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Mary Robison Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: Mary Reiss in Washington, D.C., 1949. Education: Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, M.A. 1977. Career: From 1981, member of the Department of English, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 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; 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.

PUBLICATIONS

Novel

Oh! New York, Knopf, 1981.

Short Stories

Days. New York, Knopf, 1979.

An Amateur's Guide to the Night. New York, Knopf, 1983.

Believe Them. New York, Knopf, 1988.

Subtraction. New York, Knopf, 1991.

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Critical Studies:

Minimalism and the Short Story—Raymond Carver, Amy Hempel, and Mary Robison by Cynthia Whitney Hallett. Lewiston, New York, E. Mellen Press, 1999.

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Many readers have been introduced to Mary Robison's writing through her short stories in the New Yorker. She writes of people caught in a web of alienation and living amid the trivia of contemporary suburban America. Many of her characters seem cut off from events in their lives and their own innermost feelings. For example, in her novel, Oh!, Maureen and Howdy, the two adult children of Mr. Cleveland (a self-made, semi-retired millionaire) still live at home, passing the time drinking, complaining, watching TV, and vaguely trying to figure out what to do with their lives. At one point Maureen says "I love this house … I've never lived any place else. I couldn't be comfortable or feel safe anywhere else …. Yet I don't want to be stuck here the rest of my life …. Except I'm scared of going anywhere else. Of living out my days being poor." The narrator of one short story "Smart" is an unmarried, pregnant, thirty-six-year-old woman living alone in a seedy apartment. She spends her hours sitting, or getting up "just to change a record or twist my spine, or to nibble some of the food my neighbor, Mrs. Sally Dixon, brought me."

Robison's characters are often rootless and without ambition. They have difficulty making connections with anyone or anything. They live their lives in a holding pattern. Like Maureen and Howdy, few find anything that motivates them to improve their lives. One exception to this, however, is the seventeen-year-old protagonist of the title story in An Amateur Guide to the Night. Lindy lives with her divorced mother and her maternal grandfather. She works as a waitress, goes to school, and watches Fright Night with the family. But beyond that, Lindy has discovered for herself the beauty of the night sky, and armed with her star charts and telescope she explores the splendor of one of nature's most spectacular shows.

The narrative voice of Robison contains a stark, unmelodic poetry devoid of frills, usually brushing only the surface, describing rather than exploring. Although much can be learned in this way, the author's detachment from her characters has been a persistent criticism leveled at her work. A scene in a Robison story is like a snapshot. She has an eye for detail and tends to focus on mundane, ordinary events. The short story "In the Woods" has this: "Evenings on the farm, Kenneth would grill steaks or chops outside and my sister and I would do the salad, sometimes corn. We'd open wine. We would cut up muskmelon. After eating, we'd sit on the long flagstone patio, with its view of yard and pond, and maybe drink a Scotch."

The author's voice throughout is cool and meticulous. The reader watches along with the author as the story unfolds, slowly at times, just the same as it does in life. Sometimes the insight gleaned from this approach is no more discerning than when we observe strangers. Often, though, we catch a clear, penetrating glimpse into a person's heart and mind. At these times, despite the distancing, something quite profound is achieved. For example, in "I Am Twenty-one" a college student struggles with an essay question on an exam, watching the time pass, unable to answer all the questions. The young narrator is obviously under severe strain, something more than worry over a test, but only later do we understand the depth of her struggle to just keep going. She describes her apartment, a spartan arrangement except for one photograph, an eight-by-ten glossy of her parents in their youth. "My folks (are) two and a half years gone," she says flatly yet meaningfully, and then talks of her visits to the scene of the accident.

Robison has a playwright's ear for dialogue. Her characters speak the way people really do, in fits and starts with half-formed thoughts and sentences. Their conversations center on common events. In "Mirror" the narrator visits her longtime friend, Lolly. The scene opens in a beauty parlor where these two are discussing the boredom of being there and problems associated with getting a permanent. At times, it might seem that these conversations go nowhere, but through these snippets of talk the essences of the characters evolve, and their values are revealed. Sometimes that revelation comes suddenly, as the meaningless chitchat abruptly becomes substantive. At one point Maureen (Oh!) and her seven-year-old daughter, Violet, are splashing in the child's pool. They are talking about the maid, Lola, when suddenly the conversation shifts to the topic of Maureen's mother. Maureen's resentment of her father and anguish over her mother's abandonment are poignantly revealed. She wants only to remember the good things about this woman and tells her daughter, "You just remember when your grandpa talks about your grandma, no matter what he's saying, he's making it all up. Everything about drinking or about ranting and raving? That's all rubbish."

Robison gives her readers vignettes of life that have power in their sparseness. Her scenes begin in the middle and stop, as if a TV were being switched on and off with the program in progress. The characters are talking, dreaming, or moving about when the reader arrives, and they continue as the reader exits. It is this ability to convince us that we are observing living, breathing people—who will proceed with their lives whether observed by the reader or not—that gives strength and power to Robison's writing.

—Patricia Altner

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