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 with drinking beer Miller’s characters smoke joints and take drugs: “I hoard the pills because I like having them, same as I like having extra toilet paper….” Entrusted with the care of battered children, they might steal Adderall from a medical supply cabinet—“I started taking [the pills] occasionally—though the occasions are becoming more and more frequent.” Being drunk/drugged allows them to perform in ways that please the drunk/drugged men in their lives:
They all want videos. This one bought a digital camera with his tax refund and films me in bed, doing things to him, while he watches the screen. He asks me questions—do you like this? do you like this?—answering for me when I grow unresponsive.
The effort of such lives is a sort of holding action: “The only way we pull it off at all is by surrounding ourselves with disabled people and drunks, attaching our lives to the sad, impermanent lives of others.”
With the deadpan attentiveness of Andy Warhol intent upon exposing the soul-withering banality of ordinary life, Miller notes every drive to a karaoke bar, a fast-food restaurant, a drugstore:
We stopped at CVS and she bought mini-Snickers and Doritos and Sprite Zero, two bags of gummy worms, three ashtrays and ten postcards and two T-shirts and three magazines and a four-pack of lip gloss in the cool family.
With virtually nothing else to think about, Miller’s characters might think about losing weight:
You stuff the fries into your mouth one at a time without swallowing until your mouth is full of potato and think of all the times you’ve tried to lose the weight—how you would get on the scale to find you’d lost a few pounds and then, pleased with yourself, eat your way back up to where you started.
As in the desultory cross-country road trip that shapes the minimal plot of Miller’s admired first novel, The Last Days of California (2014), characters spend their most significant time with one another in fast-food restaurants and pizzerias, where their most intense exchanges tend to be about food: “There is the inevitable talk of pizza.” When “world news” comes on a television set in the background, “you don’t pay attention but the noise is comforting, like your parents’ house is comforting.”
“I have anxiety,” I say….
“Why?” he asks.
“I don’t know why. Because we drink all the time, I think. Because I’ve been having panic attacks for years but you wouldn’t know anything about that because you don’t know anything about me. Lately I’ve been buying books about it: The Worry Cure, The Chemistry of Calm. The books say I have distorted thoughts, that these distorted thoughts create feelings, and these feelings result in my body’s responses—shortness of breath, shaky hands, upset stomach, rapid heartbeat.
Each of the deftly crafted stories of Always Happy Hour resembles the others in monochromatic tone, limited vocabulary, cluttered-interior setting and plot, or absence of plot, like variations on a theme by (for instance) David Hockney. On the whole the new collection is thinner in texture and less emotionally engaging than the stories of Miller’s first collection, Big World (2009), though the sensibility—dry, droll, regretful-melancholy, resigned—suggests an identical perspective, like that of Lorrie Moore minus the bleakly wrought humor and sentences complicated enough to bear rereading, or the fiction Ann Beattie was writing in the 1970s and 1980s.
Miller’s young female protagonists resist maturity—“I can’t stand to be called a woman, I’m a girl. I’ll always be a girl.” They seem to be improvising their lives:
This has been my life for so long now: counting the number of paychecks until the paychecks run out and I have to find new paychecks, new boyfriends and friends and living arrangements.
They appear better educated than Maria of Didion’s Play It as It Lays but they are no less passive than she is, seemingly without affect, benumbed and unresisting, going through the motions of a life. However, unlike Maria they have not suffered actual, traumatic loss. The neurotic discontent of Miller’s characters seems self-indulgent, as in these musings by a young woman whose problem seems to be that she was adopted by well-intentioned parents:
There isn’t a single place I’d want to return to, not a single place that interests me at all….
“Every day I find new things wrong with me….”
She’s right. It is always something. I try to remember a time in my life when it wasn’t something.
Though they are still young, in their late twenties or early thirties, it is a world-weariness that defines Miller’s characters: “You can’t go back to sleep because you are excited about your new life even though there is nothing to be excited about, as far as you can tell, at least not immediately.”
Sometimes self-pity can be transformed into comedy, in the mode of those wildly popular contemporary stand-up comics (Amy Schumer, Louis C.K.) for whom a flattened and diminished life, particularly a disastrous sexual life, provides a fount of hilarious subject matter:
I have so many old boyfriends now, spread out all over, and so many things remind me of them. I’ll pass a Wendy’s and remember the one who would only eat plain hamburgers. There we are, sitting under the yellow lights…as I eat one french fry at a time. Nearly every movie, every song and TV show and item of food reminds me of someone and it is a horrible way to live.
In Miller’s short stories as in The Last Days of California, her disaffected young women/girls watch a good deal of television to fill in the vacuity of their lives: “Despite my teaching schedule and three classes a semester, there is so much time.” They might watch a Hallmark period drama, or they might watch, with equal enjoyment, The Young and the Restless. Or The Office and Girls. Or, with a boyfriend’s son, Wolverine vs. the Incredible Hulk. They might while away hours watching infomercials and home shopping channels—“The longer I watch, the more I begin to imagine a world in which these things might appeal to me.” They might watch DVDs, or videos on their laptops—Intervention is a favorite. They might watch the ID cable channel and “consider becoming a detective, or committing a murder.” They might “watch animal videos and stalk my exes” online.
With the feigned passion of TV performers they make love, or go through the motions of lovemaking. Raw need is the motivation for a reckless affair with a man uniquely unsuited for a longtime relationship, with whom the young woman in “Always Happy Hour” sleeps a few hours after she has met him in a bar: “Already I loved him, because already I knew it was the kind of love where you’re so afraid they’re going to leave you give them no other choice.”
Marriage might be predicated upon indecision, or confusion, or fear of loneliness, or refashioned as stand-up comic material:
It made me think of my honeymoon and how I’d cried and told my husband that the marriage had been a mistake and then he’d cried and said maybe it had been and it made us feel better. We’d stayed together seven years.
Though they have a good deal of casual, promiscuous sexual experience Miller’s characters are sexually insecure; they observe themselves obsessively and glumly in mirrors; even when they are told that they are beautiful they know better than to believe compliments made to them by, for instance, men in wheelchairs, or indeed any men. “Eventually I wouldn’t need to construct any persona at all. I would just be old.”
In Miller’s stronger and more perilous stories young women find themselves casually cohabiting with men who may be hitmen (“Uphill,” “Hamilton Pool”) and who seem in any case to have a good deal of money without any (evident) employment; the young women express some mild curiosity about their situation, but really don’t want to know too much. Nor do they consider that their own lives might be endangered:
She asked if he ever stabbed anyone and he said he didn’t. Later, he told her he didn’t stab anyone because a knife wasn’t as efficient as bringing a rock down hard on somebody’s head.
The speaker is an ex-convict who “assigned people to carry out hits” and was covered in racist tattoos:
He believes the end is coming because he wants it to come. When everything goes to hell, his skills will be useful again. He’ll be high-ranking, not only carrying out decisions but making them. He’ll adapt and flourish, which are things he’s been unable to do in the straight world.
While in Chekhov a loaded gun will surely go off, in one way or another, in minimalist fiction a loaded gun is no more than one more droll detail in a cataloging of droll details, of no more significance than if someone eats Cheetos or Doritos:
Other than the cats, the only other thing under the bed is a gun. Her boyfriend said it was loaded and the safety was off, that she shouldn’t touch it unless she was prepared to use it.
It may be a Millennial theme—the perverse passivity of young educated white women for whom “feminism” is of another generation, outgrown, perhaps scorned, irrelevant to the desperation of their lives: “This is not my life. It isn’t the one, I tell myself, as I wrap my legs around him as tightly as possible.” As in the concluding pages of The Last Days of California, the fifteen-year-old narrator endures the loss of her virginity to a teenaged boy in a motel bathroom with no evident joy or, however improbably, physical pain or discomfort:
He gave me a sad look like he might love me, pulled me forward, and pushed himself in. I didn’t want to do it anymore and wanted to stop him—all I had to say was that I’d changed my mind…. I could leave. I didn’t have to do this. I scooted to the edge of the counter and wrapped my legs around his waist.
It is something of a shock to learn that several of Miller’s protagonists have teaching jobs and seem to be in graduate school; one is a visiting writer at an unnamed university, idly considering a sexual affair with a student younger than she is. Like other of Miller’s young women characters she is mysteriously paralyzed by indecision:
I’m supposed to be working on my second novel but I can’t write because there’s all this time and space and no one watching, no one checking in; only one day a week that I have to show up to teach. I don’t even know if I want to be a writer anymore. I’ve become so self-conscious of what I’m writing and why, and whether I ever had any talent in the first place.
The requirement of the minimalist imagination that nothing profound should happen in a work of fiction, nothing that might be construed as heroic, or tragic, or, indeed, significant, was an ironic corrective to highly literary, intellectually driven, and symbol-laden work by great midcentury American writers (Faulkner, Bellow, Nabokov, Updike)—those purveyors of what Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert slyly defined as a “fancy prose style” (“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style”); but the irresolute, the unheroic, untragic, insignificant can quickly become familiar and formulaic, a gestural artlessness in place of genuine art. Still there can be something reassuring in the very banality of the everyday, as writers like Miller record it with deadpan accuracy. In the words of a young woman totally flummoxed by trying to figure out a local bus schedule: “A very attractive young man…would not ask for my number or become the love of my life, like he would in a good story, in a story I couldn’t write.”
The Last Days of California is a road novel with a difference: an account of a trip that perversely refuses to celebrate the American landscape, or freedom, or “life on the road” like practically every other work of fiction in this perennially popular subgenre. Instead, Mary Miller’s debut novel is a droll minimalist’s-eye view of America in which a family of evangelical Christians makes a pilgrimage to California to spread word to nonbelievers of the imminent rapture (i.e., the end of the world), receiving mostly blank stares or rude indifference. They prefer to drive only on interstate highways, stay only in generic motels, eat only in the same two or three franchise fast-food restaurants. The evangelical father swears by Colgate, Maxwell House, Ivory soap, Exxon. The observer is a sharp-eyed fifteen-year-old named Jess who seems to be keeping a journal, or a parody of a journal, intent upon recording every banality of the trip she’d been forced into taking with her family:
In a shitty little town in Louisiana, which was full of shitty little towns, we stopped at a Waffle House and sat at the counter…. [My father] had brought along a bundle of tracts that said “All Suffering SOON TO END!”
This will not be a religious family drama suffused with the revivialist fire of Flannery O’Connor’s Protestant preachers, nor will the fast-food franchises be enlivened by surreal bloody interludes in the manner of a Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone movie, for indeed this is familiar minimalist territory and for more than two hundred pages we will rarely stray from it:
I set my elbows on the counter. It was sticky with syrup, and I liked that this Waffle House was like every other Waffle House I’d ever been to. I knew where the bathroom was and what I wanted to eat and what it would taste like….
I looked around at the other diners: they were all hideous. I could live easily in a town like this.
Brief backstories are provided for each of the principal characters but we never quite believe in them as individuals, let alone members of an actual family; they are TV characters, most alive in the bright lights of situation comedy. What we “know” is their outward behavior:
We all liked Wendy’s, except for Elise, who only liked Burger King because they had a veggie burger, but their fries were bad. Their onion rings were decent but the portions meager, even if you got a large.
As in a sit-com it is the father who is the most foolish family member, the crucial feature of his (male) foolishness being his obliviousness to his surroundings. From Louisiana to Texas to Arizona no one takes him or his grim prophecies seriously, not Jess, not Jess’s older sister Elise, not even the loyal, ever-suffering wife and mother who never questions her husband’s decision to drive to California on his overused credit card. Like all patriarchs this American dad blusters his beliefs to a captive audience; he is a fatuous little man who has recently lost his job back in Montgomery, Alabama, and whose secret vice is gambling. Jess notes that though her dad believes in the rapture he is convinced that global warming is a hoax “made up by the Left for political gain.”
Neither parent has any idea that their older daughter (who listens to NPR) is contemptuous of her father’s simple-minded religious beliefs or that she’d “never…felt the presence of God,” still less that she is pregnant by a high school boyfriend with whom she texts surreptitiously. They have not a clue that both daughters slip away to flirt with boys whenever they can or that Elise has a nascent drinking problem: “I got the spacy out-of-the-body feeling I got sometimes, like I wasn’t real, like nothing was real so nothing mattered. We could drive off a cliff and I wouldn’t care.”
For all her estrangement from her parents Jess never rebels against her tyrannical father openly, nor does she support her sister when Elise dares to speak in opposition to him. (“How are we paying for this trip?” Elise asks their father. “We know you lost your job.”) Though the road trip recorded in Jess’s journal covers only a few days it feels interminable, to the reader as to Jess; in vain we wait for something like a confrontation scene between family members, or a “revelation” of some kind, to tie together the meandering narrative. But this is a western landscape “so barren it was easy to imagine the world had already ended and we hadn’t heard.”
As in the stories of Always Happy Hour, The Last Days of California is studded with references to popular culture—The Goonies, The Breakfast Club, Less Than Zero, Wheel of Fortune, Regis and Kelly, Pirates of the Caribbean, Jersey Shore, Sixteen and Pregnant, American Idol, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Miller has a sociologist’s eye for the mundane and the revealing and is at her most certain in cataloging the predilections of teenaged girls: “We loved movies from the 1980s, the ridiculous clothes and graphics, the clunky phones and boom boxes.” Her rendering of the physical world, by contrast, is generic, as if the very landscape of American life has been homogenized:
As soon as he started driving, though, I was reminded that it didn’t matter whether we were on the interstate or the highway; the towns were small and far apart and there wasn’t anything between them.
The Last Days of California is an excursion into the no-man’s-land of adolescent ennui that casts its withering shadow upon all things observed and imagined. By the end of the novel Jess has lost some of her naiveté. An unpleasantly bizarre conversation with a youth minister in her church has disillusioned her. She has also lost her virginity, in a manner of speaking; the experience in the motel bathroom is so muted that it scarcely registers upon her. Elise loses her baby in a sudden miscarriage in a motel room: “I saw it,” she said, “it was a big clot of blood. Clottier than the usual clots.” Not much emotion accrues to Elise’s miscarriage, either relief at the pregnancy ending or sadness at the loss; the teenaged father of the baby will never know she’d been pregnant, any more than her parents will know.
In an ironic reversal the evangelical father wins at a gambling casino and decides to curtail the pilgrimage to California, for the rapture itself seems to been curtailed: “The nonevent unfolding across the globe. The rapture hadn’t happened in China or Russia. It hadn’t happened in Japan or Vietnam or India or Cambodia.” The novel ends with the girls in a motel room eating pancakes and watching The Young and the Restless.
In a famous passage on “moments of being” from A Sketch of the Past, Virginia Woolf speaks of “non-being” and “being”:
Often when I have been writing one of my so-called novels I have been baffled by this same problem; that is, how to describe what I call in my private shorthand—“non-being.” Every day includes much more non-being than being….
Although it was a good day the goodness was embedded in a kind of nondescript cotton wool. This is always so. A great part of every day is not lived consciously. One walks, eats, see things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mabel…. When it is a bad day the proportion of non-being is much larger.
Minimalist fiction focuses almost exclusively on “non-being”—the “nondescript cotton wool” of our lives. Out of the disparity between the pretensions of art and the diminished nature of art’s subject, a melancholy sort of irony is wrought: this is the prevailing tone of minimalist fiction, its somber triumph. There may be something complacent in the dead-end vision, or indeed there may be a kind of heroism in confronting it in the plainest, least-adorned prose. As the comic melancholy of Mary Miller’s fiction assures us: “After that, the land grew more barren.”