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?