Arts & Entertainment: Sunday, January 13, 2002

A life through flashbacks and dialogue

By Mark Lindquist
Special to The Seattle Times

Back in the 1980s, Mary Robison was one of the minimalists mentioned in company with Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie. At about the time the John Hughes movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" came out on video, every writer I knew was reading Robison's "Believe Them: Stories."

Robison has published five previous books that were admired by both critics and fellow writers. She also did a screen writing stint in Hollywood, which apparently did not work out well.

"Why Did I Ever," her first book in 10 years, is a Hollywood-bashing novel of sorts and a pointed rejection of almost every storytelling technique that makes movies work.

The narrator, Money Breton, is a three-time divorcée script doctor having a breakdown. In 572 chapter-like segments, Money chronicles the survival of herself and her damaged adult children in random fragments, flashbacks and elliptical dialogue.

At times it feels like a writing class exercise, albeit demonstrated by a skilled practitioner.

Here is an entire chapter:

"Hollis reads to me from a dictionary: 'Oscillate ... A vibrating motion as things move backward and forward, vary or vacillate between differing conditions and become stronger and weaker.'

'Huh,' I say. 'Well, but that describes me.' "

Everything people criticize about minimalism is packed into these pages, but there is also much of what makes minimalism so perfect for our time.

Some of the riffs — such as the letters to Sean Penn — show the wonder of economical wit and pop-culture references in talented hands. Not a single word of Robison's feels like it's careless or pointless.

Still, sometimes her story seems lost in her technique. And, as Money says, "Part of the drag of being lost is that it's called that."

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