Mary Miller’s Big World, the second release from the mini-books division of Hobart: Another Literary Journal, is physically reminiscent of the 1950s-era pulp paperbacks you see stacked around used book stores. If I were older, I imagine that David Kramer’s bright front and back illustrations, the colored edges of the book’s pages, and the book’s small size would remind me of the good old days when I could buy naughty books for ten cents apiece and hide them in my back pocket.
The stories in Big World get their strength from Miller’s beautiful, spare telling of the seemingly mundane, as well as her descriptions of the daily collisions between people, animals, and things: a young girl and her widowed father struggle to reconnect, a woman and her boyfriend wander drunkenly through Pigeon Forge as their relationship fails, a woman goes to the emergency room after her dog bites her face. Of the dog, the woman says, “I kept on harassing him 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.” What the woman fails to appreciate is how badly the wound on her face will alter her looks once it heals into a scar, thus binding her to the dog for the rest of her life.
Miller’s stories work best when they upset the notion of exploitation. The violence, heavy drinking, drug use, and sex in which the women of Big World take part do not so much excite us as cause us to empathize with the women even as we avert our gaze. These sordid details function as a means to creating a fuller sadness, and Miller skillfully wields this power. Take, for example, the following exchange between the narrator and her ex-husband at the end of the title story, “Big World,” in which the narrator goes to a family funeral and sadly watches as her father worries about her missing mother. Notice how the narrator suddenly shifts the conversation:
On the way home I called my ex-husband. I’m a vegetarian now, I told him. You don’t know me anymore, I was saying. You have no idea.
That’s stupid, he said. Why?
Because animals feel pain too, I said. I didn’t really have a reason. It had been a rash decision made primarily to prove I could make them. I was weak. My sister was weak, my mother, my father. I like animals, I went on, and I never really cared much for meat anyway. Just the thought of biting into a chicken leg–
I’m going to have to eat twice as much meat now to cancel you out, he said.
Are you seeing anybody? I asked.
No, are you? You probably have lots of boyfriends.
Just one, I said. He likes to choke me while we’re doing it. I like to say things that shock him, the truth. Like my father, he had sent me out into the big world all alone and I was going to show him how ugly it was.
Every word the narrator speaks into the phone is calculated to create an effect. She sets up her ex-husband with a seemingly innocent question, knowing that he’ll ask the same of her. But what gives this conversation meaning is that last sentence. Without it, the story risks being mere pornography: the talk of meat, the choking, the phrase “doing it.” By mentioning the father, loneliness, the ugliness of the world, Miller contextualizes a previous sex scene and connects it to her father’s grief and the missing mother – we understand now how truly alone the narrator is, and her striking out against her ex-husband is evidence of her frustration.
But Big World is not about sadness for sadness' sake. Instead, the sadness in each story is much like the wound in that woman's face, serving as a lingering reminder of how often we seek out our own pain, if only to prove that we can still feel it even after our friends and loved ones have long since failed us. Over the course of Miller's collection, her women's failures may come to be expected, but the reckless beauty of their sadness will never cease to surprise.