Nationality: American. Born: Mary Reiss in Washington, D.C., 14 January 1949. Education: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, M.A. 1977. Family: Married to James N. Robison. Career: Visiting lecturer, Ohio University, Athens, 1979-80; writer-in-residence, University of Southern Mississippi, Hattiesburg, 1980 and 1985, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 1980, College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, Virginia, 1981, and Bennington College, Vermont, 1984, 1985; member of the Department of English, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, since 1981; visiting assistant professor of Writing, Oberlin College, Ohio, 1984-85. Awards: Yaddo fellowship, 1978; Bread Loaf Writers Conference fellowship, 1979; Authors Guild award, 1979; Guggenheim fellowship, 1980.
An Amateur's Guide to the Night. 1983.
Believe Them. 1988.
Oh! 1981.* * *
Although Mary Robison is credited—along with Bobbie Ann Mason, Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and others—for reviving the short story as a popular literary form in the 1980s, she has also been attacked for the perceived shortcomings of so-called minimalism. Critics such as John Aldridge complain that her characters have no motivation, no background, and no personality. He charges that Robison's characters are too free and that they serve no thematic idea. Robison once said in an interview that she is puzzled that her readers think she is "weird and inaccessible," for she does not see any difference between her audience and Beattie's and cannot figure out why her audience is only a fraction of Beattie's. She wondered if she is leaving something out or making her stories too difficult.
A brief look at "Pretty Ice," from her first collection, Days, may be helpful in responding to the complaints of Aldridge and other antiminimalists that Robison's stories have no thematic significance. In the story, which is representative of Robison's fictional technique, a 34-year-old single woman who has never learned to drive is accompanied by her mother as she goes to the train station to meet her fiancé. Nothing actually happens in this very brief story, but at the end the woman suggests that she is going to break up with her fiancé. The only clue the reader has as to the motivation for the breakup is a huge billboard she and her mother pass on the way to the train station. The sign, which advertises her father's dance studio, shows a man in a tuxedo waltzing with a woman in an evening gown. It has weathered into ghostly phantoms, and her father's name has disappeared. We also find out that the father killed himself when she was 20, aiming the gun barrel down his mouth so that the bullet would not shatter the wall of mirrors behind him.
The metaphor of the title is evoked at the end of the story when the mother says that the ice storm they have just had is a beautiful thing, like a stage set, and the daughter agrees that "it is pretty." Her fiancé's flat and practical response to the ice storm, saying that it will make for a bad-looking spring, confirms her desire for something more beautiful and ephemeral than the world of everyday reality he embodies. "Pretty Ice" is a delicate story about a woman who is encasing herself in the pretty ice of the dream of her elegant parents, who, like dolls, spent their lives in evening clothes. The story depicts the woman's inarticulate confrontation with the impossibility of achieving such a dreamlike reality.
The title work of Robison's second collection, An Amateur's Guide to the Night, arguably her best group of stories, focuses on a young woman, who is an "old seventeen," who goes out on double dates with her mother, who is a "young thirty-five." In his diatribe against a number of contemporary writers, Aldridge concludes that this story is just a group of unexamined details signifying nothing. Although it is true that we know little of the characters—they live with the girl's grandfather and watch horror movies on television, and the girl spends time watching the stars through a telescope—their disappointments and fears are subtly suggested. Two events dominate the story—the girl's graduation from high school, which the mother does not want to attend, and the mother's thoughts of checking herself into an institution. The mother's emotional instability and the daughter's gazing at the stars suggest two central issues in Robison's stories—the inadequacy of parents, who are so wrapped up themselves that they have no time for their children, and the dreams of children, who desire experience that transcends the mundane world of everyday reality.
"The Dictionary in the Laundry Chute," also from An Amateur's Guide to the Night, is about a couple whose daughter is suffering from depression and refuses to eat. The mother calls a psychologist to talk with the girl, but the father is so concerned with his own imaginary ailments that he cannot focus on anything but himself. Although the doctor gets the daughter to eat, he tells the parents that she is hearing voices. Whereas the mother is upset by this news of her daughter's instability, the father tries to ignore it, saying that the doctor's getting her to eat is "the light at the end of the tunnel." The phrase is an oblique reference to the title of the story, for the father drops a dictionary down the laundry chute to try to clear it of something. Like many of Robison's cryptic works, the story is about how, when things are blocked, it is not always possible to clear them and create a light at the end with mere words. Like many so-called minimalist writers, Robison uses language to suggest conflicts, for she knows that words cannot always explain conflicts away.
"Coach" and "Yours," both from An Amateur's Guide to the Night, are two of Robison's most frequently anthologized stories.
The former is a seemingly inconsequential narrative of a coach who has moved from high school to college football, relocating himself and his wife and daughter in a new town. Robison's subtle use of language suggests that, although there are no overt surface conflicts within the family, a breakup threatens. "Yours" is a very short piece about a 35-five-year old woman dying of cancer and her 78-year-old husband who sits on the porch at Halloween carving jack-o'-lanterns. When that night, a few weeks before the time predicted, the wife "began to die," the husband wants to assure that she has missed nothing. The story ends with the haunting image of the man watching the jack-o'-lanterns and the jack-o'-lanterns watching him.
Robison's collection Believe Them is perhaps her most upbeat. The story "Again, Again, Again," for example, returns to the family from "Coach," but this time the threat of breakup does not simmer beneath the surface. Instead, the story ends with one character saying to the family, "You three have so much fun being yourselves, all by yourselves." The title of the first story of the collection, "Seizing Control," sounds one of the book's predominant themes, for instead of being on the verge of collapse or being the passive victim of circumstances that can be neither controlled nor articulated, the characters assert freedom by seizing control. The story is told by one of five children whose mother is in the hospital having another baby and whose father is there waiting. The central figure, however, is Hazel, the oldest of the five, who is retarded. When Hazel punches Sarah, one of the other children, in the face during a dream, the children take the injured girl to the emergency room and then go to an all-night pancake place where, the narrator says, "We acted important about our need for food. We'd been through an emergency."
Another theme is suggested by the title of the final story, "I Get By," which is told by a woman whose schoolteacher husband has recently been killed in a light plane crash. The story is about the narrator's efforts to cope with her children and her life in the months following her husband's death. A seemingly insignificant, but ultimately important, figure in her recuperation is the young woman who replaces the narrator's husband at the school, for the woman always seems to be with someone the narrator knows. The end of the story takes place on Memorial Day, when the narrator is at a community picnic and her young son is participating in a Frisbee contest with his dog. When he gets a low score, the replacement teacher consoles him. The narrator realizes that, in her efforts to cope with the loss of a husband, the replacement has served as a necessary distraction, someone safe to focus on while the reality of having lost her husband is "so fierce." She is not sure how to tell the woman this, and the story ends simply with her saying, "Generally, thanks" and telling her how great she looks in blue.
Mary Robison takes a great many chances in her stories—chances of not explaining things, of focusing on seemingly insignificant everyday events, of writing in a nonmetaphoric, bone-clean prose. She has never received the audience she deserves, for, indeed, she makes great demands on her readers. She certainly deserves much better treatment at the hands of critics than being dismissed as representative of minimalism, a convenient critical term with little meaning coined by reviewers pressed for time.
—Charles E. May
See the essay on "Coach."