Big World by Mary Miller, published by Short Flight/Long Drive
Reviewed by Matt Nelson
Mary Miller’s Big World is in its second edition from Short Flight/Long Drive Books (a division of Hobart). It has an average rating of 4.45/5 from 204 ratings on Goodreads. And yet, this book deserves more.
There are thirteen stories, and you’re lucky. You get to savor each one completely. Short story collections are oftentimes hit-or-miss, or half-miss, or somewhere along the lines of a half-shrug except for that great sentence or this one story that was almost perfect…but the ending, what happened? None of Miller’s stories are like that. They are hit after hit, plus eleven more hits. In “Animal Bites,” the narrator provokes her dog to bite her because “I was drunk, because I wanted to see if the dog and the husband and the house and the job were things I could extricate myself from, one by one, without making myself look too bad.” The worlds are filled with cousins and whiskey and BB guns and casseroles and complicated relationships, decisions, dead spouses, removed uteruses. Unlike many characters I’ve read before, Miller’s population, if not content, are at least unmotivated by thoughts of moving away. Their worlds are big enough; their options on who to date or what movie to watch are surfeit. In each world and story, there is truth. This is why I love small press books.
While contemplating what to tell her mother the morning after an affair, the narrator of “Pearl” decides not to lie. “I’d been trying out the truth lately and people didn’t like it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it yet. It made messes of things that didn’t require a mess.” I don’t want to spend too much time away from Miller, but to restart the wash as a whole before my quarters are used up, small press books are inherently brave. If you’re lucky, they are brave because of their truth like Big World. By keeping things small and closer to the fault lines, these books privilege the unknown, the untested both in material and author. Not to say Mary Miller is some experimental cut-up. Her stories more or less shine like a Lorrie Moore knife sharpened on a Raymond Carver stone. The main characters are between the ages of teenager and borderline adult/marriage-is-expected. But, listen to this paragraph, from “Not All Who Wander Are Lost”:
Some people don’t like pleasure, he tells me later, over omelets. You’re talking about me, I say, and he says, yeah. The boyfriend who moved out West to find himself said something similar. He said I was a machine, that if he ripped me open I’d look like the inside of a wall, but then he was the one who traveled thousands of miles to find something that wasn’t lost, so I couldn’t believe anything he said. I like pleasure, I say. I’ve just developed the whole detachment thing because I’ve been protecting myself for so long. I watch my hands pretend they’re birds and then I take a sip of my coffee, and he takes a sip of his and we’re sort of pleased with ourselves, with what feels like a revelation but isn’t.
Notice the self-manifested “I couldn’t believe anything he said,” how the narrator has either forced herself to not believe, or is predisposed to reject, can not react. Words on a page may look like a well designed wall, but they work in reverse of what the boyfriend offers. There are arteries in Big World, and they are all pumping a blood we can believe in.
Big World is Mary Miller's debut short story collection. She is also the author of two chapbooks, Less Shiny (Magic Helicopter, 2008) and They Could No Longer Contain Themselves: A Collection of Five Flash Chapbooks (Rose Metal, 2011). Her fiction has been published in dozens of journals and anthologies including McSweeney’s Quarterly, Ninth Letter, Mississippi Review, American Short Fiction, Oxford American, Black Clock, Fiction, Dzanc’s Best of the Web 2010, and New Stories from the South 2008. She received a Master’s degree in English and Creative Writing from The Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi and currently lives in Austin, where she is a Michener Fellow at the University of Texas and serves as Fiction Editor of Bat City Review.