An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, 1983
Believe Them, 1988
Tell Me: Thirty Stories, 2002
Why Did I Ever, 2001
The short fiction of Mary Robison (born Mary Reiss), a major voice in the American short-story renaissance of the late 1970’s and 1980’s, helped redefine the genre. It explores, in an often astringent prose line that is both terse and elegant, the loneliness and absurdity of eccentric yet recognizable characters. A recurring theme is the struggle to touch purpose and dignity in lives that appear to be pointless and edging inexorably toward death.
Robison’s father was an attorney; her mother was a psychologist. After growing up with five brothers in a comfortable, upper-class household, Robison graduated from Ohio State University in 1976 with a degree in art history. She had long been interested in writing, largely poetry, a telling predisposition revealed in her later prose line by the scrupulous economics of paring down a sentence to its essentials.
She was accepted into the prestigious master’s program in creative writing at The Johns Hopkins University, where she studied with novelist John Barth. Barth’s bold work of the 1960’s investigated the dynamics of the fictional process, thus creating for Robison an environment that encouraged her to experiment with the mechanics of narration. Although never entirely convinced fiction writing can be taught, Robison cited the Johns Hopkins program as pivotal in her evolution as a writer. She afterward remained within the academic environment, relishing the challenge of introducing the techniques of fiction to apprentice writers. In addition to accepting visiting lectureships at a number of prestigious universities, Robison taught at Harvard University from 1981 until 1995, when she joined the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.
Under Barth’s direction, Robison initially experimented with slice-of-life fiction that, like that of Ernest Hemingway, revealed characters’ emotional distress and deep hurts indirectly but dramatically. She achieved this by focusing on apparently banal dialogue and surface details rather than by offering characters’ introspective commentary or intrusive authorial directives. Her short fiction would find immediate success. Completing the master’s program in 1977, she published two stories that year in The New Yorker, an association she would continue for years. Her fiction drew favorable reaction for its distinctive plainsong effect and attenuated prose that reveals, almost grudgingly, the thin lives it depicts. This type of fiction Robison would come to call “subtractionist,” indicating her careful decision to remove extraneous material, thus allowing the reader to participate in the fullest understanding of the characters.
In her signatory stories, among them “Coach” (chosen for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories), “Yours,” “I Get By”(an O. Henry Prize selection), “Pretty Ice,” and “Happy Boy, Allen”(a Pushcart Prize selection), apparently very little happens. Characters wrestle with the difficult implications of their own triviality and the weight of problems they cannot begin to articulate. The stories focus not on the traditional narrative elements of action, suspense, conflict, climax, and theme but rather on character revelation through patterns of imagery and through telling dialogue that is true to life, often repetitious, edgy, and fragmentary. The results are stories that unfold with a deliberate pace in a deceptively accessible prose line, unmelodic and without ornamentation, that reveals its layers of implication and resonance only in rereading.
Therein lies the difficulty some readers have with Robison’s fiction. At first reading, Robison can appear to be coolly detached from her own characters, examining them at a distance as would some dispassionate scientist. However, her complex compassion for these mundane misfits is revealed in the decision to render their lives through the generous vehicle of language–she cares enough to tell their stories.
Reflecting Robison’s interest in the short-story genre, her three novels are each less sustained narratives and more an organized series of vignettes in which the imperative is character revelation. In Oh!, a retired soda executive struggles with his disappointment over his two grown children, who adamantly refuse the responsibilities of maturity. In a studied deadpan, the narrative moves through hilarious episodes that reveal each member of the eccentric family, even as the family moves toward a shattering revelation about the missing mother, who the kids believe divorced their father long ago to be a painter in her native Ireland.
Subtraction is a quirky love story: A successful poet and teacher at Harvard must travel to the seedier neighborhoods of Houston to reclaim an errant husband with a penchant for alcohol and other women. In the process, she falls into a complicating attraction for a dissolute friend of her husband. Despite the premise of examining the slow-motion crash and burn of a contemporary marriage, Robison is far more intrigued by character revelation; she introduces eccentric secondary characters that keep the focus less on action and more on their interaction.
Why Did I Ever is Robison’s most experimental work–and her most critically successful, winning the Los Angeles Times Book Prize and being listed among The New York Times best books of 2001. It is a narrative shattered into 536 brief, numbered sections that offer the central character’s random observations, snippets of her experiences, or recollections, a narrative design that underscores her admitted difficulty with sustaining attention (she is diagnosed with attention deficit disorder).
In it, Money Breton, a fortyish, Bible-quoting script doctor with three ex-husbands (Robison worked briefly in Hollywood, revising scripts), is perilously close to losing her latest assignment (an inane project about Bigfoot) with the last studio willing to endure her erratic work habits. She spends long afternoons driving around her native South, struggling to help a grown daughter unable to pass the bar exam and currently strung out on methadone, impulsively painting entire rooms mint-green, alphabetizing groceries, chasing after a missing cat, or just sitting for stretches of time in a parked car. What has so unhinged her life, the reader finds out indirectly, is the devastating rape and torture of her gay son at the hands of a sexual predator whose approaching trial promises unendurable agony until he is found dead in prison. As the narrative closes, however, Money is still awaiting word whether the attack on her son has left him infected with the human immunodeficiency virus. It is a stark narrative that hangs uneasily suspended, as do the lives depicted in Robison’s most accomplished stories, between absurd comedy and fathomless tragedy, between the necessary struggle for hope and the unendurable pitch into despair.