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Mary Miller

Mary Miller is the author of a story collection, Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive), and a chapbook, Less Shiny (Magic Helicopter Press). She lives in Austin, where she is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas.

Blurbs

"Mary Miller is a master of tone. Big World triumphs by inhabiting a persistent tonal landscape, a recurring state of mind."

– Laura Van Den Berg

"[Mary Miller] captures some essential spark that makes humans such complex creatures: the ability to face tragedy, to face apparently insurmountable loss and despair, and to see beyond, to imagine and to survive."

– Tania Hershman

"Big World gives a full anatomy lesson of the kind of heart that's kick-started by booze, cigarettes, and jukebox songs of regret. Miller writes with savage charm."

– Jim Ruland

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Big World

Tiny Pearls in a Big World

04/08/13

These people that litter Mary Miller’s stories in Big World are nearly broken and almost just as unlikable. Or that is to say they are living mostly unlikable lives, because Miller’s characters — the predominance of which are young, underachieving women — are not unlikable in the ways, say, Bret Easton Ellis or Jonathan Franzen characters are unlikable. These characters are unlikable in the secret ways we don’t like ourselves, hiding those things we try to hide in a big world: “I’m sort of horrified by the things I tell myself when I’m the only one around to hear them,” one aimless narrator confesses — to herself — in the untidy closing story, “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” Untidy and aimless, these are apt descriptions. Miller’s characters often resist change and the stories themselves can teeter on plotlessness, like the wheels of a pick-up truck spinning endlessly in the Tennessee mud. One narrator scrubs her addict boyfriend’s camper in reaction to his half-hearted and ultimately unfulfilled promise to bring the thing to the state park. Another narrator attempts an affair with a co-worker in the absence of her alcoholic boyfriend, but that too does not stand to last. Oftentimes, we’re left simply to wait for sunrise.

But Miller is adroit in her storytelling, and where these stories are slight in their action they are larger in scope. The characters share a hopelessness that is often found in Raymond Carver’s characters, a certain grittiness, here removed from Carver’s lush Pacific Northwest and trapped in the honky-tonk and trailer park South where the landscape is pocked with beer bottles and cigarette butts; full of cheating lovers and surrounded by Ruby Tuesdays, Taco Bells, IHOPs and Dairy Queens. The stories of Lorrie Moore, too, come to mind. Miller’s characters make the stupid decisions that have been thrust upon them by all their stupid yesterdays, all of it soaked with death, with divorce, with loss.

Yes, these stories are tiny pearls, each one propelled by Miller’s pinballing language that is lyrical in its sudden turns: “We stayed in a house on the beach and ate seafood and went to the outlet malls, but my father wouldn’t let me go in the water because once I got caught by a riptide and almost drowned and after that I got stung by a jellyfish and after that my mother died.” It is clear Miller loves these characters: for all their misgivings, the author does not condescend to them. For all their hopelessness, Miller lovingly imbues the tiniest grain of hope into each character, and only Miller herself believes in the power of that grain to be polished to pearl. She understands the pressures that weigh down on these characters, how these characters are all, self-referentially, “fucked in the head.”

And not for nothing, but the artifact itself is wondrous too. A beautiful soft cover pocket book with moody watercolor cover art that somehow serves to reinforce the heart of this collection, as if the one thing these characters can hold on to, cradled in small hands, a curious logic of holding such a small book and calling it Big World.

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