants to hang on.

“He’s shaken deep down, as though he’ll lose something if the day begins. If he goes into the river, he’ll lose the excitement, the feeling that everything matters because he’s getting closer and closer to the moment he’s been waiting for. When you have that feeling, everything’s full of life, every leaf, every pebble. But when you begin you’re using things up.”

The boy begins to feel nervous that when the day begins, things will rush away from him, and he sees everything ending, that ending is everywhere, embedded in the beginning. Via the narrator, the boy reflects: “They don’t tell you about it. It’s hidden away in things. Under the shinning skin of the world, everything’s dead and gone.” He thinks that the sun is setting, his grandmother is dying, his mother is growing old, Julia’s dying, his father is dying. But he thinks if he stands still, maybe he can keep it all from happening, things will stop and no one will ever die. Again through the narrator, he reflects:

“You can’t live unless there’s a way to hold on to things. He can’t go back because he’s already used it all up, he can’t go forward because then it all begins to end, he’s stuck in this place where nothing means anything, it’s streaming in on him like a darkness, like a sickness he’s seen something he isn’t supposed to see, only grownups are allowed to see it, it’s making him old, it’s ruining everything, his temples are pounding, his eyes are pounding, he feels a scream rising in his chest, he’s going to fall down onto the sandy orange earth.”

But his sister calls to him and with a “wild cry that tears through his throat he steps over the line and begins his day.” And with this the story ends.

So what is this story about? Apparently not much of anything, but essentially about the ultimate meaning of everything. It’s about what all stories are about, about life in its quintessential movement in time, about the basic human desire to escape time, to defeat death. It’s why we have religion, why we write poetry, what constitutes the essential heroism of humanity. The boy experiences the ultimate anxiety, the sickness unto death.

Melville’s Ahab expresses it best:

“Look ye, Starbuck, all visible objects are but as pasteboard masks. Some inscrutable yet reasoning thing puts forth the molding of their features. The white whale tasks me; he heaps me. Yet he is but a mask. 'Tis the thing behind the mask I chiefly hate; the malignant thing that has plagued mankind since time began; the thing that maws and mutilates our race, not killing us outright but letting us live on, with half a heart and half a lung.”

Fitzgerald’s Gatsby also defies it. When Nick tells him he can’t repeat the past, his response is: "Can’t repeat the past?" he cried incredulously. "Why of course you can!"
At the end of the novel, Nick reflects:

“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.... And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Nick survives and so does Ishmael, but they are not heroes. They do not attempt what mere mortals say cannot be accomplished—defeat time, defeat death, which is, of course, the secret of Christ’s message.

What the boy experiences in Millhauser’s story are intimations of mortality. It is what Ishmael discovers about the whiteness of the whale:

“When we consider that other theory of the natural philosophers, that all other earthly hues--every stately or lovely emblazoning- the sweet tinges of sunset skies and woods; yea, and the gilded velvets of butterflies, and the butterfly cheeks of young girls; all these are but subtile deceits, not actually inherent in substances, but only laid on from without; so that all deified Nature absolutely paints like the harlot, whose allurements cover nothing but the charnel-house within; and when we proceed further, and consider that the mystical cosmetic which produces every one of her hues, the great principle of light, for ever remains white or colorless in itself, and if operating without medium upon matter, would touch all objects, even tulips and roses, with its own blank tinge- pondering all this, the palsied universe lies before us a leper…. And of all these things the Albino whale was the symbol. Wonder ye then at the fiery hunt?

It is what Keats understands about the Grecian Urn’s ability to stop time and achieve immortality:

Thou still unravish'd bride of quietness,
Thou foster-child of Silence and slow Time,
Fair youth, beneath the trees, thou canst not leave
Thy song, nor ever can those trees be bare;
Bold lover, never, never canst thou kiss,
Though winning near the goal--yet, do not grieve;
She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,
For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed
Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu;
And, happy melodist, unwearied,
For ever piping songs for ever new;
More happy love! more happy, happy love!
Forever warm and still to be enjoy'd,
For ever panting, and for ever young;
All breathing human passion far above,
That leaves a heart high-sorrowful and cloy'd,
A burning forehead, and a parching tongue.
Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold pastoral!
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st,
'Beauty is truth, truth beauty'--that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

Stephen Millhauser has a perceptive understanding of the short story’s unique qualities, which he expressed well in an essay in the New York Times a couple of years ago. Here are a few excerpts. The URL for the essay is listed below:

Steven Millhauser, “The Ambition of the Short Story,” New York Times, Oct 3, 2008
The short story — how modest in bearing! How unassuming in manner! It sits there quietly, eyes lowered, almost as if trying not to be noticed. And if it should somehow attract your attention, it says quickly, in a brave little self-deprecating voice alive to all the possibilities of disappointment: “I’m not a novel, you know. Not even a short one. If that’s what you’re looking for, you don’t want me.” Rarely has one form so dominated another. … The novel is insatiable — it wants to devour the world. What’s left for the poor short story to do?
Of course there are virtues associated with smallness. Even the novel will grant as much. Large things tend to be unwieldy, clumsy, crude; smallness is the realm of elegance and grace. It’s also the realm of perfection. The novel is exhaustive by nature; but the world is inexhaustible; therefore the novel, that Faustian striver, can never attain its desire. The short story by contrast is inherently selective. By excluding almost everything, it can give perfect shape to what remains.

Can it be that the little short story dares to have ambitions of its own? … I imagine the short story harboring a wish. I imagine the short story saying to the novel: You can have everything — everything — all I ask is a single grain of sand. The novel, with a careless shrug, a shrug both cheerful and contemptuous, grants the wish.

But that grain of sand is the story’s way out. That grain of sand is the story’s salvation. I take my cue from William Blake: “To see a world in a grain of sand.” Think of it: the world in a grain of sand; which is to say, every part of the world, however small, contains the world entirely. Or to put it another way: if you concentrate your attention on some apparently insignificant portion of the world, you will find, deep within it, nothing less than the world itself.

The short story believes in transformation. It believes in hidden powers. The novel prefers things in plain view. It has no patience with individual grains of sand, which glitter but are difficult to see. … The short story concentrates on its grain of sand, in the fierce belief that there — right there, in the palm of its hand — lies the universe.
Therein lies the immodesty of the short story, its secret aggression. Its method is revelation. Its littleness is the agency of its power… The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar. That is the outrageous ambition of the short story, that is its deepest faith, that is the greatness of its smallness.

Next week, I will make an effort to understand Alice Munro’s “Axis.”


Lee said...

Not only don't I find 'Getting Closer' to be a great short story, I find it a rather poor one. Two main reasons:

1. It blasts its message at us.
2. The sensibility at the heart of the story is inauthentic. Nine-year-olds don't perceive the world in this way, seeing death under the 'shining skin of world' (ugh - trite!).

I'm also perturbed by the inconsistency of the narrative voice, straining to be both childlike and writerly, which is very hard to pull off. Perhaps - but I'm not sure, I'll have to consider this upon further reading - it would have been better not to chose this particular POV.

Kim Carlson said...

I related with great relish to your post about this story.

Although I'm a writer myself and read The New Yorker from cover-to-cover each week, I often skip their fiction, perhaps because I've read one too many stories written in a style I found stilted or less than engaging, or simply boring because the author was not a compelling storyteller. Occasionally I'll get hooked into a story that will so utterly overwhelm me that it feels like discovering the shimmering beauty of the written word for the first time.

It felt that way for me when I read "Getting Closer." I read it three times in a row, re-reading and savoring passages, in awe of the breathtaking rhythm that builds with inexorable finality to the shattering climax. We watch the seed of nostalgia planted unceremoniously and in the course of a couple of pages, develop a dread for the child because we know too well how it will end up, the person looking back thirty-five years and asking with complete sincerity and utter bewilderment: how did I get here?

The sense a child intuits of what life has in store, the immutable and irrevocable nature of certain things, the abject terror when the veil is lifted for the first time and he sees in too tender an incarnation that death is what looms ahead, and time, for all it's seeming slowness at that age, will have its way and there is no human power on earth that can stop this from happening, then an unspeakable sadness that smothers all existence for the time it takes to absorb the stultifying truth.

Millhauser captures that and more with a poetry that is evanescent like time and the whole effect is like having the wind knocked out of you and being grateful for every breathless, reeling, gasping moment.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks very much for your response, Kim. Your reaction to the story is much like mine. And I agree, it is the rhythm of the sentences that communicate the impending. My friend Lee does not think the pov of the small boy works, but I can't imagine it any other way. I don't think this story is about the content but about the rhythm. Thank you for your comment.