Twenty-seven years after its initial publication, Mary Robison’s novel Subtraction still burns as strong as an aged whiskey shot. There isn’t much pretty about our main character Paige’s marriage. Her husband, Raf, is on the move, again. This time, Houston. She drafts Raf’s best friend, Raymond, to help track him down. When they finally catch up to him, he’s in bad shape — intoxicated and talking into the hair of another woman — but still convinced that he is meant for Paige. Unfortunately, Raf does not trust much in the world, nor does Paige trust him and thus ends up using Raymond as a hidden Ace as more of her husband’s philandering is discovered. Thus is the dynamic of this couple.
Robison’s writing is flirtatious. Not only are the characters with each other, Raf with any woman and Raymond with Paige, but also Paige with danger. Raymond takes Paige to some rather sleazy joints in search of her beloved, partially to shed some light on just how low Raf’s willing to stoop to indulge himself. Once they reconnect, Raf takes her to a drug house as both an admission of his transgressions, but also as some unsolicited reminder of their privilege.
It feels, though, that she is well aware of her privilege, which is why she walks up to the edge of danger or continues her relationship with Raf. If nothing else, her life is more exciting as a result of her adventures since Raf has attached himself to her. At one point, Paige regularly visits a stripper companion of Raf’s, Pru, just so she can “watch her perform her large and startling life.” On some level, Paige is getting a kick out of her new environment, but on another level, it may be her version of a farewell tour for her relationship as it currently stands with Raf.
Admittedly, nothing much happens in Subtraction. Waiting for Raf to physically appear and waiting for Raf to emotionally commit are the major events, but it’s disguised by the rapid-fire banter and wit of the characters. Much of the language sounds as if fresh out of a noir detective series. From simple descriptions like, “the north sky was plum. Overhead, the sky had gone cobalt and there were brushstroke clouds, furry clouds,” and, “the sky blinked with a spear of lightning, followed by a boom.” And as Raf explains to Paige the intricacies of Raymond’s past loves, he uses lines such as, “Raymond nearly ate from a gun over the whole deal and his is still in shreds over Pru.” It’s so matter-of-fact and met with the appropriate response, “huh.” The sleekness of this book makes it both an example to dissect in a classroom or zip through in a beach chair poolside.
Subtraction’s characters are smart, yet unwise — flawed in compelling ways that keep readers drawn in. Raf is harmless in the grand scheme, but he’s slowly destroying his life with Paige. She manages to describe her despair wonderfully enough that one almost wishes he could torment her longer:
Walking home, the brown clouds took on animal shapes and started marching. Female voices sounded a chant-like hymn from the Desglaises church. The air burned to breathe. I’d been awake for so long I was logy, drunklike.
There were lashes of wind suddenly, and trees plunging, crooked lines of rain. I slugged along, bent, the wind cutting down on me; light-headed from sleeplessness and the heat, and from the rain, stinging.
Life would go like this, I knew — days, weeks, a month, two.
Pay close attention to the way language changes between the absence and presence of Raf. When Paige has got hold of his leash, she is witty, funny, full of choppy, old-timey banter and even wonder. When he falls away, she has to force herself to think, otherwise her mind flows unbridled—like him. Paige realizes she has outgrown her husband and by the end of her journey, she needs to decide whether or not to subtract him from her life. Robison’s novel deserves a return to the light.
By Mary Robison
Published September 11, 2018
Mary Robison was born in Washington, D.C. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, two Pushcart Prizes, an O. Henry Award, the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Fiction, and the 2018 Arts and Letters Award in Literature. She is the author of four novels and four story collections. She lives in Gainesville, Florida.