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Parodies Lost : SUBTRACTION, By Mary Robison (Alfred A. Knopf: $19.95; 184 pp.)

February 17, 1991|RICHARD EDER

All we know about Minnie is that she loves Mickey. But if all we know about Mickey is that Minnie loves him, then we know nothing about Mickey. And so we know nothing about Minnie.

The two lovers in "Subtraction" are pretty much what the title suggests. They are two empty parcels. They are wrapped expensively, and labeled with a note of self-parody. So we are not sure whether what we are getting from the author, Mary Robison, is a joke or a gyp.

Even Paige's name is expensive. She is a poet with four published volumes, and an arts grant big enough to let her take off a year from teaching at Harvard. The publishers' blurb makes her out to be a Harvard professor; the text doesn't claim quite that. Maybe she's only a Harvard lecturer; still, that's quite classy, and besides, she has sexy legs.

So one of her two lovers tells her. Both are Princeton graduates, and one of them, who is married to her, was a Rhodes scholar as well. His name is pretty expensive, too; it is Raf. At least, that is what everyone thinks it is. In a moment of despair, in the book's only genuinely raw moment, Paige discloses that it is really Walter.

That was cruel. But Raf has given cause. While Paige has been turning out poems and aspiring poets, doing the household bills and taking care of their apartment in Brookline, Raf has been cutting a swath.

He is darkly handsome, we learn, and has "a crinkly smile." He is formidably promising; there must be a film or a play in him, if he could only get it out. Instead, he has gone from job to job, suitably chosen to suggest wild, lost, romantic . He has hung plasterboard, worked as a bouncer, a foundryman, a lobster fisherman; anything, he explains, that will allow him to drink Jack Daniels on the job.

He drinks a lot of it. He is generous in his thirsts and his appetites. He shares them with many women, and takes them periodically on the road. Yet he always comes back. He and Paige would not know what to wear or what to do alone, she says.

Emily Dickinson loves Jack Kerouac? Not quite. At the book's start, he is gone and she traces him, through the telephone bills, to Houston, where he has gone to see an old college mate and fellow vagrant. She flies down, rents a convertible, puts up at a motel, finds Raf--he is nuzzling a brunette in a bar, but swears he'll go straight and dry out--and his friend Ray.

With Raf and Ray, Paige plunges into the dives and strip joints on the scuzzy side of town. She drinks beer, lounges around in the torpid heat, goes for rides with Ray and, after considerable wanting to, has sex with him. She meets their friends: Jewels, a bisexual blonde who invites her to scrub her back in the tub, and Pru, a post-modern stripper.

Feminism is dead, Pru explains, so she is into shame. She strips, sleeps around, goes on bulimic junk-food orgies out of "contempt." Self-contempt? Paige wonders, Harvard-like. Not a bit, says Pru.

It is Paige's walk on the wild side. When she is not low-lifing, she curls up in bed with "Granta" and "American Poetry Review." She breaks off now and then to scribble a tercet or add to the 16-page poem she has brewing on her laptop. Raf, trying to go straight, jogs, reads Schopenhauer and makes love, mightily but exclusively, to Paige. The strain is too much; he disappears once more. Paige works her way north, motel by motel, quatrain by quatrain, pickup--casual but sexless--by pickup.

Eventually, at a Cape Cod beach hotel run by her mother, they are all reunited in a raging blizzard: the lovesick Ray, the wandering Raf, and both halfs of Paige--high-culture poet and All American Road Queen. After considerable wavering, she decides to follow her muse, but the last thing we see, she is driving west with Raf and admiring his profile:

"I thought: generic man, perfect man. I thought how even when Raf was dead-still, he had an intensity out of which someone could interpret a world."

With such lines, such characters and such stances, it is tempting to take "Subtraction" for parody. If it is parody, the targets are widely scattered. Pretentiousness of some sort, of course, but which sort? Certainly, Paige's scribbling of exotic poetic forms amid the breakfast bacon or upended beer bottles suggests the modern poetry academic.

The couple's high-cult-pop-cult mishmash spreads in all directions. There are music-video touches in the posturings and deliberate cliche-ing. And sometimes the book suggests a party whose guest list mixes the post-orgasmic denizens of the Guess Jeans ads with Seagrams' tidy have-it-and-do-it-alls.

But the parody is unsteady. It keeps slipping indistinguishably into itself. It lacks the wit and detachment to fix its subjects. And perhaps it is not what Robison is intending.

She is a powerful writer, and her best books have used a disciplined minimalism to emit, by constriction, some powerfully shaped emotions. Here everything goes slack and indistinct.

Somehow, in trying to convey the mutual emptinesses of American high and low cult, Robison lost control of her material and emptied out along with it.

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