Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night” from The New Yorker, 10/10/12

William Brassey Hole: "Eli and Samuel"

William Brassey Hole: “Eli and Samuel”

Everything connected: David playing the harp for Saul, the boy in Stratford practicing the piano, the cellos and violins behind the closed doors. The boy listening for his name, the man waiting for the rush of inspiration. Where do you get your ideas? A voice in the night. When did you decide to become a writer? Three thousand years ago, in the temple of Shiloh.

During my Misspent Youth as a Fundamentalist, I felt like an outsider during Youth Week. Everyone else was full of talk about what God had called them to be when they grew up: my best friend Debbie had been called to be a nurse; God had guided Lynne into teaching, the Blalock boys into music. Jesus himself had spoken to Wendy during prayer: she would be a missionary. God never told me to do anything. I begged God, on my knees before folding chairs in prayer meetings, sobbing into hard metal: Tell me what to do, what to be; tell me anything! Tell me the color yellow is good and the color turquoise is evil. Tell me dogs are better than cats, that long hair on men is an abomination, that you disapprove of dancing and movies, tell me something! But God didn’t speak to me. Prayer group leaders eventually would drag me from my impromptu altar and tell me to calm down so they could finish the service. Later, they’d tell me I wasn’t really saved. I started waiting up nights, hearing the Rapture in every passing truck or plane, the Rapture that would leave me behind to face the horrors of the Unsaved. Eventually I gave up and stopped going to a church that worshiped a God who wouldn’t save me, no matter how I prostrated myself before His folding chairs. I’d never be like Debbie and Lynne and the Blalocks and Wendy, who’d been given a mission from God. God didn’t want me.

It never occurred to me until I read this story that they were all making it up.

I’m assuming this is closer to creative non-fiction than fiction: an autobiographical sketch, maybe an exaggeration. It’s available online so you can decide for yourself. I quite enjoyed it, much to my relief; I’ve been distressed that neither of the other two Millhauser stories quite worked for me (though “Miracle Polish” got a lot more interesting to me after it lay dormant for a year). But it works for me, not because of any objective criteria (though the structure is pretty cool) but because of my connection with the material, with the idea of a child at night waiting in vain for God to call, and taking it personally that He doesn’t. And I rejoice when the 68-year-old version of the child understands he got a call after all.

“What kind of Jew are you?” A Jew from suburbia. A nothing Jew, a secular Jew, an unjewish Jew. A Jew without a bar mitzvah, a Jew without a bump in his nose. Later he develops the idea of the Negative Jew. A Negative Jew is a Jew about whom another Jew says, “You don’t look Jewish.” A Negative Jew is a Jew who says to another Jew, “Judaism is a superstition that I reject,” and to an anti-Semite, “I have Jewish blood.” A Negative Jew is a Jew who says, “I don’t believe in Judaism,” while being herded into a cattle car. Hitler, the great clarifier.

It’s also a personal reflection on atheism, on secular Judaism, on whether such a thing is possible. I suspect not. Even if one rejects the religious teachings, they have left their mark. At least it works that way for me: I can’t leave the Rapture completely behind. And there’s still something about Christmas…

It’s a story about ambiguity, between Judaism, Christianity, atheism; between father, priest, teacher; between wanting to belong but not wanting to leave something else outside. And it’s a story that’s not a story at all: it’s a grouping of late night meditations as ancient Samuel, a boy in 1950, and an old man sixty years later, try to make it through the night. Written because in 1950 the boy was enchanted by, you guessed it, stories.

That’s one thing about him: he can’t remember the important things. He can remember the prince climbing the hair to the top of the tower but he can’t remember the capital of Connecticut. Is it Bridgeport? The library in Bridgeport has long stone steps and high pillars. It’s what he first thought of when he heard that Samuel was serving the Lord in the temple of Shiloh. A temple is different from a church. Jews go to temple and Christians go to church. But Catholics go to Catholic church. And everybody goes to the library.

This is how a boy – Millhauser? – was called to be a writer: by a story in a book, a story that kept him up for four nights and connected the library and the car going by sounding like a waterfall and the bakery. It’s the night he became a writer. He heard the voice of God, after all. It just didn’t sound like the same one Samuel heard a few thousand years before.

I’m also a little hung up on the idea that the older version, the boy sixty year later, is waiting, dreading, a different kind of call: death. I think that’s probably a red herring, but I can’t shake it. There seems to be a summing up he’s doing. But, as Aaron Riccio of Short-A-Day pointed out, he says he’s in good health. This connection was hanging in the back of my mind as I read the story, and became very real to me a few nights later when in the middle of the night I had a serious asthma attack, my first in several years and the worst one I’ve ever had. It’s odd that as I got dizzy inhaling steam over the kitchen sink and coughing convulsively while the blood pounded in my ears, I thought of this story. I also thought of how many days of cat food I should put down if I called an ambulance, and, ever practical, the concern of “Do you know what insurance companies do to people who have been hospitalized for an asthma attack?” And, “What if I have a stroke, will my cat eat my face?”

(I’m grateful to Richard Russo’s “Horseman” for teaching me that it’s ok to have a personal reaction to fiction. But maybe I’ve taken it a little too far).

I have to admit I don’t quite “get” the story in a way I can explain. All I can say is that it worked for me. It’s loaded with ideas to think about and images I loved. I cared about the little boy who grew up to be an Author. And I was glad he was entranced by a story on that night, as I was entranced by this story, now.

[addendum: I’m very happy to see this one in the 2013 edition of Best American Short Stories]

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2 responses to “Steven Millhauser: “A Voice in the Night” from The New Yorker, 10/10/12

  1. Pingback: Nicole Krauss: “Zusya On the Roof” from TNY 2/4/13 | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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