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How Mary Robison made me curious

February 24, 2011

A favorite read from last month was Mary Robison’s brief novel, Why Did I Ever. I had the good fortune to have a whole day to read, mostly in bed, and so I was able to both start and finish it. I’m not sure how the novel would have worked if I’d read it in pieces during that exhausted last half hour of the day; picking it up and putting it down over days or weeks, I might have lost the thread. But I can say that if I hadn’t been charmed and interested and made curious by Why Did I Ever on my reading day, I would have set it aside and baked a pie or planned my class for the following week. I’m not as tenacious a reader as I used to be.

The novel is presented in fourteen chapters with a total of 536 very brief, numbered segments*, some of them given bold headings, some not. The narrator, Money Breton, tells her story in the first person using present tense. It is a slightly risky novel, mostly in its voice and its relative lack of plot, the quirky, multiple-piece structure, but also in the way it insists on the emotional pain of the narrator.  I wouldn’t place it fully in the experimental arena but it is not literary mainstream. It’s one of my favorite kinds of novels, the kind of novel that, when it works, I adore and remember and make my friends read. How, then, did Mary Robison make Why Did I Ever readable?  How did she avoid the monotony that can hit with novels of this type, when the experiment (whatever that is–form, language) overwhelms the story? Is she employing some of the craft strategies that Alice Mattison, in her essay in The Writer’s Chronicle, “Uncertainties That Keep a Reader Reading,” proclaims make readers curious?

The most immediately noticeable aspect of the novel related to Mattison’s analysis is the quirky point of view of the narrator, and the vivid and surprising language through which it is conveyed. Here’s how the novel opens: “1. I have a dream of working a combination lock that is engraved on its back with the combination. Left 85, right 12, left 66. ‘Well shit, man,’ I say in the dream. 2. Hollis and I have killed this whole Saturday together. We’ve been watched all fourteen hours of the PBS series, The Civil War. Now that it’s over he turns to me and says, ‘That was good'” (1). The dream already has odd content—a combination lock?—but the funny line, the one that bursts off the page, is what the narrator says. It’s surprising, and fresh, and it seems that the narrator herself is amused by what she says in her dream. Readers share her amusement. In segment two, we are introduced to quite an odd way to spend the day—fourteen hours watching a TV documentary. This reveals a lot of information in an extremely condensed form. We can extrapolate that the narrator has a long attention span, is a bit of an intellectual or a history buff, does not have children at home, and, perhaps, does not spend that much time speaking. (“Now that it’s over…” which would be fourteen hours later, Hollis turns to her and comments.)

Robison maintains, with her first-person narrator, this level of deadpan humor and originality throughout the book. From the middle: “About the Mercury Brothers’ script I think: O.K. get a lot of sleep tonight, war starts tomorrow. You’re going off to war. A plane will take you to the war place and a limo will fetch you so you don’t gotta worry about parking” (67). Near the end: “I say to myself, ‘We got a new day. Let’s just walk around the house and put shit where it goes.’ A lot goes down the disposal after I’ve warned the cat, ‘Stand clear'” (166). As wonderful as the character is, both in terms of the funny things she chooses to do, her commentary on them, and the things she says, I don’t think I would have read the entire novel if the quirky character/voice combination constituted the only pleasure. I would have felt full, maybe even bloated before reading all the way through. The character could have gotten tiresome, the way a hysterically funny friend at a dinner party who hits the same note over and over ultimately becomes dull (or infuriating).

Another technique Mattison describes that is apparent in Why Did I Ever is the withholding of information, and this withholding happens in a couple of different ways. Characters in the novel are not introduced in the usual way. We do not get a little summary, a brief physical description, a sort of introduction from the writer to the reader. In the lines quoted above, which provide the first mention of Hollis, one of the central characters of the novel, he is simply named, given a part (watching the documentary) and a one-line response. No need for the  social niceties of an introduction. And because of the balance of information given and information withheld, we are made curious. In segment five, we hear a little more. “Hollis is not my ex-anything and not my boyfriend. He’s my friend. Maybe not the best friend I have in the world. He is, however, the only” (2). Again, curious. Is he really just a friend? And is he not a good friend? Which serves, of course, to make us more curious about the narrator. She only has one friend? Why? Other characters are introduced in a similar way.

The second and most conspicuous type of withholding is demonstrated by the way Robison parcels out of information about the narrator’s adult son. He is first introduced on page four, in the same abrupt manner as the others. “‘I need plywood,’ said my son, Paulie, in his sleep. Or I heard wrong. I know it was ‘need’ something. That was my first day there, at his flat on St. Anne, before the NYPD began hiding him” (4). We learn in the same passage that his hands are bandaged, and he is asleep at the dining table. This is, of course, a rather traditional move but I think it’s key to keeping the reader moving forward, especially for a novel with so little plot. In her essay, Mattison gives an example from Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. Greene’s technique is more complex than Robison’s since his novel is told through an alternating narrative based in different chronological times. The reader learns a bit of information about a central event but is then interrupted by another story, going back in time. In this way, “Greene keeps much of [the] information back until he is ready for you to learn it” (37), making the novel suspenseful. Robison’s simpler technique has the same effect. We want to know why the narrator’s son Paulie has bandaged hands and is about to be placed into hiding. We sense something bad has happened to him and we keep reading in part to find out what. As we suspect, when at the end of the novel all the pieces have accumulated, the story is horrifying.

Robison has constructed a character we care deeply about. Money’s actions let us know from early on that something is troubling her. “I end up at Appletree—the grocery—in the dead of the night. I’m not going to last long shopping, though, because this song was bad enough when what’s-her-name sang it. And who are all these people at four A.M.? I’m making a new rule: No one is to touch me. Unless and until I feel different about things. Then, I’ll call the rule off” (2). She is a complicated person who has been badly wounded—that much is clear. We are curious to find out what, to understand, and as we continue to read, propelled by that curiosity, we come to care about her. We cheer the good things in her life (her cat, her friendship with Hollis) and watch as she changes. And she does change over the course of the novel. She acquires a boyfriend, Dix, whom she goes to visit in his home because she won’t reveal to him where she lives. Then one day, he shows up in front of her house. “Who leaked to him my home address? Was it Bell-Fuckwad-South?” (91). But does Money demand that he leave immediately and break off the relationship? No. “He’s holding his electric-blue bats, I’m lying down on the concrete porch letting my eyes roll back into my head. I wish one of the ex-husbands would come along. This could look like a scene from a Cuban film” (91). She comments with her typical wry humor but she also lets the boyfriend stay.

One strategy that is not addressed by Mattison that seems particularly relevant for this novel is the contrast between the tone of the narrative (surprising, funny, full of energy) and the emotional content (depressing). I don’t think I could have finished the novel if tone and content were equally dark, and it would have been uninteresting if both were light. I’ve read the advice that movie soundtracks should not duplicate the action—in other words, playing “scary” music during a scary scene is a cheap trick. I would add that it flattens a piece, and makes it predictable. Why Did I Ever is anything but flat.

With the elements that arouse curiosity, and the biting humor of the narrator despite her dislocated, depressed state, readers are compelled to read to the end. Because the novel is not plot-driven, there is no climax per se, and no traditional happy ending with the pieces sewn up, but we do in the end feel that Money will survive, that she will not cut herself off completely from intimate human contact, and there is relief and beauty in that.

*I read that several years ago Robison suffered from terrible writer’s block and in order to overcome it began writing on index cards. She used the cards to put this novel together.



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