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Ciphers and Striking Visuals in “Why I Don’t Write”

Ciphers and Striking Visuals in “Why I Don’t Write”

On April 8, 1921, Virginia Woolf notes in her diary, “and I ought to be writing Jacob’s Room, and I can’t, and instead I shall write down the reason why I can’t…” What might a present-day adaptation of a writer’s jottings look like? Fleeting and mostly lost in the vertically moving digital social archives. In “Why I Don’t Write”, the title story in her latest collection of ten short stories, Susan Minot captures a version of this.

It is hard to describe what this collection is about; the core seems to be elusive, but some themes loosely congregate—broken relationships, love, and loss. Stories reappear in different forms. For instance, while in both “The Language of Cats and Dogs” and “Boston Common at Twilight” there are instances of sexual assault, the two, however, differ vastly in how they address it. While the former is a gentle, nuanced portrayal of the frightening sense of being preyed upon, the latter tries to touch upon too many things at once: child sexual abuse, a broken marriage, and alienation, and it is also crowded with garish and troubling iterations of gender stereotypes, leaving little scope to zoom in on the singularly lonely experience of being a rape survivor.

These stories are about mostly white, upper-middle-class, cis-gendered people, and while “hookers”, “the insane”, trans women make appearances, they are either stray or hyper-visible references. Occupying a caricatured space in the margins, while the ones in the center are allowed the breadth of their confused, amorphous, inexplicable lives. This is also where reading the book gets disorienting; how does a writer who perfectly captures the excruciating and conflicting experience of being lewdly gazed upon fail to catch this kind of othering? This is further haunted by the ciphered message in the story, “Listen”, which is told in a text-message-like format: “Who’re people? The uncounted.”

The title story—made-up of diary-like entries, divided by line breaks, conjoined by an atmosphere of distraction and restlessness—is about a writer who cannot write. If ‘remembering’ serves as ink for the collection, restlessness paints the background, shading the entire collection with its various shades. In “While it Lasts”, for instance, which is about a couple that is slowly coming out of the initial stage of their romance, Minot draws a veil between George and Bonnie, between the private life of their intimate relationship and the office life of George, behind this veil Bonnie struggles to hold on to the moment of love as it has slowly stopped lasting. In “Green Glass,” which is also about a couple in love, Minot places shards of past relationships between the couple, creating a feeling of mistrust, envy, and longing that are altogether too familiar to anyone who has been in a relationship, intimate or otherwise. These are moments where Minot’s skeletal sentences land all their aimed punches.

While the first two stories are unconventional, stories like “Torch”, and “Boston Common at Twilight” are almost fully conventional, because throughout Minot uses memory as a tool to layer her story-telling which cranks, if not subverts, the traditional linear path. The stories are interspersed with various versions of “I think I remember,” infusing a hallucinogenic complexity to otherwise ordinary stories.

In an interview with Donald Friedman in 2002, Minot said that her books are always guided by images. How it looks, she says, is what is most important for her to convey. In a true reflection of that, Minot’s collection is strikingly visual. Here, the light is often white, people’s heads are bullet-shaped, and the littered car of a scoundrel professor is a fish tank. At their best, the sentences are frozen frames peering at the reader, as the reader peers back, peeling new information with each read.

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While the stories meander, they also spill with luscious sentences that scintillate like “she felt the outline of herself begin to dissolve.” or the “…stone walls crumbling in the slanted light” or this longer but not any less precise a sentence: “she marvelled too how dawn was also, in fact, something which happened monotonously by rote without interruption every twenty-four hours—hardly unusual—and had done for thousands, if not millions, of years.”

Why I Don’t Write
By Susan Minot
Knopf Publishing Group
Published August 4, 2020

View Comments (2)
  • When a book is reviewed it is not only the author, stories and what is inside a book is finding space but also reviewer’s anxiety – expectations, post-reading reactions and ones own temperament.

  • I agree with your review for the most part. I think she has a very interesting style and she’s a talented writer, but… this felt… self-indulgent to me, and I was a bit pissed off about the negative stereotype with the trans woman. Not my cup of tea, I’m afraid.

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