On weekends and evenings, whenever he was free, Levinson likes nothing better than to explore the streets of his town. Main Street was always alive, but that wasn’t the only part of town with an energy you could feel. On residential streets, houses displayed new roofs, renovated porches, bigger windows, fancier doors; in outlying neighborhoods, empty tracts of land blossom with medical buildings, supermarkets, family restaurants. During early visits to the town, he’d seen a field of bramble bushes with a sluggish stream change into a flourishing shopping plaza, where stores shaded by awnings faced a parking lot studded with tree islands and flower beds, and shortly after his move he’d watched, day after day, as a stretch of woods at the west end of town was cut down and transformed into a community of stone-and-shingle houses on smooth streets lined with purple-leaved Norway maples. You could always find something new in this town – something you weren’t expecting.
I liked this story a lot more than most of the Mookse & Gripes crew, which surprised me, since it’s usually the other way around. I thought it did a really nice job of capturing progress, change, as a runaway train – one we don’t realize is runaway, until we do. I like how Millhauser makes concrete, through Levinson, the idea that we all have our own threshold of where the train goes from being pleasantly thrilling, to being scary, our own ideas of at what point we are no longer in control.
Much of the story for me was in the language, the slow shift from descriptions like “thriving” and “lively” to words like “oppressive” and “confused”. Where he once admired the cranes and accoutrements of construction and change, by the end there’s a dark undertone: “On the strip of lawn between his sidewalk and street, a sawhorse sat next to safety cone. He imagined them coming closer, advancing along his front walk.” I like that a sawhorse, and a safety cone, are things meant to keep us safe; yet now, as change has run amok and proceeds faster than Levinson can handle, they turn threatening.
The path widened, began to rise; guardrails appeared; he was on a ramp; all at once Levinson found himself on a six-lane highway, where ruby tail-lights brushed away into the distance. Under a blue-black sky, Levinson entered the second lane, passed below a sign with a name and exit number he did not recognize, and rode off into the night.
Although Levinson’s panic is less personalized here, and the language more sedate, the sky is nevertheless blue-black, not a description that conveys the beauty of the night sky but a more frightening image, perhaps a bruise. He doesn’t know where he’s going, but he’s still going; it appears that, at this point, he has little choice.
I find the ending meshes with one of my own favorite little metaphors, and that causes me some concern, considering how it’s used. During a recent spate of medical procedures, I just considered it all like getting on a train: once you hop on, you don’t worry the route or how much fuel is needed or what speed is too fast, you just follow instructions and hope – hope very hard – the engineer and conductor will do their jobs correctly and get you to your planned destination safely. It involves surrendering control – someone else is driving the train, setting the speed and route – and a great deal of trust that those someones know what they’re doing (and aren’t impaired at the moment). There’s a time for questions during the decision-making process, but when it comes to the actual execution of medical procedures, it’s a time to let someone else take over. And here is where Levinson carries things too far, perhaps, and surrenders himself, a little at a time, to a world he no longer understands.
Of course, there is another reading. Maybe it isn’t that the world is speeding up on poor Levinson; maybe it’s him that’s slowing down… as someone who sometimes has trouble coping with the 21st century, I understand that, too.
And that’s the trick, isn’t it? To have the perspective to see whether it’s us, or the world that’s operating at the wrong pace. In a world where technology can proceed from barely-conceived idea to expensive toy to essential tool for daily living in what seems like a heartbeat, it’s not an idle question. Nor is this: is there anything we can do about it?
Yes, I liked this story quite a bit.