The Subtractionist


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In the famous Mary Robison story “Yours,” an elderly man and his young wife carve pumpkins on their porch for Halloween. Hers are messy and mediocre, while the husband, a retired doctor and “Sunday watercolorist,” creates inventive, expressive faces. Later, after a startling turn in this very short story, the old man wishes he could tell his wife his truth, “that to own only a little talent, like his, was an awful, plaguing thing; that being only a little special meant you expected too much, most of the time, and liked yourself too little.”

It’s a fascinating idea to consider in relation to Robison, one of the enormous talents (and great practitioners) of the short story in America. Maybe it speaks to her deep knowledge of the various ways life tears at us, that there are monstrous crushings—death, abandonment—and then there are constant abrasions. Most people learn to live with both. Most people, Robison’s people, also, while maybe waiting around for the pain to subside, or at least turn briefly amusing, laugh, console each other, make dinner, sit on a bench, and try new tricks for better candlelight. 

Many of them also secretly revel in language, in keeping an ear out for the bounties and desolations of speech. Robison not so secretly revels in language, in the odd surprises of everyday utterance, the potentially stirring rhythms. Her prose, often called minimalist curing the 1980s, isn’t. She suggested subtractionist, but another word is exacting. When you are exacting, you are a master of the notes and the space between the notes, as Robison has always been. In “Likely Lake,” when Buddy decides he will “dissuade” Connie, it is as though the strategy could not exist if Buddy had not struck upon the right word. Robison’s stories often depend on the rightness of the word, or the right wrongness.

The wrongness, or awkwardness, is layered into her work. She might not have known that “awkward” would be a national catchphrase someday, but Robison has always understood the emotional power of discomfort, self-consciousness, and the manner in which people, eager for real connection (or sometimes not), slide past each other, shrugging, remonstrating, cracking wise. Robison’s stories and novels illuminate day-to-day confusion, as well as the great hurts that sweep down upon us. They are urgent and elegiac, funny and beautiful. If you begin to read them, they will dissuade you from doing anything else for a long time.

This essay appeared in Object Lessons: ‘The Paris Review’ Presents the Art of the Short Story.