I am late to the world of Mary Robison. Not Marilynne Robinson, whose novel Lila did coincidentally just become a finalist for the National Book Award, and which I loved, and who is also the reason for my knowing about Mary. (At the bookstore where I used to work, their books sat side by side on the shelves, and would sometimes get mixed up.) But I didn’t pick up Robison’s novel Why Did I Ever, published in 2001, until a recent, searching evening at the Strand. I had just finished one of Paul Auster’s ‘80s paperbacks, and was looking for my new quarry, scanning the “Miranda July Picks” table. It was the structure that got me. Why Did I Ever is written in 536 vignettes, some just a few lines long, some a few pages. Like notes. Like, coincidentally to me, the two last chapbooks I’ve been working on. Except, of course, better.
In an interview with BOMB Magazine on the tail of the book’s release, Robison explained why it ended up this way:
“Various horrible things had happened, as they sometimes will, and I was having difficulty. I was having more than difficulty. Like a repulsive videotape was on automatic replay in my head. So to get through, I began scribbling notes. I would go out, take a notebook. Or drive, or park wherever and take notes. I would note anything left. Anything that still seemed funny or scary or involving for four seconds…If you read the pages in reverse order, they work about the same.”
Having difficulty was also what got me writing in short bursts, and once I got started it was wonderfully freeing. Connected thoughts, yes, connected characters, but with the release to start anywhere, just as Robison does—on the next door neighbor’s porch trying to remember the words to “You’re A Grand Old Flag,” say—and then jump suddenly somewhere else, like to the Methadone clinic where the narrator’s daughter is turning in the soft drink Mellow Yellow disguised as her pee.
The protagonist, who’s called Money, and is tired of explaining why that’s her name—“the story isn’t all that great”—is a Hollywood script doctor and three-time divorced mother of two grown-ups. She has three concerns: her daughter Mev, who is addicted to Methadone and not successfully quitting, her son Paulie, who is recovering from a violent, sexual assault, and finally, convincing her doctor to give her more Ritalin. Money, like Robison, is distracting herself from life’s difficult realities. (She will, for example, drive thousands of miles to Montgomery, Alabama, to a Walmart at three in the morning to buy music.) But despite Money’s depressing situation, her observations are hilarious. Episode 17 begins, “Nine West, I’ve never really had great luck with their shoes. They can look terrific but they have sharp arches and hard fucking soles.” In 31, her daughter spots a friend across the room standing by the orange juice. Money looks. She says, “‘The only person anywhere near the orange juice is ninety-two years old.’ ‘What about it, Mother?’” Number 141 simply states, “Over here in the corner, two of the waiters are sipping from a helium balloon before calling out their food orders.”
The minor characters in Money’s life are just as odd as she is and also charmingly idiotic. There is her neighbor The Deaf Lady, who isn’t actually deaf and does things like show up with bandages on her hand, forgetting when exactly it was that she had to put out a mattress fire: “‘All right, all right. Then the other day it was,’ she says. ‘Get off my ass.’” Hollis is like Money’s room mate, except he doesn’t actually live at her house. When he promises to take care of her place while she’s in LA, and calls to say the dryer’s broken, he ends by saying it’s okay because he hung everything on the line.
“‘How can that be?’ I say. ‘I don’t have a clothesline.’
‘No shit,’ he says. ‘You don’t even have a rope. It’s all right, it’s fine. I just unplugged some things and strung their extension cords together. That did great, for all the fucking trouble it was.’”
Money won’t tell her “moron New Boyfriend” Dix, where she lives, but, “I did buy him a dictionary. not an OED, just one that didn’t have ‘Student’ in the title.” She lies to him about her age, and when she finally comes clean, he says, “‘Honey, this is a huge relief. Here I thought you were like really-really old.’”
While Why Did I Ever is laugh out loud funny, it is also tedious and odd and sad. Like life. Like every day in your brain. Like the times you see something and think to yourself, That’s not a grocery bag floating across the freeway, it’s a turkey. And also, of course, what goes through your mind when the realities can no longer be ignored:
“I don’t ever tell Paulie, ‘I’ll take care of you.’ He’s heard that one. He heard it from me, my parents, his sister, from each ex, from his friends, his doctors, his church, his school, his employers, the neighborhood, the police, the mayor, the state and the federal governments. It wasn’t true.”
The genius behind Robison’s book is that she can capture all of it, the strangeness, the despair, the ennui, and present it flawlessly. As Money says in number 213, “I feel around in my handbag, extract something, use it, and put it back. Later on I might need something else. This is my life, what my life is really made of.”
Paperback: 208 pages
Publisher: Counterpoint; Reprint edition (October 8, 2002)