Minot’s work also insists that sex (or, in rarer cases, love) can render porous the borders of selfhood, at least temporarily. In “Polepole,” a woman embarking on a new love affair “felt the outline of herself begin to dissolve. … This was the sort of moment she waited for, to be whisked away in the dark. It was not something you could do on your own.” The narrator of “Café Mort” speaks of becoming “unencased.” Even Ivy in “Occupied” recalls a time with her lover when “her body dissolved into his.”
Not every story in the new book works. “Café Mort” is an improbable excursion into the supernatural, a latter-day fable that never establishes its rules or finds its footing. “The Torch” smolders but doesn’t catch. “Listen,” written entirely in bits of unattributed dialogue, is about the 2016 presidential election and grief at the outcome thereof, but I was unable to determine whether Minot was lampooning a certain strain of liberal teeth-gnashing or indulging in it herself.
The title story, also told in fragments, is a more successful experiment — almost giddily grim, with echoes of Beckett and David Markson. Why doesn’t this narrator write? Well:
The kids are exhausted. …
Didn’t you see it on Instagram? …
She died, God, is it already 10 years ago? It was awful. Death used to be more awful. One was destroyed. …
The ways that Bob Dylan says
1. He’s all right, and
2. He’s not all right.
Minot has always been interested in how the past can flood the present while remaining stubbornly unrecoverable. (See, for instance, her miraculous first novel, “Monkeys,” from 1986, which reads like James Salter’s “Light Years” by way of Salinger; or “Rapture,” from 2002, which people will tell you is a novel about oral sex when in fact it is a novel about despair.) I said before that “Why I Don’t Write” is a quiet collection, but it is not a halting or timid one. Minot still has a poet’s instinct for the surprising volta, the striking image, the bracing final line. After 30 years away from the short story, it is good to have her back, cleareyed and fearless as ever, whispering difficult truths and ambiguities that a less assured writer would feel compelled to shout.