Friday, December 31, 2010

Short-a-Day: Steven Millhauser's "Getting Closer"

Originally published in The New Yorker, Jan. 3, 2011. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 95.

But now, as he stands at the end of waiting, something is wrong.... 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.... He sees it now, he sees it: ending is everywhere.

The third person voice is a little odd, caught between omniscient and being a little boy -- "nine going on ten, skinny-tall, shoulder blades pushing out like things inside a paper bag, new blue bathing suit too tight here, too loose there" -- but as with most Millhauser stories, it works, because he's after the bigger ideas in his moments. And this is one of his most realistic ones yet: on an annual family trip to Indian Cove, the boy pauses before entering the creek, taking in his surroundings and savoring the excitement that has been building to this point.

The writing itself slows way down, too, refusing to get to the action, lingering on details, and the impatient reader may give up, but the last paragraph more than justifies the wait. All of a sudden, we see the other end: not getting closer to the moment, but getting further away from it; the sun, already risen, is now closer to setting; at some point, the boy will no longer be growing up, but growing old. It's a poignant moment, realizing that one cannot fight the tides of time, cannot stop just out of its reach and observe, and Millhauser's choice of this sweet, innocent little boy ("He brings this out in people, who knows why: Cap'n, my good man. It's something about him.") makes the revelation snap all the more -- can you recall that day you first understood death? Big stuff, short story = nicely done.


Esther said...

Hey Aaron, I went back and read the story, just for you!

It's beautifully written - the language is so specific and detailed about what this boy is thinking and feeling, the physical environment around him.

But to me, it's also an example of why I'm not in love with the short story form. Because in the end, I felt like not much happened. Nothing I could sink my teeth into. It felt like style over substance.

I dunno, maybe it's just me. Maybe I'm too much in love with plot and dialogue and too impatient these days to search for meaning. I want to be transported somewhere when I read, just absorbed in plot.

But I'll read the Louise Erdrich story in the latest issue and report back! Hopefully I will find a short story I like!

Aaron Riccio said...

Esther, thanks for giving it a shot on my behalf. If I find any that are more straightforward plot-driven pieces, I'll let you know!