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 Restaurant, 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?”