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?

 

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

  1. 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.

    Like

  2. 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.

    Like

  3. 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

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

  4. 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

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

  5. 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.

    Like

    • 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.

      Like

        • 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.

          Liked by 1 person

          • 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.

            Liked by 1 person

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s