December 10, 2012

"A Voice in the Night"

By Steven Millhauser
~7600 words

Suffering from insomnia, an aging Jewish writer recalls his childhood fixation with the biblical story of Samuel.

The third-person point of view encompasses three related narratives, each told in four interlacing parts. The first narrative is a rather conventional retelling of 1 Samuel 3, in which the young Samuel awakens three times in the night upon hearing his name called, incorrectly attributing it to the high priest Eli before realizing it is God. The second narrative takes place in Stratford, Connecticut in 1950, where a seven-year-old Jewish boy—unnamed but clearly a fictionalized version of the author—lies awake in bed on four successive nights, puzzling over the story of Samuel and what it means for his own tenuous Jewish identity. The third narrative takes place in the present, in which a writer, unable to sleep, reflects on his childhood and the events described in the first two narratives.

I did not find this story compelling. The mise-en-abîme structure, while technically flawless, feels plodding and formulaic. The first narrative adds very little to the biblical tale of Samuel and might be better handled through allusion. The second and third narratives consist of meandering reflections on the fairly commonplace topic of Jewish-American identity (see Roth, Philip). The language is unremarkable throughout. All in all, a disappointing effort from an excellent writer.


Reader poll: I found "A Voice in the Night" to be ___.

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