What Happened to the Miracle Matt Briggs Book Lovers

book What Happened to the Miracle

reviewed by Matt Briggs

Published in Issue No. 53 ~ October, 2001

I began Meri Robie’s first novel with some trepidation. The book
began with an overpowering prose style to punch-up what seemed like a
very standard plot. A young professional mother looks for a suitable
place to raise her son. The young family looking for a house is a
stock opening for the endless raft of suburban-set novels. These books
always seem to fall into two types. Either they are chock full of
ordinary life lessons (Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick
, Billie Letts’ Where the Heart Is) or
chock full of zany American pathos and the irony of capitalism (John
Irving’s Garp, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest).
Robie’s single mother, a research scientist at that, looking for a
house still isn’t too far removed from this basic suburban
premise: move from the violent city to the clean suburbs for a safer
life. I found myself trying to parse the novel into the Type 1 or Type
2 Suburban novel. But I found Robie’s use of language puzzling. At
first, I thought she was up to some kind of sneaky, ironic effect. In
the very first paragraph, this sentence rattles along, mixed
metaphors, odd parallels and all: “As I watched the city’s blank
nightwise streets loosely punctuated by the bleeding and cooling
lights of police cars, or the bleeding, bandaging lights of
ambulances, I saw what seemed to be a broken man’s skeleton
stretched tightly across the bay.” One unhinged sentence. Fine. But
this out-of-control language doesn’t slow down after the first
page, or the first chapter, or the first section of the book. It keeps
barreling along in a style appropriate to night sweats, perhaps, or a
psychotic break. It’s used to describe PTA meetings and trips to
Disneyland. At no point does the narrator of this book step back to
expose this torrent of language as some kind of posture. By the middle
of the book, I took this intense, heavy breathing to be the way that
this world operated. I began to trust the honesty of her sentences. By
the end of the book, I found this voice as comforting as a cat-hair
coated afghan on a couch in the rec room.

The narrator of this novel, Karen Eden, remains haunted by the loss of
her older sister, Anna May. A self-styled hippie, Anna May changed her
name every week and in the early 1970s left for the West Coast never
to be seen again. Her last hippie name was Miracle. Karen, in
contrast, is homely, serious, and conventional. She becomes a female
research scientist for the Human Genome project, has a child out of
wedlock as a result of a brief affair with a senior scientist, and
raises her fatherless child in the suburbs of New Jersey with an
awareness that she has no real parenting philosophy except to try and
be honest and is honest enough to realize there is a kind of
dishonesty even in this. Eventually Karen falls in with a co-worker, a
like-minded, somewhat smutty guy named Bruce. She watches her son grow
up – with an odd sort of maternal detachment as if she is raising him
in a Petri dish – and slowly Karen comes into a kind of identity as
the mother of her child. This isn’t the kind of book where each
event forces the reader into the next event. There is no compelling
sequence in this book, except that the characters grow older. And yet,
the pages begin to move because these characters become living,
breathing real people.

From the title of “What Happened to the Miracle” to the sort of gross,
mundane and naked events in the book – Karen discovering an
elaborately concealed cache of slick, fetish porn mags hidden in the
toilet tank and assuming they belongs to her teenage son only to find
they belong to her boyfriend, Karen giving her boyfriend head in lieu
of getting naked and exposing her middle-aged body to him only to give
her boyfriend an embolism, the father of Karen’s son showing up
after seventeen years only to have his son kick him out of the house
– things seem ripe for searing irony, and yet, the book refuses to
say what it does not mean. Forty years ago this would seem like a
fault of the book; it would seem nostalgic for a kind of pre-TV world.
But in this case, TV, suburban drugs, and teenage sex are as much a
part of the environment as homework and PTA meetings. The irony of
these situations would be the easy, nostalgic road to take. These
characters live in a much more literal, immediate world.

Robie’s book operates as if David Foster Wallace hadn’t
written Infinite Jest, Rick Moody hadn’t written
Purple America
, or Aimee Bender hadn’t written The Girl
in the Flammable Skirt
. Where these writers seem to operate in a
succession of regressions on the themes found in Don Delillo with
riffs lifted from Thomas Pynchon, John Cheever, and other assorted
mystery guests, Robie’s book has found its own frequency. I
don’t think her book is a reaction at all to the kind of
posturing that seems to me part-and-parcel of fiction set in the
burbs. Rather, in presenting a completely straight view of suburban
life, Robie finds things that these writers ignore. Television creates
the illusion that everyone in America, despite various cultural
backgrounds, pretty much wants the same thing. And perhaps the
smarty-pants amongst them will be satisfied by Wallace, Moody, or
Bender, but Robie grapples with real characters, the kind of
characters who actually find comfort in old episodes of “Who’s
the Boss?”

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Matt Briggs is the author of The Remains of River Names, published by Black Heron Press. His stories have appeared in The Northwest Review, The North Atlantic Review, StringTown, The Mississippi Review, ZYZZYVA and elsewhere. Essays have been in The Washington Free Press, The Raven Chronicles, and The American Book Review. He lives in Seattle with his wife and daughter.
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