What Can We Steal From Steven Millhauser’s “A Voice in the Night”?

Title of Work and its Form: “A Voice in the Night,” short story
Author: Steven Millhauser
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece made its debut in the December 10, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.  As of this writing, the story is available online without a subscription.  “A Voice in the Night” was also selected for Best American Short Stories 2013 and is featured in the anthology.

Bonuses:  Very cool!  Electric Literature has published Mr. Millhauser’s “Cathay” online for your enjoyment.  (Presumably with the consent of the author.)  Here is an interview Mr. Millhauser gave to Jim Shepard that was published in BOMBHere is Mr. Milhauser’s Amazon page.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Mythological Retellings

Discussion:
This is a story about the fleeting nature of faith.  (To me, at least.)  It’s crucial to break down the structure.  The story makes four trips through this series of perspectives:

I: Samuel.  As in Samuel and Eli from the Bible.  Each “I” section recounts a little more of the tale.

II: A seven-year-old boy who is growing up in Stratford, Connecticut.  He is going through an interesting time in his life; the Sunday school teachers at the Jewish Community Center have told him the story of Samuel and Eli and he wants desperately to hear his own calling.

III: “The Author” is the seven-year-old boy at the age of sixty-eight.  He seems to be preoccupied with memories of his youth.  His mind and heart are not filled with the stories of the Bible, but with his own.  The story ends as “The Author” reflects upon the Muse and the way in which stories can keep us up at night and dominate our lives while giving us something to live for.

Mr. Millhauser engages in an obvious (and perfectly wonderful) form of literary theft.  The gentleman appropriated the story of Samuel and Eli from the Old Testament book of Samuel.  There is, of course, no problem in retelling a story that has literally been rewritten for thousands of years.  In doing so, Mr. Millhauser taps into the feelings the reader has for Judeo-Christian mythology, whatever they may be.

Mr. Millhauser certainly isn’t just stealing from those who conceived and passed down the stories from the Old Testament.  The structure of “A Voice in the Night” mimics the relationship that people have with stories.  (And mimics even more strongly the relationship religious folks have with their scriptural documents.)  Without being too obvious about it, Mr. Millhauser is chronicling “the author’s” lifelong search for truth and his desire to understand what he is “meant” to do and to be.

How can we borrow from Mr. Millhauser’s borrowing of the Bible story?  We can pinch a different timeless story.  What about the story of the Prodigal Son?  (Even though that one always drove me nuts.)  Honestly, you can just go right to your copy of Bulfinch’s Mythology, open the book at random and plant your index finger onto a story ripe for adaptation or stealing.  And if you don’t have a copy for some reason, you can read the book online.

  • What if you blend a contemporary story with the star-crossed love of Pyramus and Thisbe?  (Well, Shakespeare already did that, but you can, too.)
  • What about crafting a father-son story that is influenced by that of Daedalus and Icarus?
  • What could the Elysian Fields be like?  (Aside from a great place to play baseball?)

Mr. Millhauser knows that he’s breaking a lot of rules and that his structure could alienate some of his readers.  Why doesn’t he lose anyone?  Why, because he makes the important parts as obvious as he can.  Look at how Mr. Millhauser begins each of the first three sections:

  1. “The boy Samuel wakes in the dark.  Something’s not right.  Most commentators agree…”  We learn that this section is about Samuel.  After we read about “most commentators,” it’s clear that Mr. Millhauser’s narrator is referring to a mythological story of some sort.  Even if you don’t know the specific Bible story, you still get the idea.
  2. “It’s a summer night in Stratford, Connecticut, 1950.  The boy, seven years old, lies awake in his bed…”  Mr. Millhauser doesn’t mess around.  We know he’s jumped around in time and that the main character of the sections labeled “II” will be this boy.  We’re not worried about what happened to Samuel; we know we’ll see him again if there’s another “I” section.
  3. “The Author is sixty-eight years old, in good health, most of his teeth, half his hair, not dead yet, though lately he hasn’t been sleeping well.”  Great.  It’s clear we’re onto a new protagonist for the “III” sections.

If Mr. Millhauser hadn’t held our hands a little bit, we may have found it difficult to understand the story’s dramatic present.  (Such as it is.)  When we deviate from the “standard conventions” of storytelling, we risk losing the reader.  The more complicated the experiment, the greater the potential for confusion.  It’s our responsibility as writers, therefore, to follow Mr. Millhauser’s lead and to provide sizable bread crumbs.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make a conscious effort to turn an old story into one that is brand new.  Oh, hey, check it out.  Here are some more incredible stories just waiting to be stolen.
  • Feel free to mess with your reader, so long as you keep the basics clear.  The reader should only be disoriented in proper measure.

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