Review: ‘Total: Stories,’ by Rebecca Miller

TOTAL: Stories, by Rebecca Miller

The stories in Rebecca Miller’s new collection, “Total,” are mostly about a certain type of woman, the type who wields her sexuality and vulnerability as twinned powers related to the desire to be cared for and to care for others. But the book is also about the darker, deeper layers of those powers, their dangers, all the ache and trouble that roils beneath them. Each of these characters feels vaguely recognizable — the exhausted hapless mother, the promiscuous young girl seduced by a much older man — but Miller is cognizant of the complexity that can still breathe inside familiar stories. She helps us reconsider their elasticity, to see from different angles how they pulse with life.

In “Mrs. Covet,” a fragile young mother’s domineering mother-in-law imposes unwanted help on her, forcing her to confront the languor and confusion of being suddenly free of all the tasks of care-taking; the fear and the uncertainty that comes from doing less of what the world sees as her job. But also: The story takes a terrifying turn.

In “Vapors,” a married young mother looks back on the period after she graduated from college, when she left her abusive and much older boyfriend; she is grappling, and has for years, with her relationship her to her own beauty and sexuality, its power and its limits her. In “She Came to Me,” the only story with a male perspective, a stuck and desperate writer wanders through town in search of something that might get him writing; he finds it in a form that feels expected but again with a slight, tantalizing twist.

In the title story, “Total,” Miller dips into the otherworldly, though as with most dystopias we’re offered these days, the world feels close enough to ours. A woman recalls her childhood in our near future, in which phones whose ability to please were so powerful that users compared them to “being injected with heroin, or perhaps what a baby feels when breastfeeding.” They also turn out to cause severe and irrevocable birth defects. Mostly, though, this is a story about family: how our individual desire to be seen as a caretaker can prove just as complicated and destructive as it is appealing to the outside world.

The stories hew closely to the psyches of their characters, a confessional first person or close third that sometimes roves, and it’s in this proximity that Miller lets us see the nuances of these lives. “There was a slight bondage-y aspect to the sex, but that was really nothing compared to the bondage of life,” one character reflects. Another, discovering that a woman who fascinates her is a would-be writer, “felt as though reading the typed pages her had infected her with a virus that she had to carry around now, nasty images downloaded into her head her.” Miller has an incredible dexterity in the deployment of individual histories: a whole list of love affairs, past losses, leaps in time, delivered efficiently and effectively within the larger narratives.

And while one can begin to wonder whether all of this familiarity is quite on purpose, the final story, “The Chekhovians,” makes clear that Miller — a filmmaker and novelist as well as the author of an earlier story collection, “Personal Velocity” — knows exactly what she is doing. The story is, unsurprisingly, Chekhovian, with lots of class reordering, family tragedy, a big party in which generations and families collide. It’s a sort of lark, the way the story sidles right up to all the stories that have been written like it but asserts its specificity through small details. Take the actress past her prime her, who is sad not because time has forced her to give up her career but because it has taken the safety and the comfort of the family that she chose over work; now her teenage daughter lies “splat” in the driveway selling cake to passers-by.

This, more broadly, is the accomplishment of this collection. You’ve read stories of this ilk before, but Miller knows and is playing with the ways that familiarity is also comfort, also proof of all the ways stories and lives infinitely repeat. You’ve never quite seen them inhabited by these versions of these characters, nor at the tenor of these sentences, with these deftly deployed layers of surprise.

Lynn Steger Strong is the author, most recently, of “Want.” Her next novel Her, “Flight,” will be published in November.

TOTAL: Stories, by Rebecca Miller | 174 pp. | Farrar, Straus & Giroux | $25

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