First, a confession: I started reading Big World because it fit easily in my purse. I had recently implemented a new summer exercise plan specifically geared toward graduate students who were having trouble adjusting themselves to summertime. My plan was as follows:
- Plan a really long walk to a pleasant destination, ideally one where beer is served.
- Map out a route that includes numerous shady, leafy places where one can stop, sit down a while, and read.
- Bring: A smartphone (especially essential for humanities grad students, who in my experience have navigation skills on par with Mr. Magoo), notebook and pen, water, snacks, and a book.
The recommended route for reading "Big World."
The beauty part of the plan is that you can fit everything you need into a purse; the downside is that you may find yourself walking along a park jogging trail feeling like Queen Elizabeth II, hanging onto your little purse for dear life as runners bound past you like gazelles. I still remain assured of its brilliance, however, especially as I had the best possible test run, mostly because I brought along Mary Miller’s Big World. I stole it from our managing editor, who was planning to review it, because at four by six inches it was the perfect size–and because I had started reading the first story in the collection that morning and couldn’t put it down. Over the course of my walk I stopped at every bench, picnic table, and cool patch of grass that I could find, each time telling myself I would read only one more story, and usually reading two.
Though the stories in Big World–thirteen in all–contain protagonists with different names and ages, the book is not so much a collection of separate short stories as it is a series of opportunities for the reader to observe thirteen women who are, essentially, the same woman. We see her in “Leak” as a girl, living with and ignored by the widowed father she fears; in “Pearl” as a recently divorced legal secretary darting between one night stands; in “Cedars of Lebanon” and “Fast Trains” as a woman trying to make a relationship based on inertia and substance abuse blossom into love; in “Animal Bite” as an unhappily married woman who reevaluates her life after she is attacked by her dog. This last story contains a passage that could serve as the central question driving each story in the collection:
[The nurse] took a form from a cubbyhole marked ANIMAL BITE and started checking things off. “Rate your pain on a scale of one to ten with one being no pain at all and tel being the worst pain you have ever felt in your live,” she said. She pointed to a chart on the wall in case I needed help. The faces with no pain looked happy and earlier, before the dog bit the shit out of me, I wasn’t in pain but I wasn’t happy, either. It was misleading, the idea that lack of pain equaled happiness.
The characters in Big World are living in a world as constricting as rope–a world they experience this way partly because of their own fears and limitations and partly because, in Miller’s fiction, the world is always limiting, no matter who you are. In not writing about characters who bravely face off against adversity and triumph against the hands they have been dealt, Miller has in fact done something far braver: depicting people whose lives move in a tentative lockstep of nihilism, with no real end in sight. The characters she shows us aren’t going anywhere, and she describes the settings and inaction of their lives–the bars, motel rooms, hunting lodges, and malls–with crystalline precision and a knack for conveying the quietly absurd. Her characters have conversations that neither reveal not conceal their true natures, but indefinitely tread water, as most real conversations do; Big World reveals Mary Miller as a master of the slow-motion hysteria we as contemporary Americans know so well.
–Sarah Marshall, Editor-in-Chief
Buy Mary Miller’s Big World from Hobart’s Short Flight / Long Drive Books, or read an interview with the author at lunaparkreview.com.
If you’re an author or publisher who’d like to see your book reviewed here, please inquire at theportlandreview [at] gmail [dot] com, or send a copy to:
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