Robison's 'Why Did I': nightmare in a Wal-Mart

November 18, 2001|By Dorothea Straus | By Dorothea Straus,Special to the Sun

Why Did I Ever? by Mary Robison. Counterpoint. 200 pages. $23.

Why Did I Ever? is Mary Robison's third novel, and she is also the author of numerous short stories that have been much admired. This latest work is, probably, the only one of its kind, consisting of 176 pages and 527 numbered, semi-related paragraphs ranging in length from a scanty page to a single sentence:

Number 214. Page 77.

"Radio on or off, I hear it."

I regret to say that this eccentric form leads neither to poetry nor philosophy, nor does it bear any relation to fiction. The reader is presented with the random musings of an apparently mindless middle-aged woman.

Why Did I Ever? is a monologue of wandering, depressed, yet jaunty utterances by a failed film writer and a sometimes mother who tells us that she has had three negligible marriages and countless meaningless affairs. Her children, young adults, are: Mer, a daughter on methadone who works sporadically in a plant for the dismembering of raw chickens, and Hollis, her son, a petty criminal awaiting the results of his HIV tests. These odd names seem to tell us something -- undefinable -- I am not certain what!

The book has the detached irrationality of a nightmare set in a Wal-Mart world where the wares are tumbling around the dreamer. They are soiled and damaged, but recognizable as the remains of bargain-priced merchandise:

Number 475. Page 178.

"... I just can't decide if I want coffee or anything -- a tranquilizer? A soft drink? Would I like to hear music on the radio? Or should I get out the travel iron and do the collars on my shirts? I can't decide. There's some dark metallic something razoring around in my chest."

The author surveys the materialism and amorality of middle America with unjudgmental eyes. And the result is neither tragic nor satirical, veering only slightly toward the latter. Theodore Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis are light-years away and contemporary writers treating similar subjects, when compared with Why Did I Ever? take on the gravity and scope of sages.

Number 140. Page 51.

" ... I should turn back. Florida is a horrible toilet. There are a zillion snakes woven into this road and those clouds over there mean God's coming."

What can one make of that? Ms. Robison's tone is uniform but, occasionally, her language hops from the ordinary to a type of arcane cartoon word:

Number 536. Page 200.

" ... I look like a Smurf Doll. So I am wondering, and would like to know, what must life be like for young attractive women?"

In the midst of the dangers of the unprecedented war that our country is undergoing today, the clownish tartness of Why Did I Ever? is reduced to shredded triviality.

Dorothea Straus has written seven books and her work has been published in Yale Review, Raritan, Partisan Review, Fiction, Commentary, Confrontation, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The Sun. She lives in New York City.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.