Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever was my book of 2010. It was an exhilarating discovery: a short, upsetting, foxy novel published way back in 2001. A writer friend mentioned it in a passionate way one evening in the spring, and I bought it the next morning. By the time I’d finished, my head had rotated backward.
Other candidates were Down By the River by Charles Bowden, The Bathroom by Jean-Philippe Toussaint, The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James, The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George Higgins, Zulu by Caryl Ferey, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel, and Pandora in the Congo by Albert Sánchez Piñol. All of them I sat or stood or walked around reading in enchantment. But only Robison’s novel was so stirring and mind-pickling, after I finished it, I sat down at my computer and looked up her email address.
Robison is stuck with the minimalist badge. Why Did I Ever should not be. The novel possesses abundant character—not style, not whimsy, not the popular flatulence, but a substantial idea of itself. The plot is about a screenwriter and her work, her boyfriends and her family, and a horrible event in her son’s life. It’s written in short, diary-like entries, some titled, some numbered—some hard-hearted, some tender. But the thing hums while it files its clips. Best, it makes the reader fill in gaps, but doesn’t leave him hanging. And it’s so, so funny, smart, and fun. It’s a book that brightens darkness. Robison’s narration and dialogue open wormholes to revelation. It’s a book that creates in itself an incredible amount of space and time.
After I finished it, I thought of two stipulations. One: the world must, but cannot, be taken seriously. Two: books should be, but are not, taken seriously. Between these two, Why Did I Ever made me a bargain. It takes so little seriously—and so much—it made me care deeply for its world and then, again, my own.
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