What we do to each other in moments breeds a kind of emotional genealogy that can’t be undone. The characters in Kate Milliken’s debut collection, If I’d Known You Were Coming, are bound to the emotional aftermath of their family choices. Her stories are an elegant exploration of each character’s attempts to reconcile his or her place in their own family as well as the universe, to settle up or to find something they lost a long time ago. Joan Didion said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”; in Milliken’s collection, it is the stories the characters tell each other that both allow them to live and cause them the most pain.
In this linked collection, Milliken writes stories that touch at the edges—like nerve endings. Characters that appear in the beginning, such as Caroline, a small child in the first story, appear in later collections as adults trying to come to terms with the past. Milliken writes of actors and hand-models, L.A. The kind of place where “you needed a mirror, not a coat.” Appearance and misunderstanding are paramount here, as is the role of power. Whether she is exploring the aftermath of the difficult childhood of Caroline or Josie (another character who features in several stories), or writing one of the stand-alone pieces, Milliken probes into the idea of dominance, and how easily we surrender our power to others—or take it from them.
The collection opens with the tale of a dinner party, “A Matter of Time”–actors looking to make connections—what seems at first to be shiny So-Cal stuff. But a haunting endnote of suspicion in the first story sets the tone for the rest of the book and sows seed of doubt that Milliken’s characters internalize. These are broken, haunted souls. The heart of Milliken’s oeuvre is in a bleak, tiny story about imprisonment, titled “Sleight of Hand.” “My father was a gambler, a card-counter, but also a magician,” Dolores says, “‘There is no magic,’ he would say, ‘only the sleight of hand—something taken away is always replaced by something else.’” Milliken’s brilliance in If I’d Known You Were Coming is in where she draws our attention and what she underplays. Never do her stories feel manipulative or predictable, but rather they divert our attention only to bring us around to something different, unexpected, or brutally honest.
Milliken’s characters—especially the women—make poor choices for many different reasons, but often they seek comfort in others. In both “Blue” and “The Rental,” women use men to smooth their own rough edges. These are characters that know the difference between stories and the raw, awful truth. They have an awareness of their ability to create narratives. In “Parts of a Boat,” Milliken’s narrator considers the duality of truth and perception:
“The radicchio is limp against the tongs. The mushrooms have bled brown into the noodles and the shrimp. But her shirt is clean. You cannot reinvent yourself. This phrase she also hears, between her thoughts, from time to time. James has a father. Has. She’d said that to Bill earlier, hadn’t she? Good wine does funny things with words and time.”
Milliken juxtaposes the internal against the external quite well; her characters are in a constant conflict about how much they owe each other. In turn, she asks us: When do we use storytelling to soothe our own wounds, and when do we use it to make others feel better?
There is also a sense for her characters that one’s parentage—or the sins of the parent—cannot be undone. Characters bear burdens of their familial sins; they repeat them as much as they are marked by them. In “Bottleneck,”
“I think of all these ways we have to communicate and then there is this girl, Mia—she is my half-sister—talking with her body, saying look at what I am doing to myself, look at what we do to each other. I think of the tank tops I used to wear, showing off my bruises. I think of a man saved from cancer to a pack a day. I think of the house I have never asked to see, that I have never been invited to visit. I think of the booze in my orange juice then and now. I think of the Sunburst Motel, just off the 405. I think of the bottleneck of traffic I wade through to go and look at a window above the deep end of a pool.
‘I must have done better by you,’ my father says.”
Milliken’s characters each “talk with their bodies” and “show off their bruises.” This is most clear in the final story, “Inheritance,” where Caroline has become a complicated, damaged adult. She has taken the worry of her mother’s disappearance into herself like a disease.
Milliken’s deft observations about the complicated patterns of family and how these patterns assert themselves with each generation are moving, but sometimes cryptic. They often follow two narrative tracks as her characters wonder how much of themselves to reveal, discover what is replaced when something is taken away. This is a stunning debut collection, one that leaves a dark but vivid impression. If I’d Known You Were Coming has as much to say about the stories we tell ourselves as the ones we have to live with.