Why Did I Ever is as tragic and real as it is richly funny. This novel was first published in September of 2001 and announced the return of Mary Robison after a silence of nearly ten years. Although the plot moves slowly at first, the story soon evolves into a relevant and affecting experience worthy of the reader's commitment.
Often hailed as a minimalist, Robison edges her way back into the literary landscape with this cursory look into the dignity and despair of the psyche. Readers follow an eccentric first-person narrator haphazardly through the aftermath of her son's victimization in a heinous sex crime, her daughter's heroin addiction and a desultory screenwriting career. Her undeniably unique and laconic style is a vehicle for demonstrating the integrity of her characters and the purity of her writing. To call her a minimalist may indeed be pigeonholing a writer who has never claimed to enjoy the title.
With regard to her long absence, Robison attributes a lack of published work to writer's block, or 'involvement with other projects and concerns' as she more often puts it. She proceeded over these years to write for Hollywood and to hold several teaching positions, lastly and currently at the University of Southern Mississippi. Her frustrations and experiences turned to gold over time as they undoubtedly provided for the first threads of a burgeoning novel.
Why Did I Ever follows in the tradition of Robison's former works, her two full length novels Oh! and Subtraction, vivid and darkly comedic narratives of uncommon circumstances and eclectic characters. Though not eclipsing its predecessors, Why Did I Ever, the winner of the 2001 Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, is certainly more refined. The language is sparing but resonant, enabling the text to be rapidly and intensely devoured.
The story begins on a disarmingly humorous note, and appropriately so, as this introduction to the troubled Money Breton sets the tone for her piquant divulgences to the reader. Following the commonplace, often tedious activities that form Money's daily life - the timeline is noticeably and intentionally vague - readers acquire an understanding of her relationships with offspring, various men and colleagues, as well as an appreciation for her cynicism. Each element rises to the forefront in its own right, confessing its urgency, and recedes again to allow for the acknowledgment of another hapless event. As the plot progresses, a natural prioritization reveals itself and subtly confirms Money's inability to get beyond certain failures that form the basis for conflict in her life. Her diatribes characterize a long-standing struggle:
'I would say to one particular ex: "Twit was too short a word and Pigboy was unkind. I should never have said such ugly things about you. Bumpkin, however, and Thieving, Lying Wino can stay right where they are."'
Robison uses humor as a distraction from the disjointed delivery of the narrative, presented in 536 separate passages. Incidents are spliced together in an effort to mimic Money's Attention Deficit Disorder, a condition for which she is under-medicated. This audacious structural element bears the responsibility of maintaining the interest of the reader. The mixture of innovative formal structure and terse and emotive language enables Robison to make clean transitions in and out of the internal landscape. Constant departures create an informal and candid atmosphere in which it is conceivable that Money reveal herself as veraciously as she does.
Robison establishes a relationship with readers as naturally as would two strangers at an uncomfortable social gathering. She is looking for a connection not only based upon empathy but upon admittance to personal weakness. There is nothing glorified in this book. (We have all been victims of our own adversity at some point.) In its illumination, Robison attempts to reconcile that experience as something to be acknowledged and endured, not minimized. Money is an example of multiple professional and personal catastrophes, yet she emerges as more than the sum or her afflictions - a character not to be pitied, but to be understood.
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