Mary Robison is really fucking good. Still, I approached this new book with skepticism. Trepidation, even. How can a person, I asked myself, Mary Robison or not, pull off a novel-in-fragments twice in one lifetime? Moreover: in one decade! Tiny oblique snippets plus knife-voiced narrator plus language electric equals rich and stunning narrative—twice? The fragments mirrored the character’s consciousness in Why Did I Ever. Whereas here we have crashed and battered post-Katrina New Orleans. Place, this time, is the splintered thing, and so fragmented fits again. But twice would anyway be a feat.
Improbable, maybe, is the word I’m looking for.
Yet!—and I’m saying this up front so there is no confusion—she does it all. Does it all, and then some.
On the matter of twins
Our narrator, Eve, is married to one half of a pair of them (Adam, natch) and sleeping with the other (Saunders).
Repeatedly, she avers that she cannot tell the two apart.
Having variously known various pairs of twins, I respectfully rebut.
When it comes to twins, there are differences, perhaps not immediately perceptible to an untrained eye, but irrefutable to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the doppelgängers in question. Scientifically speaking, deviations in the identicalness of identical twins are due to “epigenetic differences.” Practically speaking, when it comes to crux-y assertions, however much the writing crackles and spits, the bottom still needs to hold.
Then again, indistinguishable twins was a device good enough to fuel the 1949 German classic Lottie and Lisa and its myriad offshoots (i.e., The Parent Trap and the Olsen twins’ classic It Takes Two among them), so perhaps I’m being stingy with my suspension of disbelief.
The language is really the thing, in any case; it’s restless, prowling. Words, rubbing hungrily against each other, taut and potential, up down and sideways on every page. The whole books rushes and jolts and prickles and flashes like hot flint nuzzling up to some eager kindling. Like a mixed group of teenagers cavorting in underpants.
In other words: combustible.
Shorthand to describe the rhythm of it—the wry and twisty dialogue, the crooked shards of description, the gristly lists of harrowing facts and litanies of sensorial particulars—would be quirky, dark, and off-kilter, but those terms are too narrow and platitudinous to suit.
An excerpt, representative in style, tone, & etc.:
“Like what’re you afraid will happen?” I ask.
“Let’s close our eyes and let our minds wander,” he says.
“O.K.,” I say. “Of course, right, of course. Cat four hurricane. No wetlands to absorb it. Floods crashing. Tinker-toy levees crumbling to bits. Water rising in a hurry. No one is coming. Shots fired. Slow cooking on a roof, and dying of thirst for days—”
“Sing it, sister,” Adam says.
I say, “None of that is going to occur.”
Excerpt, that wily cousin of synecdoche, skews unjust with respect to this jigsaw construction. Even a good one can’t carry the load. What you get once you’ve cobbled all those bits together and peered back through the corridors of the ramshackle house they’ve built, though, is something else entirely. Quelle surprise! All those cornices and grotesques turned out to be joists and cornerstones.
As for New Orleans, we have here a booze-addled ode to Eve’s stubborn and debauched Eden. She tells us early on that “[t]here’s too much eating. There’s altogether too much sex, dancing, carousing, reveling. All of it goes on for far too long. There’s powdered sugar dust on everything,” and later “New Orleans is full of meanings I haven’t learned.” She lists smells coming in on the breeze (“bourbon, horses, manure, coffee, absinthe, roses, seafood, urine”), describes the curious characters wedged in her path (“a disturbed teenager in makeup and jewelry who’s crouched, clawing at the air, snarling at the passersby”), allows the occasional bleak pan (“Papaya trees in an abandoned lot, their limbs sagging with rotted fruit”), gives us facts about alcohol-related deaths and failing social services and the travesty of post-Katrina criminal justice.
In other words, it’s a love letter.
Not all love letters are beautiful. Or: not that kind of beautiful. Not soaring strings and soft lighting and Neruda sonnets beautiful. But you know the other kind? When there are no more surprises? When you know every mole and weird patch of wiry hair and cellulite-dimpled crinkle of flesh, can source the origin of a gaseous eruption with a single whiff, repeat every anecdote in the repertoire on cue, and anticipate every lie, omission, disappointment, and betrayal with algorithmic precision, but still and yet and always find a reason to hold on?
Yeah, that kind.
Ok, I’ll give excerpt one more synecdochic shot:
“Whatever else, I see flowers among the weeds—yarrow, and lavender, coral bells, black-eyed Susan, columbine, and purple heart, verbena. Deeply colored. Smelling so dear. Having such a lolly-dolly, motherfucking good time.”