(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Mary Robison is credited—along with Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and others—for reviving the short story as a serious literary form in the 1980’s. Her best-known collection, An Amateur’s Guide to the Night (1983), which contains several of her most anthologized stories, such as “Coach,” “The Dictionary in the Laundry Chute,” and “Yours,” made her an influential force in the so-called, but misnamed, minimalist literary movement.

Robison is also the author of two novels, oh! (1981) and Subtraction(1991), the latter receiving mixed reviews, with some critics arguing that Robison had lost control of her material. (One reviewer cutely concluded that Subtraction did not add up to very much.) In Why Did I Ever, her first book in ten years, Robison seems very much in artistic control, even if her persona, Money Breton, seems on an out-of-control diatribe about everything from Hollywood, to her three ex-husbands, to the IRS, to the food at the International House of Pancakes.

Robison has never really found a wide audience for her work. In an interview she once admitted she was quite baffled about that, failing to understand why she has been called weird and inaccessible. Robison, only half seriously, insisted she did not see any difference between her audience and that of Ann Beattie. Claiming she was as accessible as Beattie, Robison said she keeps asking herself why her audience is one two-hundredth of Beattie’s. “If I am leaving something out,” complains Robison, “or if making it hard, would someone give me the formula or tell me what it is and I’ll put it in? I’ll be happy to oblige.”

However, Robinson knows that the problem with her lack of widespread popularity is that she does leave things out, shifting responsibility to the reader. Robison has said she prefers to be called not a minimalist but a “subtractionist,” because that term implies a little effort and some intention, as though something has been taken out rather than just left out. Robison takes a great many chances in her fiction by not explaining things, by focusing on seemingly insignificant everyday events, and by writing in a nonmetaphoric, bone-clean prose with no exposition. If she has never had the audience she deserves, it is because she makes great demands on her readers.

Consisting of 536 diary-like short entries, with little plot and a central character with the high-strung, frenetic voice of a woman with attention-deficit disorder (ADD), Why Did I Ever (there is no question mark) will probably not make Robison’s audience grow much larger, for her often desperate central character and the fragmented structural method of the book are not calculated to lull readers into either a familiar world or a pleasant escape.

However, it is easy to believe her publisher’s claim that the book is a big hit at readings, for such short staccato bursts of clever one-liners are perfect for a stand-up performance, and Robison herself is more than a little wide-eyed and highly wired in person. Money Breton is precisely the sort of persona an audience would find it hard to resist, with such lines as “Something tells me I need a nap,’ I say. That would be your brain,’ says Hollis.”

Why Did I Ever is a character novel; it is the voice that keeps the reader reading. Once the rhythm of it is caught, it is addictive. It is not a plotted novel; what story there is is simply this: Money Breton is a script doctor for a number of Hollywood studios, most of which have fired her. She is undermedicated, out of Ritalin for her ADD and unable to get more. She has a daughter who is a methadone addict and a son who has been sexually assaulted in New York City and is being guarded by policemen. She flies back and forth from her small southern town to Hollywood, all the time complaining about the absurd script changes the studio insists upon to make a movie project more popular and profitable.

When she is at home, she often drives around in the early morning hours, sometimes all night long, visiting Laundromats, IHOPs, and anyplace else she can escape her ex-husbands, her new boyfriend, her daughter, and the real and imaginary demons that haunt her. Her natural state, like that of a hummingbird, is in motion, physically and verbally. When her friend Hollis reads her the definition of “oscillate” from the dictionary—“a vibrating motion as things move backward and forward, vary or vacillate between...

(The entire section is 1842 words.)