Slightly Deranged, Totally Reasonable: If I’d Known You Were Coming by Kate Milliken

Joe Ransom

If I'd Known You Were Coming CoverIn Manhattan, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) the seventeen-year-old girlfriend of Isaac (Woody Allen) mutters the lines, “Well, I don't know, maybe people weren't meant to have one deep relationship. Maybe we're meant to have, you know, a series of relationships of different lengths. I mean, that kind of thing’s gone out of date.” It’s a naive statement, later contradicted when (spoiler) Tracy’s heart visibly shatters as Isaac unceremoniously dumps her in a diner.

Kate Milliken’s linked collection, If I’d Known You Were Coming (winner of the 2013 John Simmons Short Fiction Award), explores the sentiment of Tracy’s throwaway theory to pleasingly dark and unsettling reaches. To Milliken, the serial relationships are not just romantic but familial. Whether the bond between the collection’s recurring characters is one of blood or of skin, however, the moments at which their lives merge before diverting away from one another frequently reverberate well beyond the scenes in which they originate.

The frustrated, blackly funny, honest tone of the opening story “A Matter of Time” winds outward throughout the book like the vines of a family tree.

“This was when things were better than they had been, but still bad enough Lorrie was sure they couldn’t get any worse.” This is the protagonist, Lorrie’s, starting point and there is no apparent upswing from these bleak introductory lines. In the early pages of the story, Lorrie frets over the dynamics of the dinner party she is preparing to host, wondering how her husband and daughter will behave, whether they’ll be enough liquor to distract guests from the rundown state of their L.A. home, and if one guest in particular can turn her family’s fortunes around for good. While these concerns might appear conventional, there is a certain edge to Lorrie that makes everything a touch more threatening than your garden-variety neuroses.

Lorrie’s discontent with her home life and her house itself is such that at one point in the story, the thought of the broken front door “ma[kes] her skin hurt.” So two stories later, in “The Whole World,” when we learn that Lorrie eventually fled her domestic woe with no sign of ever returning, it is less a surprise than a perversely satisfying prism of information through which readers can view the stories that follow. Lorrie’s absence looms like a specter in that story and, indeed, throughout the rest of the book. It is in the five stories that involve Lorrie’s daughter, Caroline (a toddler in the first story, a teen in the second, and a young woman in the final three), where that absence feels most prominent. But even in stand-alone pieces like “Man Down Below,” there is a sense that in this world characters are often driven by what they have lost rather than what they hope to gain.

“Man Down Below” offers a further example of Milliken managing to make an undesirable situation into the thing readers and (less consciously) characters are crying out for. The second-person story appears to set itself the challenge of believably creating a feeling of empathy and understanding between a woman and her stalker. Despite beginning from a position of utter disgust, through a volley internal considerations the story’s “You,” a food critic named Rebecca, begins to gain certain level of respect and even longing for Eddie, the creepy video store clerk who once lived below her: “The truth is—you shy from admitting it—but in the quiet afternoons, when the normal people are at their offices, Eddie was the perfect distraction for you.” By the end of “Man Down Below” Rebecca’s behavior becomes erratic, absurd, and ever so slightly deranged, yet, true to form, the anxieties that have led her make her actions seem totally reasonable.

The book ends with “Inheritance,” which appropriately observes a character from the very first story through the lens of one we are meeting for the first time. Drew, who has recently lost both of his parents and inherited their Maine estate, rents a room to Caroline, whose journey across the country we have been peripherally aware over the course of the entire collection. Here Caroline’s search for her mother becomes part of the plot. She suspects—with little to go on—that this is the part of the world where Lorrie ended up after leaving Los Angeles. But perhaps more intriguing than this well-timed emergence of subtext is the relationship that develops between Caroline and Drew. Both of them are simultaneously too fragile to maintain a healthy relationship and too lonely not to spend their days together. Their bond is one of circumstance—there is no pretense that it will last longer than it takes each of them to heal from the wounds inflicted by their absent parents. This circumstantial element, however, does not make Drew and Caroline’s relationship any less important or vital.

With this final story rounding things off, Milliken adds a modern and mature caveat to the lines written by Woody Allen in 1979. Though serial monogamy might not work for Manhattan’s Tracy, the characters who people this collection, broken characters like Drew and Caroline—people attempting to fill voids left by absent family and friends one acquaintance at a time—might well be “meant to have, you know, a series of relationships of different lengths.” Certainly, though, there is nothing “out of date” about Kate Milliken’s affecting brand of storytelling.


If I'd Known You Were Coming
Kate Milliken
University of Iowa Press, 2013
ISBN 9781609382018

Reviews


2015
2014
2013

Beyond and Back: Writing That Risks
Robert O'Connell


Making Americans: Children’s Literature from 1930 to 1960
Charlie Kennedy


Sunday Best: People on Sunday by Geoffrey G. O'Brien
John Gibbs


I've Always Wanted to Use Malarky in a Review: Trances of the Blast by Mary Ruefle
Cassie Duggan


The Streets of Buffalo, à la Carte: Thea Swanson’s The Curious Solitude of Anise
Charles Haddox


A Witty and Delightfully Engaging Collection: Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby
Charlie Kennedy


Spanish Author's Debut in English: End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente
Erin Berman


A Riveting Read: Emmaus by Alessandro Baricco
Erin Berman


We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger's Daughter by Rachael Hanel
J. Haley Campbell


This Feeling of Empathy: Participants by Andrew Keating
Joe Ransom


Portrait of a Poet: Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine
John Gibbs


Rediscovering Levine: A Reissue of Sweet Will
John Gibbs


Meandering Toward Meaning in Michelle Herman's Stories We Tell Ourselves
Morgan Vogel Chinnock


Skin I'm In: Ariana Nadia Nash's Instructions for Preparing Your Skin
Cassie Duggan


SplitLevel Texts: A Cruel Nirvana and The Treatment of Monuments
Patrick James Dunagan


A Race to Understand a Troubled Place: Michael Lavigne's The Wanting
Alex Rieser


Lenore Zion's Wicked Smart Novel Stupid Children
J. Haley Campbell


Into the Tangled Dark: Jay Ponteri's Wedlocked
Morgan Vogel Chinnock


Stalking Wolf Haas's The Bone Man
Charlie Kennedy


A Painter's Poet: Karen Rigby's Chinoiserie
John Gibbs


Bridging the Gaps: Ways of Going Home by Alejandro Zambra
Erin Berman


Manu Joseph's The Illicit Happiness of Other People, A Novel
Charlie Kennedy


Courttia Newland Explores London’s Social Rifts in The Gospel According to Cane
Andrew Blackman


A Sharp Debut: Jamie Sharpe's Animal Husbandry Today
John Gibbs


Susan Wheeler's Meme: A Contagious Book of Poems
Cassie Duggan


Joshua Cohen's Verbal Gymnastics: Four New Messages
Juli C. Lasselle


2012

The Grittiness and Challenge of Zadie Smith's NW
Charlie Kennedy


Minnesotan Dragons in Mindy Mejia’s The Dragon Keeper
Inge Lamboo


Pianos and Poems: Oni Buchanan's Must a Violence
John Gibbs


Verbal Tumbleweeds: Davy Rothbart's My Heart is an Idiot
Catherine Wargo Roberts


As Labyrinthine as the Streets of Moscow: Caroline Clark's Saying Yes in Russian
paul kavanagh


A Bell Ringing in a Place Thought Dead: Safe as Houses
Michelle Boise


Purple Passages and Captain Poetry’s Sucker Punch
Patrick James Dunagan


On Lecturing Poetically: Ruefle's Madness, Rack, and Honey
John Gibbs


Travels in Puerto Rico
Charlie Kennedy


Breaking New Ground: Between Heaven and Here
Erin Berman


Invest in Stock: Norman Stock's Pickled Dreams Naked
John Gibbs


As if it Fell from the Sun: Celebrating Poetry from EtherDome
Chelsea DeRose


They, Too, Sing America: Buckley & Ott's Poets' Guide to America
John Gibbs


Renegade Documents:
Tlemcen or Places of Writing & Opera Omnia
Patrick James Dunagan


Something Out There: Catherine Chandler’s This Sweet Order
Jonathon Penny


Jennifer Miller's Daring The Year of the Gadfly
Eric D. Goodman


Coastal Poetry: Dear Oxygen and California Redemption Value
Patrick James Dunagan


The Cosmology of Transience: Kevin Opstedal's California Redemption Value
Alex Rieser


Collective Memory in Evelyn Posamentier's Poland at the Door
Trena Machado


We Have to Stop Being Fearful: Paul Kavanagh’s Iceberg
Charles Haddox


A Life's Work: Sheer Indefinite by Skip Fox
Patrick James Dunagan


Syntax as Music in Arisa White’s Hurrah’s Nest
Karen Biscopink


Alone Together: David Landrum's The Impossibility of Epithalamia
Robbi Nester


Nature, Terror and Renewal in Zilka Joseph’s What Dread
Michelle Regalado Deatrick


Meditating on Aline Soules' Meditation on Woman
Carol Smallwood


A Little Night Music: Kenneth Frost’s Night Flight
Christina Cook


The Joy of Carol Smallwood's Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms
Aline Soules


2011