Postcards from the Edge

Big World

by Mary Miller
Short Flight/Long Drive, 230 pp., $11.98 (paper)
Brian Powers
Mary Miller, Oxford, Mississippi, April 2015

If the novel, as Stendhal famously said, is a mirror moving along a roadway, a short story might be said to be a glimpse in a rearview mirror, small and intense in concentration, capturing what is fleeting, finite. In particular the subgenre of American short fiction known as minimalism captures what is small, fleeting, and finite; its most famous practitioners—Raymond Carver, Mary Robison, Frederick Barthelme, Amy Hempel, and the early Ann Beattie—wield sentences stripped bare of the inessential and polysyllabic.

Work so studied and spare suggests the chiseled prose of Ernest Hemingway’s first collection of stories, In Our Time, as well as the understated and oblique prose, both nonfiction and fiction, of Joan Didion (Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Play It as It Lays), but its ambitions are generally more modest than these; its settings tend to be domestic and generic, unexceptional and unexciting; there exists, beyond the fiction’s intense strobe lighting, little awareness of politics, culture, society. As one of Beattie’s laconic characters once observed: “Any life will seem dramatic if you omit mention of most of it.”

Though minimalist fiction flourished in the 1970s and 1980s, when the most imitated American writer was Raymond Carver, minimalism has a permanent place in our literature, appropriated by twenty-first-century writers as various as Lydia Davis and Aimee Bender. It is an ideal fictional mode to represent the generation of young Americans known as Millennials—those born between approximately 1981 and 2000 into an era of cell phones and text messages, video games and social media, celebrity worship, conformity—a post-literate generation. To speak glibly of generations—Baby Boomers, Gen-X, Millennials—is to trade in journalistic clichés. Yet it is well to recall that gifted writers as disparate as Nathanael West, Flannery O’Connor, and Donald Barthelme have shown that caricature can peer into the very soul of a society.

The affably directionless young women of Mary Miller’s Always Happy Hour, a collection of sixteen short stories originally published in literary magazines like American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, and Fiction, are not the sort of idealistic Millennials who campaigned ardently for Bernie Sanders; they are young Americans so estranged from society, so preoccupied with their own small, vacuous lives, that they would probably decline to vote in a presidential election if they were aware of it. Even when married they are likely to be sexually involved with others—strangers encountered online, for example:

“Are you online?” he asks. Of course you’re online, so he sends you a photo of penises in a lineup: small, small-average, average, large-average, large. His is large-average.

Much of their time is spent drinking, mostly beer: “Up and down and up and down, cold beer, cold beer.” The time is the breathless present tense in which it’s “always happy hour, always summer.” (Miller’s fiction tends to be set in the South, in protracted heat.) Along…

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