Personal Velocity, the literary debut of filmmaker Rebecca Miller, isn’t nearly as ambitious as the daring, self-destructive people the author has chosen to explore. In spite of the combustible relations these women get tangled up in, the focus remains on their quiet, almost stagnant inner lives. Even the individual story titles do nothing to suggest a theme or moral or direction: “Greta” is about a woman named Greta, “Delia” is about a girl named Delia, and so on.
These sketches suggest an artist more familiar with collaborative work. The characters are in place, and there are suggestions of drama, but they remain pregnant with possibilities. Miller clearly possesses talent, yet it just lies there on the page, waiting, it seems, for someone else to do something with it, that will push the drama in one direction or the other. Greta’s story begins with the promise that her success as an editor will undo her marriage, yet her husband remains a shadowy figure in the background of the story, and the tale ends short of her leaving him, or of any confrontation between them. We get a history of Greta, and it is clear that she is a serial adulterer, an intriguing premise that is never fully explored. Some of the latter stories are more successful, particularly “Bryna,” in which a woman is trapped in a marriage to a nearly mute farmer and his overbearing mom, and “Nancy,” a variation of “The Bad Seed” in which an eight-year-old services a lifeguard out of sheer boredom. “Just six more minutes of not being noticed and she will break her record,” she writes, creating a painful portrait of a girl whose parents seem to have forgotten she exists.
The simplicity of Miller’s prose leaves little to argue with, though too often she favors couplets and triplets of adjectives that fail to draw anything into deeper focus. Greta’s boss, for example, is described as “a wise, sad man with enormous pockets under his brown eyes and a slow, pessimistic, humorous pattern of speech.” But since he rarely is granted even a single line of dialogue, it isn’t clear why these details are important, or what further information we are meant to infer.
Rather than velocity, these pieces are bound by a sense of emotional suffocation. But instead of confronting this atmosphere head-on, the characters and their author seem to only dream of escape.