Three books have made me feel as if I’d read and imitated them long before I ever picked them up. The first is Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. When I was nineteen, I believed that the stories I wrote filled a void the world had left open for minimalist short fiction about Americans in blue collar jobs. A kind professor alerted me to my belatedness and turned me on to Carver. Despite my loss of potential market share and the realization that, as a Jewish kid from the upper middle class suburbs, I didn’t have much to contribute to the genre, I was exhilarated. Carver led in so many directions: back to Chekhov and Babel, laterally to Richard Ford and Tom McGuane, forward to Joy Williams and Amy Hempel.
The second is Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land, which I read while living in Austin, Texas, where I had a job holding up a giant orange arrow at a highway exit ramp. While arrow holding, I developed a notion that I would write a dark comic novel of latent adolescence and suburban drug use, a post-9/11 treatise on the state of the American dream. Then I read Home Land, realized I’d been preceded, and moved to New York to study with this new master.
Lipsyte, an excellent teacher, turned me on to Mary Robison. From that encounter I have yet to recover. Like both Carver and Lipsyte, Robison wrote under the tutelage of the renowned sentence sorcerer Gordon Lish, and her early stories are exemplars of the Lishian aesthetic: tightly wound, highly charged, and bubbling with unresolved tension. They’re beautifully crafted still lifes, as sharp and precise as German paring knives; the kind of stories published in The New Yorker (many of hers were) and taught in creative writing workshops for their faultless attention to word choice. In Robison’s stories, not a comma is out of place, and if her characters are often in extremis, the taught rigidity of Robison’s prose acts as a rejoinder to chaos; her stories are impregnable containers, safe havens of structural fortitude.
But Robison’s stories did not prepare me for her later, looser novels. Subtraction (1991), Why Did I Ever (2001), and One D.O.A., One on the Way (2009) give me the feeling of having been brain-robbed, bested, and literarily star-crossed.
When I read Why Did I Ever, I was on the thirteenth draft of my own novel, Flatscreen. My book concerns a young man so paralyzed by modern life that he rarely leaves his mother’s basement. By this time, of course, I knew the story, the various episodes, and the way they’d pile on. I knew its characters, their growths, their traits and tics. Still, something felt wrong. The book was long. Boringly long. The flashbacks conveyed essential information, but slowed the book down. I wanted my narrator’s dilemma to feel urgent. I considered shrinking the chapters, replacing the lost material with short interstitial chapters that would take the form of lists, recipes, and emails. This wasn’t exactly a new idea, but I felt I could do it freshly. Robison, it turned out, had beaten me to it and done it better than I ever imagined it could be done.
Why Did I Ever is made up of 536 small chapters, some short as a sentence, none longer than a page, some numbered, others titled. Its narrator is Money Breton, a Hollywood script doctor, a Ritalin addict with two difficult adult children, two childlike, and even more difficult boyfriends, and the kind of dry humor usually shared by fat male standup comedians and teenage depressives. Chapter 16: “Something else that makes me angry is that I got too old to prostitute myself. I wasn’t going to anyway, but it was there, it was my Z plan.”“If you smashed The Catcher in the Rye into Jesus’ Son, you might have something quite close to Flatscreen,” wrote William Giraldi in Bookforum, “a narrative of wayward youth for our beguiled new century on the brink of a discovery we might not welcome. . . . but there’s far more heartwreck than hilarity in these rambunctious pages.” Darin Strauss found the novel “erudite and hilarious, raunchy and topical, and flat-out fun. Nicholson Baker meets Barthelme with a dash of Nabokov.” In March The Paris Review announced that Wilson won this year's Terry Southern Prize for Humor for his story "What's Important Is Feeling" and his contributions to The Paris Review daily. Wilson is the founder and former editor of The Faster Times. He teaches creative writing at New York University and lives in Brooklyn.
Money is at loose ends—she’s on the verge of losing both her job and her boyfriends; her daughter is a moody sometime heroin addict presently in recovery, and her son has recently been sexually assaulted. To cope, she takes speed and alphabetizes everything in her apartment, including the contents of her fridge. She takes more speed and drives around the American South, radio on, ashtray filling. She also talks incessantly to herself, as if to affirm her autonomy. Chapter 520: “I’ve chosen now as the time to be sick in a bucket.” [my italics] Money even forges friendly letters to herself from the IRS (“You are paid in full”), an extraordinary effort in self-delusion.
This self-delusion is embedded in the novel’s structure. The fact that the chapters are sometimes numbered, sometimes titled, and the apparently arbitrary order in which the chapters appear, attests to Money’s relentless and futile drive to find order within an unquantifiable world. “Evan is the same age as Dix,” Money tells us, “over thirty, under a hundred.” Robison doesn’t eschew the perfectionist tendencies of her earlier work; she interrogates those tendencies and exposes them as artifice, false constructs providing false comfort. Her characters often resort to spewing inconsequential facts in place of conversation. “‘Shiner Bock is brewed in Texas,’ Dix says. He says this because it is a thing he knows.” It’s funny, but it’s also, somehow, heartbreaking. Each loose piece of trivia is something to grab onto, solid ground among the feints and deceptions.
When discussing the Internet, experts often resort to a radio metaphor: it’s hard to tell the signal from the noise. Robison’s short chapters attempt to distill some semblance of signal, a temporary true north within the infinite nothing. If her stories are still lifes—frozen images, excruciatingly scrutinized—then the late novels feel like strange slide shows, a comic procession of images, the accretion of which challenges and replaces the false imposition of narrative order. “The now is just arithmetic to me,” Money tells us.
All of which is what I was planning to do in my book! But reading Mary Robison wasn’t discouraging. No, I was elated, excited, inspired. As readers—and I consider myself one above all else—this is why we keep reading, the holy payoff of years spent flicking pages under the flashlight’s glow, scanning thousands of texts in search of the book that probes like surgical tubage, reaching up through miles of guts in a straight path to your heart.
Also of interest:
- Read Maureen Murray's 2001 interview with Mary Robison in Bomb
- Read Sam Gold's recent interview with Adam Wilson on The Nervous Breakdown
- "The Ten Best Slacker Novels according to Adam Wilson" on Flavorwire
- Other “Influences” posts by Deborah Baker, Kate Christensen, Jennifer Gilmore, Lev Grossman, Alan Heathcock, Adam Levin, Dinaw Mengestu, Jim Moore, Manuel Muñoz, Geoffrey O’Brien, Arthur Phillips, Carl Phillips, Karen Russell, Timothy Schaffert, Philip Schultz, J. Courtney Sullivan, Emma Straub, and Ellen Ullman