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Underappreciated Masterpieces: Mary Robison's 'Why Did I Ever' (2001)

Writer Blake Butler's ongoing excavation into lesser-known literary masterpieces continues with this glorious novel-in-parts.

Some books beat you over the head with their premise. Others rely on their language alone to do the work. Both of these styles can grow tiresome when heavy-handed, but somewhere between these two extremes there is a balance of the two: between logic and sound, where logic functions right alongside a similar illogic, knowing and not-knowing, kind of like how life feels day to day.

With many of my favorite novels, I'd be hard pressed to tell you what they are about; they aren't about anything particularly, they are what happens to themselves. Or you could go ahead and say what they are supposedly about, in theory—like, "It's about a movie so entertaining that once someone watches it, they become obsessed with watching it over and over until they die"—but, really, the story only has so much to do with that idea when you stand back and look from overhead. The actual mechanics of how and what is told on any given page could be anywhere, anything, leaving the reader in the midst of insane sprawl. Reading, then, is an experience, rather than a simulation; our thoughts as readers are allowed to overlap, become rewired into the book's dream-like system, more like a puzzle rather than a rat trap.

The rumor about Mary Robison's third novel, Why Did I Ever, released in 2001, is that the essential parts that make it up could have really been in any order. The book consists of 536 miniature fragments, ranging from six words long up to just over three pages, many of them titled with only chapter numbers, while others are subtitled with similarly terse headers such as "The Few Things I Care About" or "Letter to Sean Penn." Like certain other novels predating it—Renata Adler's Speedboat (1976), Joan Didion's Play It as It Lays (1970), for instance, as well as the respective works of Clarice Lispector and Hilda Hilst— Why Did I Ever seems like an early precursor to writing now, somewhere between schizophrenic confession and input-saturated exhaustion, laying the foundation for a more piecemeal, collage-like style of dictation, not quite reality, not quite surreal.

Apparently it was during an extended bout of writer's block that Robison took to the practice of writing small sections of text on thousands of notecards, attempting to establish not a plot or string of scenes, but little mechanical pieces that each held up solely on their own. Later, then, the bits were assembled, and placed in an order, though that order could have also taken an exponential number of other forms. And yet, the mysterious sense derived under the novel's assumed sequence is on display in the somehow pitch-perfect opening section:

"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."

And that's it; that's the scene. Such a bizarrely cryptic image, followed immediately by a self-deprecating utterance from the narrator could not convey the tone of the organism any more appropriately; one gets the sense that, however multi-channeled and spasmodic the narrator's attention to us remains, the effect of the prose is to hypnotize us into a wholly unique way of thinking, rather than to simply entertain through a fictional facade. And then, as if to completely write over that feeling, immediately after, the second section of the book abruptly changes flow, offering a 34-word pair of paragraphs about watching PBS for 14 hours. There is absolutely no clear connection beyond the presentation, leaving the body of the book no choice but to take hold only as it happens, with you inside.

Mary Robison. Photo courtesy Counterpoint Press

When I was in grad school for creative writing, people whispered about this book as if something secret and forbidden, like performance drugs or something. After workshops in which we'd discussed the use of setting in some bad short story, I remember one friend pulling this book out of her bag, and showing it to me away from the others, like, "I don't know what the hell this book is doing or why I like it but I can't stop reading it, trying to figure it out." Even more funny than that is how Mary Robison was a major contributor to the New Yorker in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, regularly launching her bizarrely singular stories into a forum that in years since has somehow morphed into a safer, more mainstream zone, the transition between which might have something to do with why it took her ten years to figure out how to write Why Did I Ever—it is as if she's trying to figure out how to speak aloud after crossing a bridge from a culture where Donald Barthelme was something like a standard, to one where linear narrative seems to reign.

What the reader experiences as the book continues building block by block is one of innumerable permutations on the life of the narrator, a middle-aged screenwriter and mother of two by the undeniable name of Money Breton. She might mention the content of a voicemail from an ex-husband, or the description of a found photograph, or conversation overhead in public, or the weird things she says to herself in the mirror putting on lipstick. The lines quip wry and alarmingly sparse in their approach, a set of casually intense jokes that describe things the narrator sees, feels, experiences, held together in a tone somehow both dreamlike and super-realistic at the same time, as if Kafka had grown up with Mitch Hedburg and Steven Wright. "[It was] like a repulsive videotape was on automatic replay in my head," Robison said in an interview with Bomb, describing the brain state in which the mood of the book came out of. "So I was scrapping around for any tiny thing I could do and had the thought, 'Make the story really funny; all else will be forgiven.'"

And it's true; the book is really funny, if delivered in the sort of tone a doctor might use to tell you, in the most enjoyable way possible, that you have four months to live. Often one gets the sense here that the narrator is trying to talk herself into continuing living, not because something awful is happening, but because life itself, in any form, is hard. Among so much modern writing these days trying to find a way to explain our situation as plush but dire, free but under surveillance, exhausted but ADD, Robison's fiercely offhand banter cuts through any possible cavity of bullshit, kills its own bloat before it even has time to turn into a scene. One sections just reads: "Huh." Then that is followed with two paragraphs of Money's boss—who is overseeing her edits on a Hollywood production of Bigfoot, of all things—telling her not to get creative with her work. Where plot lines emerge through various relationships, responsibilities, ongoing involvements with specific worldly concerns, they just as quickly escape again, maybe to reappear dozens of pages later, maybe not. You are never more lost than when you are found again, trying to remember how you got here. And within the veering, the total set of shifts in recurring subject or concern form a sort of labyrinth, one without exit, and where the deeper we go in seems to grow even more irate, its central voice that much less willing to cooperate with whatever flow you might have tried to form around it.

Any yet, despite the disconnectedness, the variation within the pattern, the cliffhanger leading into another cliffhanger, all of the values of what a reality might be defined by are vital here, perhaps even more realistically than a story told with a beginning, middle, and end. The chaos of the narrator's brain and the world surrounding provides as much shape to her reality as any tiny revelation or sudden plot point a book might hinge an entire chapter around. There's a big sense of shitheadedness about the whole thing—glorious shitheadedness, like the very question of why we have to make art out of life at all, with the answer being, Because without it we'd be fucked, or at least left to wander around with our heads all up our asses. "I just regret everything and using my turn signal is too much trouble," one section reads, in one of its many totally direct moments of instruction, as if telling you how to read. "Fuck you. Why should you get to know where I'm going, I don't."

No one does, of course. But some people are more fun than others, and here the intentional sprawl is a relief. Each passage assumes the feel of veracity of idea over unnecessary execution, as if we are being shown the tools that build a universe rather than the universe itself. There are people, places, time periods; these things each have their personalities, moods; each of the resonances stick out like the sharp part of a long passage that you waited to be paid off by for your effort. Everything is treasure. And by the sheer mass of its weight in such small space, the reader is forced to slow down, to hear the lines again inside her head instead of only on the page, and to parse what those lines might be trying to communicate, if anything.