Everything In Moderation

Mary Robison
Tell Me

A minimalist narrative deserves an equally economical review.

The story begins. A girl is taking a test about the architecture of 13th-century cathedrals. She has finished Essay Question I, but not Essay Question II. First, she hears ringing in her ears. Then the bell rings. She turns in her test. She rides her bike home. She makes tea. The story ends.

By the time we're finished reading these facts in Mary Robison's story, "I Am Twenty-One," we've gathered that: A) The girl pays great attention to detail; B) Her grades are slipping because of it; C) The internal ringing she hears is probably the result of too many diet pills; and D) We still know barely more about her than if we'd never met her.

Whether it's stoicism or boredom that makes the reader act this way is hard to determine. Characters in Tell Me, which collects almost three decades' worth of Robison's short stories, are more inclined to turn on the television, sip their coffee, and watch the minutes pass them by than they are to express their deepest emotions or elicit yours. Refusing to pontificate loftily about their lives, they sit on the porch, dropping subtle hints about their feelings into small-town phrases like "Sure, sure," "No, kiddo," or "Can it."

Like her protagonists, Robison is never wasteful with her words. She encourages her readers to go slowly, paying attention to what may seem like the most anticlimactic moments of our lives. (It's no coincidence that the protagonist of her last novel, Why Did I Ever, is addled by attention deficit disorder.) But perhaps because of the author's extreme moderation, Tell Me never matches the mute power of Raymond Carver's masterful symphonies of the mundane. Creative writing instructors would call this an exercise in restraint. Readers will recognize it as conservatism.

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