Among those American writers who were originally identified as "minimalists," a group that would include Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, and Tobias Wolff, Mary Robison may have been the most minimalist of them all--or, to use the word she has said she prefers to describe the narrative/expository strategy employed by these writers, the most radically "subtractionist."
Readers looking for an introduction to minimalism in its most rigorous form could do no better than Robison's first book, the story collection Days (1979). In the book's first story, "Kite and Paint," two men and a woman hold a mostly trivial conversation while waiting for a hurricane to arrive. At the close of the story--which has taken up only six pages--the two men are about to go outside into the increasing windstorm to fly kites. In "Sisters," a college-age woman staying with her aunt and uncle receives a visit from her sister, a nun. They all go to a spagetti dinner in the basement of the local Catholic Church. In "Widower," a recently widowed dentist and his two children are visited by the father's new girlfriend, and as the children and the girfriend are heading to the beach, the father receives a phone call from a man with a dental emergency. There are intimations of larger significance in such stories, fleeting implications of backstory or future forward movement, but mostly they seem to be fixated on the depiction of present moments.
Robison's style is as pared back as her narratives. It is essentially restricted to brief expository statements--"Guidry was in bed, tangled in the oversheet"--and seemingly insignificant details--"At the firehouse, two men in uniforms were playing pinochle and listening to Julie London on the radio." The largest part of most of the stories in Days is dialogue, and much of it works by indirection as well, except for those moments when a character suddenly blurts out some incongruous statement: During the spaghetti dinner in "Sisters," we hear the college student sister tell a priest that "I'd like to be excommunicated. . .I want the thirteen candles dashed to the ground, or whatever, and I want a letter from Rome."
What really distinguishes Robison's fiction from that of her fellow minimalists is its humor. While occasionally a grim type of humor emerges from the stories of Carver or Beattie, Robison's are more unashamedly comical, both in tone and in execution. The atrophied narrative structure of the stories itself is inherently comic, giving them a kind of absurdist feel, and the dialogue is often explicitly funny:
Leah said, "Jack is the one person who shouldn't keep a revolver."
"He's so much worse since you've been gone," Barbara said. "My dad thinks it's because Jack reads so much. You know who Jack always liked, though?" Barbara leaned over and snapped one of the buttons on her galoshes. "Your sister, Bobby."
"Yes, I think he really did," Leah said. She sighed, and turned the shard of bone with the toe of her shoe. "You can tell him Bobby's wonderful. Just remarkable. She takes a lot of speed still. She's chewed a nice hole in her lip."
"Bobby's disturbed," Barbara said. "You can tell that just from the way she walks."
Robison further developed the humor of the stories in Days into an even broader kind of comedy in her 1981 novel Oh! (described on the back cover of my copy of the book as about "a madcap Midwestern family"), but in my view the slyer, more surprising moments of humor in the stories of Days works much better and makes this, in its blending of minimalism and jokiness, one of the more significant books published by an American writer during the 1970s.
Robison largely disappeared from the literary scene after her 1991 novel Subtraction but returned in 2001 with the novel Why Did I Ever, about a Hollywood writer trying to cope with her disorganized life, and in 2009 has published One D.O.A One on the Way, set in New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina. Both of these books employ a collage method of composition, offering snippets of action and/or dialogue that range freely over time and place. Both feature a harried female protagonist loosely tied to the film business whose unraveling lives seem well-captured through the collage strategy. Ultimately this strategy seems a more rewarding expansion of Robison's gifts into the novel (as brief and brisk as each of these two are) than the more continuous narrative structure to be found in Oh! and Subtraction.
Why Did I Ever seems to me the more successful use of the fragmented form to to portray its protagonist's attempt (mostly unsuccessful) to pull her life together. Eve Broussard, the protagonist of One D.O.A., seems more artificially the fleshing-out of the bitterly comic concept of a location scout responsible for identifying suitable spots for movie and television productions in post-Katrina New Orleans. Her conflicts with her rich parents-in-law and her affair with her husband's identical twin brother don't seem as urgent as Money Breton's relationships with her emotionally scarred children in Why Did I Ever, although they are presented with Robison's signature humor. (And Robison's humor, especially as provoked by her witty dialogue, is retained in both of these novels.) In general, her character has to compete with the novel's depiction of New Orleans in tatters for primary attention, and finally she only barely wins out.
On the other hand, Robison's collage method does prove rather effective in portraying New Orleans's agonizingly extended present moment. "Subracting" seems an appropriate strategy in representing a city from which so much has already been subtracted. Comprehending the totality of the effects of Katrina and the government's criminal inaction seems an overwhelming task, and the glimpses into the city's devastation provided by One D.O.A One on the Way perhaps add up to an overall perspective sharpened by the smaller details.
Although one might hope that Robison would again concentrate more of her attention on the short story, the form in which I believe her best work is to be found, it nevertheless will be interesting to see if she can continue to apply her miniaturist skills to compelling effect in whatever future novels she may write as well.