by Tara Atkinson, APRIL managing director
When Big World was published in 2009, my favorite story was “Not All Who Wander Are Lost,” about a bad waitress who doesn’t get along with the other waitresses — “The waitresses don’t talk to me for reasons having to do with I fuck everybody and get paid twelve dollars an hour to slice lemons.” I was a delivery driver/prep cook who wanted to be a real cook but was too slow and always being sent to the back kitchen, which I knew was the right call. While I was alone in the back kitchen I’d grate some cheese, run out of cheese to grate, wait for someone to call for a delivery, and either sneak back into the kitchen to warm my hands over the soup or into the storeroom to read a book. I read Big World sitting on a steel prep table and also at the bar, where I’d sit after my shift and use my employee discount on beer. Inside the cover I made a dated list under the title ‘plan’ that involved a juice fast and increased exercise regimen. (In another list dated two days later I listed “cravings for general food: wings, cheese fries with ranch, cheese.”) It was a similar life to the story’s narrator’s and I had similar romantic problems, too, but I wasn’t even a waitress — just a delivery driver. It was the accident of the right book at the right time.
Literature is full of beautiful descriptions of mountains, ocean waves, fogs, smiles, the effects of light hitting a woman’s hair. Such descriptions can be transporting and inspiring, but when I was the delivery driver/prep cook grating cheese in a Midwestern bar, I had my problems to think about. I didn’t want to be transported to an ocean of rollicking waves unless the transportation was literal (“Dear John, Sorry. Bye. Maybe love… who knows.”). The pile of mozzarella in front of me was ridiculous to imagine as a mountain of snow. Literature is not full of piles of mozzarella. That was the thing that got me about Big World. Not just that it “got me” or that the scenery was familiar, but the well-crafted and perfectly suited way Miller describes things like mozzarella cheese.
Like the detail in “He had salad dressing on his shirt, a wet spot where he’d tried to rub it off. I could see his chest hairs. It was like looking through a porthole” in “Leak.”
Or how the order in “I have a job that doesn’t pay very well and friends I never see. I still sleep in my ex-boyfriend’s t-shirt. There are magnets on my refrigerator and a clutter of pizza coupons in my drawer. Is this a life?” creates such emotional juxtaposition and resonance (the story is “Even the Interstate is Pretty”).
Or how the off-hand tone of the narrator’s thoughts in “Aunt Jemima’s Old-Fashioned Pancakes” add up to so much more than the words on the page when the friend says she wants a Mexican pizza from Taco Bell: “I know she knows exactly how many calories are in a Mexican Pizza, and that she’d work out until she’d burned the whole thing off, even if it took all night. Sometimes she loses it and eats an entire box of donuts and we can’t hang out because she has to run sprints the rest of the day.”
Or the quiet metaphor with all the perfectly-placed commas at the end of “Full,”: “I remember how, when I first started carrying a purse, it was empty so I filled it with things I didn’t need, to take up space.”
I wondered if such things were worth talking about. One former not-even shitty waitress still remembers this book, still thinks yes.