Mary Robison is widely considered to be a charter member of the canon of literary minimalists. She prefers “subtractionist,” according to a 2001 interview in Bomb Magazine, because “that at least implied a little effort.” After publishing short stories in several magazines, including The New Yorker, back when magazines other than The New Yorker still published short fiction, she published her first story collection, An Amatuer’s Guide to the Night, in 1983. This was followed by two more collections, two novels, and then, in the ’90s, a bout of writer’s block. We can attest that occasionally the words do stop flowing, and it’s scary, but in retrospect it’s hard to call Robison’s experience a “block.” She did write, on index cards, and those cards became the novel Why Did I Ever, which won the LA Times Book Prize for fiction in 2001.
Why Did I Ever is divided into 536 very short chapters, and Robison uses a similar structure in her latest novel, One D.O.A., One On the Way: it has 225 very small sections, divided into nine chapters. It is set in New Orleans, “thirty months after Katrina” a heading tells us; lists of statistics and facts about the city are interspersed throughout the narrative, which follows the narrator, Eve, as she struggles to continue her work as a film location scout, watches her husband succumb to a terminal illness, begins an affair with her brother-in-law and institutionalizes his wife. There are other lists as well, of things Eve promises to stop doing (“No more pawning my luggage…I’m never again calling my congressperson and screaming ‘Liar!’ into the phone.”), things that go missing following visits from her neice, and advice on the care, cleaning, and ideal holstering of your gun. And if you’re a fan of Chekhov’s maxim, you won’t be disappointed.
What is truly remarkable about One D.O.A., One On the Way is how such a small book is able to shift between two very different senses of scale. Eve’s domestic drama plays out in a mansion oasis made safe and lush by her in-law’s wealth. Without a great deal of description, Robison convinces us to share Eve’s disgust at how incongruous this home is with the rest of the city, and her sense that it is clautrophobic rather than protective. Following the Eve and her assistant around the city, New Orleans becomes a vast and frightening post-apocalyptic landscape, the inhabitants of which are vaguely aware of a “normal” world beyond the shifting boundaries of their own – it is not unlike Bellona in Samuel R. Delaney’s Dhalgren. Mary Robison has shrunk one of the greatest natural disasters in our country’s history to fit into a 166-page novel that measure s 7.6 by 5.4 inches, without surrendering an iota of tragedy.