Lost in Space

Reviewed By

For Mary Miller’s characters, the world is anything but big. These are women trapped in little towns and little lives, but the emotional resonance is limitless.

A Review of Mary Miller’s Big World

Mary Miller is a master of tone. The characters in her debut collection, Big World, can often seem directionless, but there’s a riveting undercurrent of tension, an authenticity of voice, that surges through Miller’s run-down landscapes and episodic narratives. Each story builds upon and enriches one another, not necessarily through variety, but by layering the same psychic desolation, the same sad and aimless women.

While still working within the frame of realism, Miller challenges expectations of narrative shape, relinquishing traditional structure for something more asymmetrical, abrupt, and intriguing. Big World triumphs by inhabiting a persistent tonal landscape, a recurring state of mind.

The collection opens with “Leak,” the story of a young woman coping with her mother’s death and her grieving, inept father, who “probably catalogued my needs in his head, checked them off one by one: food, water, shelter, love.” While the dead parent premise is not an uncommon one, the story thwarts the reader’s expectations at nearly every turn. The narrator’s trip to Florida with her father, though posing as the story’s central action, turns out to be uneventful—they pass time in the car, lunch at Shoney’s, and arrive intact in Panama City—yet there’s a sense that the story’s essential matter is right there, gurgling beneath the surface, needling the characters but not pushing them to eruption. Afterward, the narrator drifts from visiting her aunt to hanging out with her emotionally stunted, sun-allergic friend to attempting to care for her father; the eponymous leak, discovered in the story’s opening pages, returns at the end to embody both the immediate predicament and the desperate state of her life: “I was hoping the ceiling would hold.”

Miller’s prose has a tonal flatness that seems like just the right pitch for her downtrodden characters; lunch at Shoney’s and a boy setting himself on fire are rendered with approximately the same affect. However, this simple directness does not equal dullness. Each of her sharply honed sentences contains a kind of pressure that is crucial to every story’s momentum, and the tone is elastic enough to allow for flashes of piercing interiority and slightly more expansive, though always matter-of-fact, musings:

“I read an article about loneliness in a Jesus magazine while I ate. None of my coworkers believed in Jesus. We made fun of the earnest and plain-looking women who congregated in the religious section, one of them offering advice while the other protested mildly, their quilted bible covers in paisley prints. Sometimes I got the urge to join them. It wasn’t because there was something missing. The something missing was the plight of humanity—any idiot knew that—it couldn’t be filled with food or alcohol or drawing blood from skin.” (“Fast Trains”)

For Miller’s characters, the world is anything but big. These are women trapped in little towns and little lives, and the claustrophobia of limited options is mirrored by the small spaces in which the stories unfold: a hotel room, a house, a waiting room. The “something missing” is all the doors that will never open for the women who populate Big World. But while their lives might be hampered by the dual burdens of past loss and everyday discontentment, the stories themselves never feel limited in scope; on the contrary, the emotional resonance in Miller’s best stories is limitless.

In a recent interview, Miller commented that “Humans are so complicated and damaged and I love them so much.” There’s both a simplicity and a vastness to that statement that perfectly captures her aesthetic. In her debut, she establishes herself as a chronicler of female loneliness and dysfunction, of women who keep losing themselves in grief and bad choices, who struggle to peel back the pains of everyday life and expose the grit beneath.

Laura van den Berg’s first story collection, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was published by Dzanc Books in 2009. More from this author →