This novel begins on a note of sheer horror, with the disclosure that Paige Deveaux, the narrator, teaches writing at a University. It may already have occurred to well-informed readers that the minimalist school of fiction, to which Mary Robison belongs, might better be described as the writing-school school of fiction. Its members seem to have come out of writing programs and then gone right back into them as teachers. In the process, they have evolved into a species of well-connected academic-bohemian bureaucrats whose imitable style leaves out everything — ideas, complex ironies, lyricism — that can’t easily be taught.

In several of her stories and her first novel (Oh!), Robison took the usual minimalist forumula — random suburban incident plus disaffected adolescent sensibility plus short, numb, sentences — and turned it into something approaching real comedy, deadpan and precise. You wouldn’t mistake her for Ivy Compton-Burnett or Muriel Spark, but at least she was trying to be mordant.

The trouble with Subtraction is that Robison doesn’t give her cast of academic dropouts and derelicts the thrashing they deserve. The comic spirit that should have been in charge of the novel is reduced to the janitorial role of disposing of minor characters and polishing the occasional brassy one-liner.

Paige’s scapegrace husband, Raf, has disappeared. After tracing him to Houston, she goes there to look for him, enlisting the help of Raymond, a sobered-up veteran of Raf’s marathon boozing and wenching escapades. It might have been more interesting if she had just kept looking, combing every sleazy dive in Houston, and done more than half fall in love with Raymond. Instead, Raf turns up on page 25. It seems the narrator can’t live, and the author can’t write, without him.

I guess Raf is supposed to be a great seductive wreck of a macho rebel, like a Tom McGuane hero, but he comes across as a a loutish, drunken superannuated adolescent, like a Tom McGuane hero. So the only mystery remaining is what Paige and the other characters — except the most amusing one, a politically correct stripper named Pru — see in him. Paige predictably insists that he is exceptionally adept at sexual intercourse, but she’s an unreliable narrator, since she also thinks he is funny (the evidence consists of crude taunts at her and total strangers). The novel relies on taking this commonplace barroom bore to be, in the narrator’s words, ”generic man, perfect man,” out of whose ”intensity…someone could interpret a world.” Or, more likely, concoct the bare minimum of a novel. ”Subtraction”? ”Remainder” is more like it.

  • Book