If I’d Known You Were Coming
by Kate Milliken
University of Iowa Press
By William Bonfiglio
The conditional phrase that titles Kate Milliken’s debut book of stories, If I’d Known You Were Coming, prefaces a theme of the collection. Though the characters depicted within might frenziedly deny it, they are weak. They are uncertain. And —perhaps most telling of all—they are dependent.
Disregard the clichés of drug use, alcoholism, and forlorn lovers who can’t figure out how they can quit each other; Milliken is too clever to let these drive her work. Instead, it is loneliness, and the need for outside acknowledgement, that pervades each of the twelve stories within this intriguing and deceptively simple set.
Setting the majority of her stories in the emotional dead lands of southern California, Milliken presents characters that are desperate to reverse their fortunes and break a chronic, palpable solitude. That they should overwhelmingly fail speaks more of their misguided approaches than it does of their efforts, which are commendably – dedicated. In this regard, the book replicates the methodology of cringe comedies deprived of humor, and renders the readers helplessly and uncomfortably engaged.
While this delivery might discourage more sensitive readers, Milliken works committedly to hold her audience. The construction of the book certainly helps to that aim, as its brisk 134 pages alternate between short-shorts and longer —but not too long – narratively rooted pieces. Modest, evocative writing does even more, as evidenced by the descriptions of a pathetic backyard in “A Matter of Time”: “…the little kidney-shaped pool with the cracked floor, empty, leaving only a slick of green pointing toward the drain.” The author’s descriptions of atmospheres, whether urban or rural, congested or expansive, are particularly adept, and are indicative of a writer that has given full consideration to her material.
Though Milliken’s stories feature alternatively affluent and impoverished characters, each reads similarly, which serves to highlight the universality of their plight. The pervasive loneliness felt by each transcends material wealth, and appeals to the audience through pathos. While the lonesome consistently narrate the pieces that follow, the author occasionally takes a distancing view.
“A Matter of Time,” which opens the collection and which was previously published in Zyzzyva, illustrates that approach. The speaker and protagonist is not the charming, winsome, and miserable actor Nick Regan, but a friend from college desperate to secure a role for her partner. Through the story, the protagonist, Lorrie, moves desperately to manipulate Regan. She plans a dinner party, keeps the liquor close at hand, and flirts shamelessly, all for the advancement of the cheerfully unconcerned Marty. These are not likeable characters, and they are not drawn in outrageously colored detail. But the singularity of their personalities, again, reinforces the notion that their dissatisfaction is dramatically and entirely debilitating. And the view of the afflicted from another character’s perspective only augments that delivery.
Which returns to the title, and poses the question of what the speakers might have done were some change to occur. From the outside looking in, it is clear that their lives are not to be enriched in waiting for change to occur. Loneliness is a ubiquitous trait, one that, just as on the outside, can always be depended upon.