February 25

20 comments

Why is Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk” so good?

Recently, I've been reading and rereading the opening of Stuart Dybek's wonderful story, “Pet Milk.” The whole story is very short, not a great deal happens (although what happens is strangely moving) and so it's hard to describe the plot without ruining any of its effect. The full story may be available online: I read it in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction. If you can't find it anywhere, email me.

Here are the opening two paragraphs.

Today I've been drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow. It's not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Pet milk swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favourite thing about Pet milk is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable–compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Pet milk isn't real milk. The color's off, to start with. There's almost something of the past about it, like old ivory. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, “Do you take cream and sugar?” Pet milk was the cream.

There was a yellow plastic radio on her kitchen table, usually tuned to the polka station, though sometimes she'd miss it by half a notch and get the Greek station instead, or the Spanish, or the Ukrainian. In Chicago, where we lived, all the incompatible states of Europe were pressed together down at the staticky right end of the dial. She didn't seem to notice, as long as she wasn't hearing English. The radio, turned low, played constantly. Its top was warped and turning amber on the side where the tubes were. I remember the sound of it on winter afternoons after school, as I sat by her table watching the Pet milk swirl and cloud in the steaming coffee, and noticing, outside her window, the sky doing the same thing above the railway yard across the street.

This, I assert, is really beautiful. How is it so beautiful?

(When copying the lines out, first on a keyboard and then by hand, I felt myself drifting off, rarely able to pay attention to the full passage. There feels very little “writerly” about these sentence structures, and so, while they seem wonderful when reading, when copying, there is little catch on to. Only the final sentence is complex and artful.)

Here's my best answer: the odd combination of repetition and quirk. On the one hand, this passage repeats certain words, or their pronouns, over and over. “Coffee,” “milk,” “can,” radio,” “winter” etc. Each sentence seems to contain something of its neighbours, giving the overall paragraph an incantatory power, a slow-moving density and mass.

This guy, we find ourselves thinking, really loves Pet milk.

On the other hand, he seems slightly erratic (“Actually…” “…to start with.”), and, until the last sentence of the second paragraph, it's not clear if he is going to be able to weave all these observations together, coherently. That amazing final sentence, however, connects not simply the radio and the grandmother with the Pet milk, but the narrator as he was then and is now, both young and grown up, “drinking instant coffee and Pet milk, and watching it snow.”

Here's the passage copied out by me with the repeating words highlighted in red. There is certainly a clearer way to show the repetition, but I'm feeling low-tech today.

That, then, is my theory: repetition is what's making this work so well. What do you think?

 


Tags

Pet Milk, repetition, Stuart Dybek, style1, the craft of fiction, writing technique


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  • Repetition is just one factor in cohesion. This is a good example of cohesion in narrative.

    • rup: you mean the subject matter is itself cohesive, the way the paragraphs stick to a few concerns and no more?

  • I haven’t read this story by Dybek and now will seek it out. From what you shared, I think another factor is one which poets often are told to do – start with the image and let the image lead to the story – here the Pet milk really is about the grandmother, at least in these two paragraphs.

    • Thanks for commenting, Donna. I agree, and this makes the rest of the story so surprising. We go somewhere else immediately after this.

  • I haven’t read it either, but I totally agree with you, Daniel. There is absolutely something real and organic about the structure, the tone, the nostalgia, the connection with reader. I think the emotion infused behind the images reaches out through the simple sentence structure and grabs you by the lapels. I want to read more.

  • I love this story. Very moving. It was introduced to me at 17 in freshman English at Penn State Hazelton in the fall of 1984. Now, nearly 30 years later, it still moves me to tears

    • I’m 19 now and have just read this story. I didn’t realize how old this story was, which just goes to show how timeless this piece is. Bravo, Dybek.

    • Joanne Theodorou says:

      Just read this story for the first time, I can’t breathe, such exquisite writing. The nostalgia, the structure, the sense memories- perfection. I am far, far away from age 22 … but yes, I remember it well thanks to” “Pet Milk.”
      Am I correct in assuming “Pet Milk” accumulated all sorts of awards?

      • It’s an amazing tale! But did it win awards? I don’t know… I’ll investigate…

  • Late post–just noticed the site. Love this story–the two young lovers on the train. Daniel, nice work on picking out the repetition. I just learned recently that this rhetorical technique is called “repetend,” which is basically the sporadic repetition of certain words or phrase throughout a piece.
    peace–Greg

    • Thanks Greg! I like that term. I’d be really interested in working out how this opening section relates to the train section, and whether the “repetends” work differently there.

  • I like repetition as much as the next writer (I gleefully overindulged in parallelism in my first novel), but even a small factual inaccuracy galls me. The author was wrong to say that, “Pet milk isn’t real milk.” He had Pet brand confused with Milnot brand. Pet is real milk, Milnot is filled milk. He should have read the label.

    • That’s wonderful. I know some fans of that story, here in Tennessee, whose hearts will be broken if I tell them.

      In a short story, of course, “Pet milk” sounds so much better than “Milnot milk.” Perhaps Dybek liked the sound so much he skipped reading the label.

      • If the effect of having two syllables was what he wanted, just using “Milnot” would have worked. That way, he could have had his cake and eaten it, too, with his faux café au lait.

        • Today I’ve been drinking instant coffee and Milnot, and watching it snow. It’s not that I enjoy the taste especially, but I like the way Milnot swirls in the coffee. Actually, my favourite thing about Milnot is what the can opener does to the top of the can. The can is unmistakable–compact, seamless looking, its very shape suggesting that it could condense milk without any trouble. The can opener bites in neatly, and the thick liquid spills from the triangular gouge with a different look and viscosity than milk. Milnot isn’t real milk. The color’s off, to start with. There’s almost something of the past about it, like old ivory. My grandmother always drank it in her coffee. When friends dropped over and sat around the kitchen table, my grandma would ask, “Do you take cream and sugar?” Milnot was the cream.

          • Cool. When I was a child, it was always either Milnot or Pet on the table (Carnation was too expensive), the triangular holes filmed with an off-white bubble…. Evaporated milk is definitely an acquired taste, but it does make the best hot cocoa.

          • Samantha Neugebauer says:

            The ‘factual inaccuracy’ can be the character’s understanding of Pet Milk though, not the author’s; in that way, it doesn’t necessarily deserve gall as characters are always doing and believing things that are not completely true.

      • As I remember, if I remember correctly, this was a commentary on racism. The favorite image back then was the keys of the piano. Black and ivory go together and so why should there be upheaval between neighbors based on skin colors. He uses the same foil when saying Pet is not white but ivory and then describes the mixture as beautiful when poured into black coffee. That is if I am remembering correctly.

  • Keith Hood says:

    I attended your plot webinar on Sunday and signed up for the plotting class on Monday. However, I first became familiar with your website about a month ago when doing research for a short story discussion group that I moderate. I was researching “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek and came upon this article. The short story discussion group meets tonight and I was rereading this article in preparation. Just letting you know that I really appreciate the article. FYI, the other short stories we’re discussing are “Bullet in the Brain” by Tobias Wolff, “Lust” by Susan Minot, “The Fifth Story” by Clarice Lispector, “Captivity” by Sherman Alexie, and “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid. Our discussion is based thoughts and analysis of these stories by Jane Alison in her book Meander, Spiral, Explode.

  • I strive to write in this style. I call it poetic prose, and for more reasons than the sound of the name, ‘poetic prose.’ First, of course is the repetition. In the Bible, poetry was not composed of ryhmn and sylable counts. It took an idea, usually a simple picture and repeated it in different ways. Three ways is the best as it reflects a pattern set up by God when describing himself. Plus it shows there are more ways to see something so it is inclusive. Then, to top it off, as one sentence cannot embody the fullness of meaning, repetition draws it out like a fisherman wiggling the bait with the summation, hopefully landing the monster lurking beneath the words. Even at this point though it sometimes is best to not land it, but have it be the one that got away leaving readers with a sense of remorse and in this manner the story gets traction and progresses.

    At least, that is how I see it.

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