Roberson demonstrates once again that he is a master of contemporary sadness.
List is a curative mix of satire and sympathy. In these glimpses of middle America, lists order the characters’ lives, capturing their obsessions, cataloging their complaints, accounting for their desires, and serving as prayers toward ways of life that might work.
The stories in List succeed by mixing the sting of satire with its antidote, a healthy dose of sympathy. While the stories skewer the ambitions and materialistic desires of readers, they also create an emotional landscape replete with the hilarity and humility of human vulnerability. This collection has a heart as big as the great Midwest.
The fictions comprising Matt Roberson’s List — spare, comic, haunting, addictively readable — revolve around the gadgets, mad cleanliness, and bland vans unable to hold off the deadly everydaynesses called the suburban middle class. The characters find themselves shell-shocked by the vacant lists their worlds have become. They try to convince themselves something can always change, but the narratives they inhabit prove it can’t, it doesn’t, things will just keep on keeping on.
Matthew Roberson’s precise and melancholy List anatomizes the thing- and desire-cluttered world of the middle American suburbanite, a Garden of Earthly Delights perpetually overshadowed by precariously balanced piles of tools, diapers, bills, humiliation, toys, death, Xanax, kids, pets, half-finished home improvements, Viagra, LPs, nostalgia, and the vague sense that maybe things could still work out. Roberson demonstrates once again that he is a master of contemporary sadness.
Roberson understands that there’s really no need for a product at all, just a joy in process that can be sustained as long as motivation lasts.
M— is married with children, working a dead-end job solely for the insurance and meager income. He’s in a financial and emotional trough, and asks his doctor for Paxil because he’s worried he’ll never stop worrying. Meanwhile, L— is a college dropout and construction worker. He self-medicates, starting with Ambien and moving, after he accidentally cuts off some fingers, to Darvocet, only to be led by his doctor to Zoloft once the cocktail of pharmaceuticals meant to wake him up puts him to sleep.
Impotent is a collection of moving stories about a time when individuals are reduced to letters on a medical chart and “it is easier to get a refill on a prescription than approval for therapy.” In revealing vignettes, Matthew Roberson clinically catalogs the hopes, dreams, and failures of people identified only through form-like abbreviations (C— for co-dependent, I— for Insured). In these “case studies,” Roberson captures his subjects’ lives poignantly by supplementing their diagnoses with unconventional footnotes, lists, and medicinal warnings. Each vignette exposes a different facet of our medicated society, humanizing a multitude of conditions: depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, impotence, and dementia. In a world of domestic ennui, deadpan voices struggle to transcend numbness while simultaneously trying to manage the pain of living. Impotent is both important social commentary and engrossing fiction.
As the fictions in Impotent accumulate, the book graphically decays, morphs, becomes ruined in front of your eyes. Matthew Roberson’s work is, in a way, a rewriting of Frankenstein but Impotent is the monster itself — patched up, stitched, sewn together. A hybrid. A mash-up. The book reanimated. Sublime. And “it’s alive!”
Matthew Roberson has attempted the Borgesian feat of rewriting Sukenick.
Fetishists, dreamers, voyeurs, internet porn addicts, granola-heads, drug dealers, dorks, liars, layabouts, workaholics, sex maniacs, TV junkies, compulsives, neurotics, intellectuals, idealists: graduate students, all. In this book about the complicated experience of pursuing a Ph.D., Matthew Roberson details the curious world of a group stuck between childhood and adulthood, idealism and surrealism, representation and reality.
What he wants he thinks is to screw things up. If you screw things up they fall apart. If things fall apart then you’re under the skin of the world. And when you reemerge when things come together again they come together differently. Different than before. So what does this mean it means he wants to fail. Believe it or not. He aspires to failure. It’s possible however he realizes to fail at failing. Or to make of it a howling success.
In this, his first novel, Roberson rewrites Ronald Sukenick’s classic fiction of the sixties, 98.6, simultaneously parodying earlier experimental life and art, while exposing present-day vacuousness and alienation. It’s a hilarious send-up of American narcissism, wherein Roberson brilliantly reveals video culture and the web-cam as nineties embodiments of metafictional self-fascination.
Yes, this novel is modeled on Ronald Sukneick’s 98.6 (1975). And, no, you don’t have to know about Sukenick’s work, much less like it, to appreciate Matthew Roberson’s achievement … Authors trained outside of school, like Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes regret that today’s students are exposed to nothing more than love and death in the English Department. 1998.6 proves different, showing how matters inside the Department, at least for grad students, simply focus much larger (and otherwise disorganized) forces in their lives.
Roberson’s mimicry of Sukenick’s style is not only perfect, it is as spontaneous and inventive as Sukenick’s; which is to say it riffs on into a voice of its own without losing the timbre of the other for a beat … Roberson takes a big risk in holding a mirror up to his most likely readers, current and former English major/grad students, instead of winging out with a fantasy of escape like Sukenick.… Roberson meets the risk, however, with unresting comic energy, a verbal playfulness as entertaining as Sukenick’s, and also, whenever he chooses, gripping insights into his characters, female as well as male.
… a superb inside job, a sublime theft rendering aggression and devotion, necrophilia and hagiography quite indistinguishable.