Friday, November 5, 2010

"What I Feel, Maybe, I Guess:" Gabe Durham on James Robison’s The Illustrator

expanded and revised from Gabe's blog at

A few months ago, I had my first visit to the fiction stacks of the downtown Nashville Public Library, a big impressive room where Dawn Raffel’s collection graced the new releases shelf and where people actually seemed to be reading stuff. I hit the R’s looking to see if they had the new Mary Robison (they didn’t), but they did have James Robison’s The Illustrator (1988), which I’d never heard of.

And I thought, “James Robison, that guy who said a something nice about one of my pieces on Fictionaut?” (I have a special talent for remembering people who compliment me.) The full-sized author photo on the jacket’s back proved it was the same guy, just younger and with more hair. In a blurb, Donald Barthelme called the novel “a brilliant piece of work” and “a remarkable achievement.” I was sold enough to check it out. I just didn’t expect it to be so good.

The Illustrator
follows Ash, a middle-aged Bostonian who’s just quit being a commercial artist to be an Artist-artist. Ash falls for an almost-legal high schooler named Q (whose actual name is Erin, whose actual-actual name is Pauline). He takes a job in South America and tortures himself with thoughts of Q, then returns to Boston and remembers what she’s actually like and kinda loses interest. And starts painting big weird anti-paintings.

The plotting is loose and natural while each short scene is a like tightly constructed flash, ready for Quick Fiction, often complete with punchy/mysterious last lines. The looseness and Ash’s obliquely cool temperament gel nicely. Each narration and conversation volleys from irony to sincerity and back, and Ash is never more tentative than in a situation that calls for sincerity. “I recognize the escalation of faith and terror that is, I guess, love,” he narrates of his thing with Q. “It’s what I feel, maybe, I guess.” Every genuine feeling expressed is a quailfier-fest, every joke a razor.
Roles change constantly as the characters create what the dust jacket pretty astutely calls a “present tense morality out of the moment.” Throughout the book, Q goes from hook-up to semi-girlfriend to longed-for lover across the sea back to semi-girlfriend to daughter to, finally, something like a distant niece.

The wow-sharp dialogue is never better than when Q is talking or letter-writing. Young and eager-to-impress and language-lax, but smart, too smart to dismiss, Q’s voice gives me the zap of recognition that goes, “Sometimes pop culture makes me forget that teenagers in the mid-to-late 80′s basically sounded exactly like teenagers today and like teenagers always will until the end of time.”

And then Ash’s ex-wife, Lucia, literally shows up at his doorstep. She’s barely mentioned in the book’s first half, but when she shows up (“Hello, Ash. You could hug me, I guess.”), she arrives with so much nuance and emotional baggage that Ash has to be reconsidered in the light of her arrival. “Look at your oeuvre,” she says in the same scene, looking over his paintings for the first time. “My, my. Aren’t you weird. You know, I never minded that we both had sex with so many others while we were married–I thought that was fine. But what I minded, minded purple, was that you didn’t love me, Ash.” “I minded that too,” Ash says, “but you were terrible, just terrible awful. You’re not awful anymore probably, isn’t that so?”

It seems for awhile that Lucia might restore some lost part of Ash, but she’s a protagonist in a book full of protagonists, and has her own stuff going. When, late in the book, Lucia goes with Ash and Q to Vermont, she gets consumed with doomed love for a guy who’s barely on the page at all.

Employed here is the kind of minimalism that uses telling and concise details to point outward to the big lived-in world. By the end of the book, so much ground has been covered that it makes for a jarring return to the opening pages after a first read. At any point in the book, it feels both as if anything might happen next and as if Ash doesn’t care one way or the other what will happen. And yet the difference between this book and slackery “the point is that not much happens” books is that his actions do affect him, again and again, and usually for the worse. If Ash had a stake in himself, he might save himself, but doesn’t, so won’t.

To rope in David Shields for a minute, The Illustrator is a choice example of what’s wrong about Reality Hunger’s point that fiction writers waste so much space on character when the writer could just get to the point and say what he or she thinks. “The world exists,” Shields writes. “Why recreate it?” But what in the hell kind of personal essay could the heart of The Illustrator be reduced to? The feeling’s there in each scene and gone when you name it. Even if we’ve got the spotlight on Robison, he’s decked out in a suit and tie, and have Charlie Rose and Oprah ask him, in unison, “So what, Jimmy, would you say the book is about?” I’m not sure he could give an answer more satisfying than, “Scuba,” or, if then accused of being difficult, “Scuba in America.” I mean that like the opposite of an insult.

James Robison’s only other book, Rumor and Other Stories, came out two years before The Illustrator. The opening story, The Line, pushes the observational people-watching story as far as it will go, waiting until the last minute to point to any sort of meaning, a neat trick he later repeats to even greater effect in “The Indian Gardens.” Even with its subversive touches, Rumor is more of a classic book than Illustrator, less of its time, still minimal but working closer to the tradition. My favorites are, “Envy,” “Eleven,” and the title track, “Rumor,” all of which slow-build their loss and longing and tend to end pretty hopefully.

Eventually, the web helped me put this together: James was married to Mary Robison, hence hence hence. (Pretty perfect, then, that I found him while searching the stacks for his wife.) The Illustrator is dedicated to Mary.  If you go looking for stylistic parallels, his book has more in common with Mary Robison’s more-recent Why Did I Ever than with the stories she was writing when The Illustrator came out.

But really, James Robison’s style (circa Illustrator) is closer to Frederick Barthelme’s than to his then-wife’s. And surprise! They all went to grad school together. In Barthelme’s famous & fun article “On Being Wrong,” there’s a great long paragraph in which Barthelme characterizes the “beyond irony” writer scene of the John Hopkins MFA, 1976, in which Barthelme and his colleagues grew to suspect that “a plain sentence, drab as it may seem, might be more powerful by and large than the then standard-issue clever sentence.” He characterizes the teachers: John Barth, Charles Newman. Then continues: “And the students were good too. Mary and Jim Robison were there; everything in Mary’s stories ‘snicked’.”
It’ll be a shame, though, if this passing mention is going to be James Robison’s legacy: A good writer who was present for a scene in which his then-wife had a starring role. Mary Robison herself, in an interview with BOMB, praised her ex-husband’s prose while simultaneously burying him: “[Being labeled a minimalist] did a lot for me (laughter) in that I received some attention other deserving writers did not. Patricia Geary, Moira Crone, Liz Inness-Brown, Steve Barthelme, or even my late husband, James Robison. Joke, my little joke.” Ha?

Not even a little dead, Robison’s with us, he’s writing, and has actually had a lot of shorter stories appear on the web recently. Here’s my favorite new thing of his: a story called Guard from the latest Smokelong Quarterly about a museum guard striving to out-ironic a condescending artist who has used him in her exhibit. It’s more pointed and conceptual than his old stuff, and no less careful. Makes me hopeful that a second collection’s on the way nearly twenty-five years after the first. But why rely on new books to get the hype machine humming?

An exciting thing about my time in an MFA was getting to be in a community of readers who passed books around like secrets. Noy Holland taught The Log of the S.S. Mrs. Unguentine (1972) to a class I wasn’t even in, and in a couple years we’d all read it and Mr. Crawford Himself was guest-teaching a workshop, riding the wave of Western Mass enthusiasm for a beautiful strange book he’d written three decades earlier.

Not that I need to cite examples of how word can spread about aging books. Just saying it’s exciting when it does, that a friend’s recommendation has a better batting average that playing the Nashville Public Library Stacks Lotto, that it’s easier to beef up somebody’s “critical standing” it used to be, that it’s fun to do the open node thing, and that it’s easier and cheaper to track down out-of-print books than it’s ever been. 

The Illustator is a book that could use some noise. I might kinda love it a little.

1 comment:

Susan Tepper said...

James Robison's work slays me. He writes in a league of his own.