A person corners me at a party. They say, "You review books? What a job! That's your job? That's his job!"
They say, "What do you recommend?"
This is an awful question. It is an unfair question. I lunge for the crudités.
On the remainder table at Bailey/Coy Books I see titles by Mary McCarthy, Edmund Wilson, Steven Millhauser, Aleksander Hemon, Mary Robison. "These are being remaindered?" I say, buying one of each. The one by Hemon I already have, but not in hardback.
"I loved this," the man at the counter exclaims. "You never read it?" He is talking about Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever.
I never read it, I think, because the title is missing a question mark.
"You really never read it?" the man says.
Rubbing it in.
I get forty-six thousand free books a day. The Mary Robisons get lost. The other day I got three copies of a novel I will never review called Almost Like Being in Love, each one with a note from HarperCollins that said, "Quirky, funny, touching, and even inspirational, Almost Like Being in Love is a story we can all relate to--and we should."
I flip open Almost Like Being in Love at random and land on this sentence: "'Honey, look at that,' breathed Clayton, forgetting that we hadn't been on speaking terms since Speedo Boy seventeen hours earlier."
Should my ass.
There are no Speedo Boys in Mary Robison's Why Did I Ever, and no one breathes instead of says. The book's broken down into numbered sections. Sometimes, instead of numbers, the sections have titles. Like "All We Do Is Argue" and "Sometimes I Find My Place in Selves I Shouldn't Be" and "Letter to Sean Penn."
There are several letters to Sean Penn, actually. Here's one of them:
"Would you have any big objection to my going by the name of 'Mrs. Sean Penn'? I've tried introducing myself with it a few times already and it always gets a good reaction."
Whenever anyone mispronounces your name, I always correct them. "Not Robinson," I say. "Robison. There's a little leap of tongue there, where you expect the n to fall."
Money Breton's job is ridiculous and so is her love life.
She's the narrator of Why Did I Ever--all 536 little sections.
Here is one entire section:
"Hollis is not my ex-anything and not my boyfriend. He's my friend. Maybe not the best friend I have in the world. He is, however, the only."
"Section" is confusing, but "chapter" isn't the right word either because the sections are gathered into chapters. They're numbered but they seem interchangeable, although they must have a certain vague order since, all the while, a story is taking shape.
It's confusing, but you're just going to have to trust me.
It's annoying that one of the blurbs on the back of Why Did I Ever compares it to Joan Didion's Play It As It Lays, because the comparison is apt and because I didn't have a chance to think of it first, the blurbs being so prominent.
A tricky thing, writing a review of a book you love in the style of the book itself, because homage so easily slides into parody. But it just so happens the book is full of parody. And self-parody. And anxiety. And bafflement. And lost cats, burning mattresses, destinationless freeway driving, uncomfortable Nine West shoes.
"Something else that makes me angry is that I got too old to prostitute myself. I wasn't going to anyway but it was there, it was my Z plan."
And: "I notice on the news when they're interviewing people, there's an attractive man in Chicago. His name goes by too fast but I'd know the guy if I saw him again."
And: "I'm at the head of the line at the water company bitching my head off and making a very good point and I would be winning this argument if I had it with the water company and not with the electric company which is where I ought to be, way down on the opposite side of the avenue."
Some of the sections aren't quite as crazy as that. Some are crazier.
Money's friend Hollis is "fit and strong and Thor-looking." Her daughter has "the face of a mermaid." Her boss is "the tightest of wads." Her boss' assistants are "ridden and driven blunt." A motel is "foolish-looking." One day Money notices a colleague "stoop-walking with his hands and arms reaching like he's trying to catch a duck." Another character walks "slow and purposeful, one leg at a time, as if he were on stilts." Money goes out walking one night and the "trees are in freakish flower and behind a pink picket fence is a huge fluffy heard of goats." Another night, in another place, "the sky's bubbling and everything's brown, dusted over, baked like pastry."
There are only a few characters.
Money is a script doctor for Hollywood. She lives in the South. Her neighbor is a deaf lady called the Deaf Lady.
Money's son, Paulie, has been raped and tortured, something like that. The guy who did it is referred to variously as the Spitwad Criminal and the Savage Lice-Face Criminal and the Nightmare Snake Parts Criminal.
Money's daughter, Mev, who "has twice failed the bar exam," gets a job "cutting chickens," but it doesn't last.
None of Money's three marriages lasted. It's unclear how she, in the face of so much falling-apart-ness, continues to last.
A friend in New York calls and I tell him what I'm reading. I tell him how good it is. But how can I review it? It came out 30 months ago, it's already being remaindered. Everyone's forgotten it already.
The friend says, "All the more reason."
Aside from whatever joy the novel itself affords, there's this. The other day, in a Target, while holding a bathmat I was thinking about buying, I was asked if I've read any good books lately.
I said, "Yes! I! Have!"