November 2013

Edward Stephens

fiction

If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken

The best prose in Kate Milliken's If I'd Known You Were Coming, a winner of this year's John Simmons Short Fiction Award from the University of Iowa Press, resides in the final subsection of "Names for a Girl," when the narrator lists changes she has made in her life in order to please men whom she no longer sees. "Juan complained of the clutter on my sink. I bought a white porcelain bathroom set [...] A man at work said, 'Pink suits you.' I bought more pink." It is a poetic sequence: succinct, founded on a rhythm of parallel narratives that course through it like longitudinal waves. The punch line ("He said he couldn't come with a condom on and left when I was starting to show") does double work here, too, shedding light on the overall structure of the story, which interpolates memories of the narrator's sexual shame and confusion during childhood with the etymologies in a baby name book.

"Names for a Girl," full of enticing narrative margins in between its almost archetypal reflections, at first seems like it will be the key to the whole collection. But while Milliken's somewhat obsessive emphasis on her characters' first names -- surnames appear now and again like blue moons -- resonates with the etymologies of the early subsections and the list of men's names that drives the excellent final subsection, and while the anxiety of motherhood emerges as the dominant theme in most of the pieces, the analogy does not offer more than suggestion. It is a missed opportunity: the framework of "Names for a Girl" is as sturdy and accommodating as an oak, and most of the other stories could use the support.

The trio of inconsequential sketches "Everything Looks Beautiful," "Sleight of Hand," and "Man Down Below," the last of which is in the second person point of view for no good reason, depend for effect on a reader's moral revulsion. They are like curse words shouted for shock value in the midst of a presentation, and they do not belong in the collection. The rest, while also examining the limits of morality, are more serious and altogether better, although they suffer from a vagueness that attends the moment of crisis in each. The crises are clear enough: a mother turns a blind eye to the molestation of her four-year-old daughter, a middle-aged man is caught making a pass at a sixteen-year-old, a woman reveals to unsympathetic company the story of her late husband's suicide, a young man watches a new anorexic friend waste away. But I came away with the impression that Milliken doesn't quite know what to make of the exquisite situations she has created. They end the stories more often than not, precluding any potentially instructive development after the fact. Sometimes she prefaces the crises with a conspicuous metaphor, but I am at a loss to interpret, for instance, how the enticing way in which food is filmed for commercials relates to illicit flirtation and desire, or why it is relevant that a widow will learn all the parts of her boyfriend's sailboat but refuse to steer it, in any meaningful way.

There are fuller moments in the quieter stories of the book's second half. Milliken hits her stride in "Blue" when a potential crisis -- the meeting of rivals -- becomes an innocuous, even productive, occasion. It is a little subversive and a little funny, and it is fraught with real consequences. "Detour" makes rather a lot of a decrepit hound but is otherwise in its unassuming way far more strange and titillating than any of the shock-value pieces. And "Inheritance," the last story in the group, is the best of them all. All the stories up to this point are written in a kind of hyperreality, but Milliken lets the trappings of the real lapse here into a sort of fugue state. "Inheritance" takes place in near-absolute seclusion over the course of months -- rather than the mere hours or days of the other stories -- as two young people seemingly fulfill their odd destinies as if on rails: Drew carries on the legacy of his late father's brave work in performing secret abortions; Caroline transforms herself into the abortion her absent mother regrets not having undergone.

Several of Milliken's characters appear in multiple stories, and the nearest she gets to an overarching protagonist is Caroline, who is four when a family friend molests her in the opening story, "A Matter of Time," and presumably dies in her early twenties shortly after the end of "Inheritance." Superficially Caroline is the same red-haired flirt in as many as five stories, but outside of a few plot points, her iterations do not really represent a consistent being, and trying to follow her disjointed long-term trajectory only distracts from Milliken's more powerful moments. I offer that it would have been more gripping to have maintained the superficial similarities but renamed four of them, treated them instead as ostensibly different characters who echo one another curiously across enormous chasms of space and time.

If I'd Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken
University of Iowa Press
ISBN: 978-1609382018
128 pages