Pet Milk, Emily M Keeler, Matt Pearce, Bookside Table

So this one’s a little different. I asked my friend Matt Pearce to chat about one of his favorite stories, Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk.”  Though he was in Toronto last week, Matt lives mostly in Missouri, and we generally talk to each other over Gchat. Our dialog about Dybek’s charming story went mostly as follows:

EMK: First of all, thank you for recommending “Pet Milk.” I’d never heard of Stuart Dybek before, and this was delightful.

MP: Do you want to talk about why we’re doing this on Gchat first? So, Emily, why are we doing this on Gchat?

EMK: 1: We’re presently in different cities. 2: It’s easier than transcribing a face to face conversation. 3: It’s our primary mode of communication with each other anyway.

One thing that’s kind of interesting, though, is that the characters in Pet Milk are so mired in a romantic past, that they couldn’t be like they are if they had Gchat.

MP: Yeah. That’s one of the reasons that I picked the story. It’s long been one of my very favorites, but there’s also something a little like a period piece about it. It’s set sometime in postwar Chicago, and the story is almost as much about the city as it is about the relationship between the narrator and the woman, Kate, that he loves at that time. Most of the story takes place in his reminiscence of a love he had when he was our age — that 23-to-26 period where things tend to be pretty unsettled.

EMK: I think that the characters are fascinated with a sense of history, too. We like the story because it’s from a period outside of our own, but they’re equally obsessed with some imagined history. The narrator makes constant reference to ‘the old country’ and they play at glamor by dining in an ‘old world’ restaurant, knowing full well that they are heading towards separate but exciting futures.

MP: There’s such a sense of history to it — either in physical objects, like his grandmother’s staticky radio, or in the city itself, which was then a mutating mishmash of working-class Polish, Irish and Mexican neighborhoods. Everything comes from somewhere and leaves a physical stamp on the city. Which says something about how the relationship he describes with Kate — it’s not something that happened over Gchat.

EMK: Perhaps because there’s a feeling that the narrator is re-telling this story, and definitely with the ending scene, there’s such a sense of moving both forward and backward, of hope intermingling with nostalgia. But I think people in our age still have that, it’s just expressed differently. When we talk on the internet, we can still talk about place, we can still obsess over the mixed bag that is the expanding cultural archive.

MP: But this is different! Everything about this story is so sensual.

EMK: That’s true. I was really struck by the way that Dybek’s language is practically a caress.The waiter deboning the trout… The pet milk blooming in a cup of coffee in the first scene.

MP: I think he’s describing a memory of love in this story. But it’s not a memory about narrative, right? We don’t get the big back-story about how they met, or what they’ve done together. Instead it’s this semifrozen moment in time that’s inescapably… physical. You see it when she blushes, you feel it when he touches her knee. He’s not telling the story as much as he’s giving us an emotional snapshot, which is why I think Chicago springs out of the backdrop so much.

EMK: Absolutely. But even in the memory there are the constant projections to a time without her. The sense of the impermanence is part of the pleasure. He says “It was the first time I’d ever had the feeling of missing someone I was still with.” So even as it’s wrapped up in memory, it revolves around the sweetness of that first time, the sense of longing and knowing that something is ever out of reach. Like the past itself.

MP: So, here’s where I out myself as a huge Dybek fan. I like his style a lot, which is perfectly matched to his nostalgic mode. It’s very lyrical and incantatory, with commas floating all over the place so he can crowbar in another physical detail. And then there’s that ending…You just can’t hold on to anything.

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If you subscribe to The New Yorker you can read Stuart Dybek’s “Pet Milk” here.

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