• Close to the Bone: Mary Robison Reconsidered

    Justin Taylor

    Fall 2018

    On a dormant blog called “Gordon Lish Edited This” there are some blurry photographs of a personal letter on Alfred A. Knopf letterhead—a blurb request—that Lish sent to someone named Bill, to accompany the uncorrected proof of a book he had acquired. It was February of 1979:

    I stood on my left ear to work up special notice for Raymond Carver and Barry Hannah, for their stories, and I do not think my will to raise a rumpus for these two young writers was thereafter judged too assertive or misplaced. Carver’s Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Hannah’s Airships have proved themselves notable additions to the record of the contemporary American short story, and I am of a mind in that account. I am also of a mind to think the same will be proved of Mary Robison’s Days.

    Robison was thirty at the time. Today she is the author of eight books, six of which are being reissued by Counterpoint throughout 2018-19. The project began in January with her novel Why Did I Ever, followed in May by Tell Me: 30 Stories. Two novels, Subtraction and One D.O.A. One on the Way, appeared in September. Her first novel, Oh!, and her early story collections (Days, Believe Them, and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night) will round out the package in 2019, to coincide—wittingly or otherwise—with the fortieth anniversary of her debut.*

    I understand why Counterpoint chose Why Did I Ever as the inaugural title in the reissue series. It’s arguably her best-known work, having achieved something approaching cult-classic status—at least among the MFA set. The book is written in 536 numbered sections (some have titles, some don’t), most of them small enough to fit on an index card. Here’s Robison describing the composition process to Bomb magazine in 2001: “I would go out, take a notebook. Or drive, or park wherever and take notes. . . . Some berserk conversation I overheard. The crap on the radio. This big, brilliant cat. Ridiculous weather. Then it was months before I read over the scribbles and realized they had a steady voice, and that there were characters and themes.”

    Three ex-husbands or whoever they were.

    I’m sure they have their opinions.

    I would say to them, “Peace, our timing was bad, the light was ugly, things didn’t work out.” I’d say, “Although you certainly were doing your all, now weren’t you.”

    I would say, “Drink!”

    That’s section 4 of the novel presented in its entirety. It is short enough to tweet (I checked) but then so are Kafka’s aphorisms, Martial’s epigrams, and every haiku ever. What makes Robison feel so startlingly contemporary is her sense of humor, the way it toggles between flatness and agitation, exhaustion and incredulity; the way she juxtaposes specificity and vagueness, pivoting from snark (“I’m sure they have their opinions”) into fantasy (all those “I woulds”); the way the acid tone of the prose betrays just a hint of wistfulness, perhaps even regret.

    The novelist Adam Wilson, writing in the online journal 4 Columns, rightly describes Why Did I Ever as “the spiritual spawn of Elizabeth Hardwick’s Sleepless Nights and Renata Adler’s Speedboat, and the missing generational link between those and recent works like Jenny Offill’s aphoristic divorce drama Dept. of Speculation, Rachel Khong’s diaristic Alzheimer’s comedy Goodbye, Vitamin, and the entirety of Tao Lin[.]” This genealogy, and specifically Wilson’s notion of a missing link, may contain a clue as to why this particular cultural moment feels optimal for a Robison renaissance.

    I remember encountering Why Did I Ever when it was new. I was attracted to the format and thought it was pretty funny, but I couldn’t quite grok what the author was up to. The whole thing seemed, frankly, a little self-indulgent and a little undercooked. Rereading it in 2018, I was floored by its anguished comedy, its bursts of off-kilter poetry, the powerful currents of emotion which its absurdities ride like birds on the wing. The novel no longer reads to me as scattered or obtuse, but rather as scarily authentic and openhearted. It feels true in the deepest sense, which is more than I can say for a good deal of the so-called autofiction that has been sucking up much oxygen of late. What changed? Maybe I’m just older and wiser. Certainly I’m a better reader at thirty-six than I was at nineteen. But it’s more than that. As American life becomes ever more disjunctive and absurd, more perverse and exaggerated at every level, novels that were once taken (indeed, intended) as perversions or exaggerations of reality are lately scanning as downright verisimilar.

    Robison studied with John Barth at Johns Hopkins in the mid-seventies. An early champion of her work, Barth introduced her to the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, who published her first story, “Sisters,” in June 1977, and then just kept on publishing her. By the time Days came out in the spring of 1979, the magazine had published nearly half of the stories in it. The next two books appeared quickly: Oh! was published in 1981, followed by An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, in 1983. Lish edited all three.

    The year 1983, also when Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, Robison’s old Hopkins classmate Frederick Barthelme’s Moon Deluxe, and Amy Hempel’s “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried” came out. (Hempel’s first book, Reasons to Live, would be published in 1985, also by Lish.) It was the heyday of what became known as minimalism, a term every single one of the not-quite-movement’s not-quite-members detested. “I thought it reductive, misleading, inconclusive and insulting,” Robison told LA Weekly in 2002. “It was the school that no one ever wanted to be in.” Elsewhere they were called the Kmart realists, owing to their tendency to use brand names in their fiction (not a soda but a Coke, not a burger but a Whopper), which they felt was an unskirtable truth of contemporary American life (in this they really were prescient) but which was still regarded in some quarters as déclassé. Robison has said that her preferred label, if she had to succumb to one, would be “subtractionist.”

    Anatole Broyard, reviewing Oh! in the New York Times, confessed to having met her work with skepticism, which he soon overcame. He described her writing as “a sort of deliberate counterpoint to the actual, just as in certain kinds of jazz singing, the vocalist sings against the melody. . . . It’s remarkable what an effect you can get if you look at the world upside down.” When An Amateur’s Guide to the Night came out, David Leavitt—whose own minimalist-influenced and Lish-edited debut, Family Dancing, would be published the following year—raved in the Village Voice that “no American short story writer speaks to our time more urgently or fondly than Robison. Word for fucking word, her work demands our attention.”

    But vogues, like regimes and tides, rise and fall. By 1988, Kirkus—reviewing Believe Them—was gleefully sneering at the “oh-so-trendy stories by a writer who, with Beattie, Carver, et al., has helped set the (mono) tone for hip contemporary fiction.” That same year, Frederick Barthelme (despite having been relegated to the “et al.”) published an essay in the New York Times called “On Being Wrong: Convicted Minimalist Spills Beans,” in which he noted that “one can’t read a book review these days without encountering the obligatory attack on ‘minimalist’ prose.” 1988 was also the year that Raymond Carver died.

    “On Being Wrong” is long, a little loopy, and well worth reading. In it, Barthelme explains that for him and his confederates, minimalism was a reaction to both realism and postmodernism. “The big ‘philosophical’ ideas in realist fiction too often seemed like setups, photo opportunities for the discharge of somebody’s prefab canon in a protected environment.” Postmodernism had rightly rejected this notion, and invented a new approach, but was gradually ossified by conventions of its own. The minimalists’ project was, in essence, to

    draw a distinction between realism, standing for a whole system of literary artifice, and representation, standing for only one part of that system. What you figured was you could try some of this representation stuff, and do your dog and cat too, and see what happened. So suddenly you had characters that looked as if you just slowed for them in the parking lot outside the K & B drugstore, but instead of waiting patiently and driving off, as you would in life, now you were talking to them, and they were talking back.

    Robison’s second novel, Subtraction, came out in 1991. She was still with Knopf but no longer with Lish, whom she had fired (her word) either during or just after the edits on Amateur’s Guide. “You can understand an editor wanting to put his mark on the fiction,” she told LA Weekly in the 2002 profile. “He was so powerful in those days, and he could be generous and helpful and very sane sometimes. But, oh God, he was an overbearing bullying type of person: so bright you couldn’t dismiss him, but just out of control.”

    Michiko Kakutani praised Robison for “breaking out of a minimalistic style, just a little”—which at that point was understood as a worthwhile goal in itself—and called Subtraction her “most powerful and affecting book yet.” Nevertheless, Robison and her cohort were losing ground to the likes of David Foster Wallace, William T. Vollmann, et al. A neomaximalist tide was rising, and a new generation of postmodernists and metafictionists (to use just two of the labels they got stuck with) overtook their forebears in aesthetic primacy and column inches just as surely as Carver, Robison, and Frederick Barthelme had once unseated William Gass, John Hawkes, their teacher Barth, and Frederick’s big brother Donald. One cannot help but think here of Barny, a minor character in Subtraction, a physicist in a poetry workshop led by the novel’s narrator, Paige. He introduces Paige to the concept of enantiotropy: “the method for something becoming its own opposite, which it does because of a critical pressure, usually; becomes the reverse of what it was or ever intended to be.”

    The nineties were not good to Robison. She spent them wandering, both literally and figuratively: there were teaching gigs around the country, and stints as a script doctor necessitated occasional trips to Hollywood. Writer’s block hounded her. She divorced her husband, the novelist James Robison, in 1996. When Why Did I Ever came out in 2001, it was published by Counterpoint, which has been her home ever since. They brought out Tell Me: 30 Stories, a career-spanning selection, in 2002, and a new novel, One D.O.A. One on the Way, in 2009. It remains her most recent book to date.

    Oh! concerns the wealthy and dissolute Cleveland family, who live somewhere in the Midwest that is or might as well be outside Cleveland. At the center of the book is Mo (short for Maureen), who grew up too fast while somehow also failing to grow up at all. At twenty-four, Mo is the mother of an eight-year-old daughter, Violet, doesn’t seem to have ever held a job, and has no discernible plans beyond cocktail hour. She and her equally aimless brother, Howdy, still live at the family compound with their father, who pays lip service to kicking his fledglings from the nest while doing everything he can to make sure that their wings stay clipped. Orbiting the Clevelands are Lola, their longtime housekeeper; Stephanie, daughter of the groundskeeper and sudden love interest of Howdy’s; Mr. Cleveland’s girlfriend, an evangelical Christian who hosts a local TV show for children; and Chris, Violet’s father, who returns from an inexplicable six-month sojourn to Canada looking to set things right with Mo.

    Oh! is a very funny novel about deeply broken people who—like alcoholics, which most of them also are—badly need each other for mostly bad reasons. There’s a helicopter, a tornado, some sex, a fire, and a lot of drinking, but nobody changes much and nothing gets particularly resolved. This, to me, is the tell that for all their childishness, Robison understands the Clevelands to be adults, and that the novel itself is not about protracted adolescence, but rather about adulthood—the deflating fact of it, and how we come to grips.

    Alcoholism, arrested development, and abrupt disappearance would prove themselves signature Robison themes. We find them all again in Subtraction, which is narrated by the poet Paige Deveaux. She’s on leave from her job at Harvard and in search of her erstwhile husband, the darkly charismatic and sexually voracious Raf, who has gone on the lam from Cambridge—and their marriage. Raf is a Princeton dropout who “would sign on to any crew doing anything, provided he could get away with drinking while he worked.” His only remaining link to the life of the mind would seem to be Paige herself. Maybe that’s the problem? It can’t be a desire to sleep around, since he already does that and Paige for the most part doesn’t care. Anyway, Paige tracks Raf to Houston, where she teams up with his old friend Raymond, another Princetonian-turned-manual-labor-lifer, but a sober one.

    Raf and Raymond have a yin-and-yang relationship to each other, and it may be that neither is any good—or at least any good to Paige—without the other. Raymond helps Paige find Raf, who immediately diagnoses his wife and his friend as in love with each other. He’s correct, of course, and encourages them to consummate, which doesn’t help the situation. “This is a different record you’re playing,” Paige says to Raymond when he abruptly comes on to her in the car. “No,” he replies, “It’s the flip side of the same.” It feels like the truest thing he’s ever said, and could be the novel’s motto. Indeed, it could be Robison’s. Enantiotropy über alles!

    When, midway through the novel, Raf disappears a second time, it feels less like a development than a doubling-down. Here’s how Raymond explains it to Paige: “Raf’s like me. I mean, he’s not anything but roach for leaving you behind, but otherwise he’s just wobbly and can’t trust what he thinks or sees. He’s not running from you, he’s just running.” This makes sense to Paige, who decides to finally sleep with Raymond and then get the hell out of Houston—two fine ideas. She makes her way back to the Northeast, where she holes up at a seaside motel managed by her mother, Dottie, an affable stoner who also writes a column for the local paper on “conscience shopping.” Inevitably, both Raf and Raymond wind up there, along with a troupe of high-concept performance artists seeking refuge from a monster snowstorm.

    Subtraction doesn’t progress so much as it distills. I’m not going to play the Harold Bloom game of claiming that it is her “best” novel (I don’t know if it is, and if it is—so what?) but it is definitely my favorite one. It feels to me like the book where Robison blossoms into the fullness of her talent, the moment when the squinky genius of her worldview achieves communion with her exactingly subtracted prose. Oh! is a good book, but limited (in spots even stifled) by its third-person point of view, which can hardly help but intensify minimalism’s bias toward surfaces and, yes—though I’m sorry to say it—monotony. Similarly, the early stories, from Days and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, are hit and miss for me. All of them are, on a technical level, enviable; many are impressive, a few are moving, and I can see why Lish regarded them (and her) so highly. But they have aged less well than the novels. Moreover, when I pore over my copy of Tell Me, it tends to be the first-person pieces that draw me back. These include “An Amateur’s Guide to the Night,” “Father, Grandfather,” “I Am Twenty-One,” “What I Hear,” “Mirror,” and “In Jewel.” (Of course there are also some great stories written in the third person, such as “Coach,” “Likely Lake,” and “Yours.”) What can seem like affect or mannerism when described from without becomes a way of seeing, a mode of being, when narrated from within. Here, for example, is Paige describing the snowstorm:

    I passed a parched orchard, electric towers shaped like huge party dresses, a cluster of floodlights trained on a gorge, a white bowling alley blinking in the late sun, trees with rusty pine cones, fields of twisted weeds, crowd scenes of cattails.

    And tires along the roadside; parts and strips and hunks, and some were whole.

    The sky shook loose more snow.

    Subtraction is also the first work of Robison’s to boast a deep sense, a lived sense, of place. Oh! is set, as mentioned, in the Ohioish Midwest, which is where a lot of the stories take place as well. Robison rarely names a city, and it doesn’t seem to matter much when she does. I suspect this interchangeability, this anywhereness, is purposeful (the stories nearly all date from the high Kmart realist era, and the whole point of a Kmart is that it’s the same everywhere you go) but that doesn’t make me like it any better. In Subtraction, on the other hand, Houston itself becomes a character: “The downtown buildings—banks and towers from before the crash—with their height and cool angles and slick panes, loomed close but unreal as Oz beside these junkyard streets. . . . The temperature was a hundred and seven. The air smelled of crude oil. It felt wet but there would be no rain, not here or anywhere else according to the headline of the Chronicle.” Paige knows this place—and so does Robison, who taught at the University of Houston before decamping to the University of Southern Mississippi (in Hattiesburg), before decamping to the University of Florida (in Gainesville). And thus another reason that I love Subtraction: it is here that Robison reveals herself not just as an extraordinary writer of “place” in general, but of the South in particular, and the lesser-sung South at that. From Houston to New Orleans and from Southern Mississippi across Alabama and into the Florida Panhandle, Robison is one of the Gulf Coast’s unlikeliest and most ardent bards.

    The narrator of Why Did I Ever is a woman named Money Breton. Like Mr. Cleveland in Oh!, Money has two grown children who keep her good and sick with worry; their sorrows are part of the grammar of her life. Money’s daughter, Mev, is a recovering heroin addict who struggles to hold down a job in the meat department of the local grocery store. Money and Mev both live in Melanie, which I understand to be a stand-in for Hattiesburg. Money’s son Paulie, who lives in New York, has been the victim of a brutal sexual assault and finds himself under twenty-four-hour protective police custody, awaiting the results of an AIDS test and the trial of his rapist, at which he will testify.

    Money is a script doctor who has been fired from almost every studio in Hollywood. Her beloved cat, Flower Girl, has gone missing. She’s a Ritalin addict and a compulsive forger: of paintings, of inscriptions in books, of a marriage to Sean Penn. She suspects that at some point in the recent past “my personality fractured and I became a multiple,” a dubious claim that cannot be fully discounted, since she does have a habit of carrying on entire conversations with herself and occasionally says things like, “Now I don’t remember anything. Nothing. Well, I remember bits of this and that but not much. And sleep was when?” (That’s all of section 216, in case you want to go ahead and tweet it.)

    Money spends most of her time in her car, driving with or without destination, because she prefers motion to stasis. She knows that if she stops, or even slows down, something awful will catch up with her, whether that’s a notice of back taxes owed or a confrontation with the full reality of what has happened to her son. Here’s section 140:

    I drive under morning stars along the Perdido River, through thirty miles of barrens. Now and then a barn’s side advertises maize or syrup or something else I wouldn’t buy.

    I should turn back. Florida is a horrible toilet. There are a zillion snakes woven into this road and those clouds over there mean God’s coming.

    As a native Floridian, let me just say, Amen. But of course, nobody can run forever (section 264):

    I take the corner booth at IHOP, where perhaps I can last until two. Thinking about my lean and suntanned son. Weeping into a napkin. Ignoring a short stack and a side of links that, anyway, would be tastier if I ate their depiction on the menu.

    I have long thought pharmaceutical drugs were the solution and I was right about that and that’s correct. Still, you have to consider, with even the best prescription drugs, who it is who’s taking them.

    To be clear, there are scenes longer than two hundred eighty characters—some go a whole page or more—and the novel isn’t just a super-cut of one-liners and riffs. It’s like watching an epic Twitter thread spin out in real time, but only in the most superficial ways, and those as a result of Robison’s extraordinary ear for language and instinct for structure. The extent to which her work feels artless is the precise extent to which we should admire Robison’s command of her art. The novel feels antic, random, and tossed-off because Robison has achieved that superlative unity of voice, style, and character known as total effect. Every sentence is clean as a sun-bleached bone, and scenes rarely start or end where you think they would, but there is always meaning being made, withholding and then revealing itself like a well-bluffed hand of cards. Much of the pleasure of reading Robison is in the way she jukes and swerves, the way she creates narrative gaps for the sheer thrill of leaping them, an Evel Knievel of the section break.

    There’s a clear sense of evolution (or, again, distillation) from Subtraction to Why Did I Ever, and from there to One D.O.A. One on the Way, the shortest and by far the darkest of Robison’s novels. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, D.O.A. revisits many of Robison’s signature motifs (doubles, drunks, adultery, family money) but updates and complicates her interest in them. Eve, the narrator, is married to Adam, who lives in his family’s mansion in the—wait for it—Garden District. She works as a freelance location scout for film production companies, though the gigs have largely dried up since the storm came through. Eve doesn’t live at the mansion, but she spends a lot of time there. Sometimes Eve gets Adam confused with his identical twin brother, Saunders, a lecherous drunk. How confused, you ask? Very confused—at least twice.

    Structurally, the novel is identical to Why Did I Ever, with numbered sections (a mere 225 this time) grouped into chapters, while in terms of cast and premise it feels like a throwback to Oh! The Broussard family is a more sinister iteration of the Clevelands, and there’s something about Adam and Saunders, the way they both resent and require each other, that has as much to do with Mo and Howdy as it does with Raymond and Raf. D.O.A. is a more severe book than Why Did I Ever, and a more cynical one as well. Eve is as shrewd an observer as Paige or Money, and she’s often just as funny (“I’m on a sofa, involved in hating my in-laws for their wealth”) but her rambunctious rambles about the city and its surrounding countryside, bayous, levies, and other backdrop-worthy places are interspersed with grim little listicles. These come in three varieties: facts about post-Katrina New Orleans (“86,000 families still inhabit FEMA trailers”); things Eve has lost or is quitting (“No more drinking from the milk cartons in the dairy section of the store”); and a comparative analysis of different kinds of gun holsters (“Groin Holsters, for example, stay under your waistband, and once in place, don’t restrict your movements at all”). We begin to see the purpose in the punning names of the main characters: life after the apocalypse has collapsed into life before the fall. The two conditions have what you might call an enantiotropic relationship; either one can become the other because they both take place outside of history, in the time outside of time.

    In Subtraction the drama is staked entirely on Paige: Will she find Raf? Can they work things out? What might “work things out” even mean, in the context of this particular marriage? And why, even if things can be worked out, should she want to do so? In Why Did I Ever, Money, like Paige, is one of her own biggest problems, but her daughter Mev’s drug addiction really exists, and she has no control over it; the same is true of the man who violated her son. Her cat is actually missing. The IRS is definitely going to come for what they’re owed. Money may be crazy, but not crazier than the world she inhabits. It’s even arguable that some of her behavior—those all-night drives, or her total disdain for Hollywood—are fundamentally sane responses to fundamentally insane stimuli, such as being ordered to rewrite Bigfoot as a romantic lead, or living in Hattiesburg (excuse me, in “Melanie”), Mississippi.

    D.O.A.’s Eve is screwy but clear-eyed, and she’s less concerned with the absurdity of life in an uncaring, ungoverned universe (though she worries about that, too) than with a city abandoned by its leaders, left first to drown and then to rot. Evil, in other words, willfully and cruelly inflicted by the powerful upon the weak. The novel, for all its narrowness (the principal characters are white, with privilege to burn) has a moral compass. One D.O.A. One on the Way is a howl of rage, but also a holler of resistance. And a declaration of loyalty. Eve has seen New Orleans in all its glory and squalor, at its best and at its worst. It has tried to kill her and it may now be full of killers, but it is also full of life and promise and she chooses to love it without hesitation. “I’m not from here and I’ll probably never get used to things,” Eve says early on, “but I doubt if I’ll ever leave.” Later, in what might be my favorite passage in the whole novel (section 94):

    The temperature has dropped below eighty-five, so my windows are open, and there’s a breeze carrying in smells of molasses, oranges, chicory, papayas, camellias, rum, sorghum, powdered sugar, gumbo, newspapers, dogs, road tar, cigars, garbage, étouffée, perfumed women, babies, lumber, jambalaya, sex, car exhaust, saltwater, bourbon, horses, manure, coffee, absinthe, roses, seafood, urine, Tabasco, crawfish, prostitutes, lemonade, barbecue, pianos, sweat, the river, bananas.

    I love the way this sentence is both epic and static, the way it overwhelms you with sensory detail while being an entirely passive construction. Jam-packed as it is, the sentence offers a welcome moment of stillness and grace in the midst of the novel’s rush, inexorable as the rising tide, toward the violence promised by its title. Even as the smells paint a panoramic portrait of city life, the only thing in motion is the evening breeze.

    A note on the copyright page of Tell Me reveals that the pieces from Days and An Amateur’s Guide to the Night (some seventeen of the thirty stories selected) have been restored to the versions that ran in the New Yorker, replacing the versions that appeared in the original collections. Put another way: she chose Roger Angell’s edits over Gordon Lish’s. I’m just enough of a geek for this stuff that I did some side-by-side comparisons, and for the most part the changes appear minor: Lish will condense a phrase or cut a line of description; he’ll break up an already-short paragraph into a staccato string of two or three single-sentence paragraphs; he’ll add a section break early on to give the story a more sliced-and-diced feel. The title of “Happy Boy, Allen” (which first appeared in the Mississippi Review) was changed to the decidedly more Carver-ish “You Know Charles” in Amateur’s Guide. In Tell Me it’s back to the original. There are places where one senses Lish nudging Robison to be bleaker, blanker, a little more obtuse than she might otherwise have been. But other than the butchered ending of the Amateur’s Guide version of “Coach” (from which Lish cut an entire page, effectively sabotaging the story), they really were just nudges—or else Robison did a better job standing her ground than Carver did. That in mind, I’m not sure what the impetus is to reissue An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, especially in light of the fact that eight of its thirteen stories are included in Tell Me. Anyone looking for the equivalent of Let It Be . . . Naked or Carver’s Beginners is going to be sorely disappointed.

    Here’s what I think it comes down to: the minimalists met with the most success, individually and in aggregate, as story writers. They came to prominence through magazine publications. Some (Carver, Hempel) never wrote novels, and even those who did have tended to fare better in the short form (Hannah, Beattie, Bobbie Ann Mason). Because Robison’s style is elliptical, and because her novels are short and appear so rarely (every ten years or so), it has been too easy for too long to consider Robison a member of this second category. But all three of Robison’s story collections are from the first decade of her career (1977–88). There are only six previously uncollected stories in Tell Me: “What I Hear” was published in the New Yorker in 1998; “Likely Lake,” and “Father, Grandfather” were published in the Paris Review and LA Weekly, respectively, both in 2002, apparently as part of the promotional cycle for the book. The other three are stories that the New Yorker published in the seventies and eighties but which didn’t, for whatever reason, make it into the collections of that era. One, “The Help,” is either an excerpt from or an embryonic version of Oh!

    For the most part, I could take or leave Robison’s stories, and the sense I get is that so could she. Her major work has always been her slim, feral, sublime novels. Maybe now that we’ve got them all in front of us at once it will be easier to see that plain.

    We are all subtractionists now. Meme-savvy and permalancing, it is not news to us that surface is the new depth, or that the middle class is a fever dream from which we are being kicked awake. Our lives are perverse and exaggerated. Adults use the word “adulting” to denote those rare occasions when circumstance conscripts them into behaving like adults. Mother Nature has disowned us; she’s so fed up she’s tossing Louisiana into the sea. Hit the refresh button and the screen fills with white space: a section break. Oh wait, here’s something. The movie with the fish-monster as the romantic lead has won the Oscar. The President wants a war with Canada. Here’s to the return of Mary Robison, addled queen of enantriopy. Long may she reign.

    *An earlier version of this review omitted Days and Believe Them from the list of titles to be released in 2019.

    Justin Taylor’s next novel, Reboot, is forthcoming from Pantheon in 2024. He is also the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, the novel The Gospel of Anarchy, and the story collections Flings and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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