On its face, minimalism might seem like an ironic term for fiction—one more suited to architecture or interior design—but in describing the style of writing that still dominates many MFA programs, it’s entirely fitting. Featuring spare prose and terse descriptions of the everyday, this is the manner of literary writing most easily taught, most simply reduced to a matter of craft. Often purposefully lacking in plot and story—and stripped mercilessly of personality—minimalism in its most realistic form can become a study not in nonfiction but in a sort of antifiction, work that may qualify as literary in ambition, but not effect. Unable to animate the seemingly realistic world it has created, minimalism often fails the most basic of literary tests. Like a song sung to perfect pitch, but without passion, minimalistic fiction can want for soul. It can lack magic.
Before I got into Perfectly Broken, Robert Burke Warren’s stunning debut novel, I had my doubts. Here is a story that seems at least superficially to qualify as realistic minimalism. The tale of a semi-failed, middle-aged musician fleeing Brooklyn in the face of a rent increase, I feared I might be in for a slice of domestic life lacking in soul, devoid of surprises. Now, having gobbled up Perfectly Broken in three, greedy, two-hour bites I can only describe it as a success, one that left me feeling a little like a kid at the end of a magic show, wondering how exactly the magician had managed to pull off all his tricks.
As the novel opens, it’s moving day for narrator, Grant Kelly, his wife, Beth, and their young son, Evan. The Kellys are on their way to a small town in the Catskills and what can only be described as a sort of financial crash landing, an unpaid tenancy on the “property” of old friends, Trip and Christa Lamont. Grant’s former roommate Trip is a semi-failed novelist and English teacher, Christa a moneyed dabbler. They have an adopted daughter named Katie, recently arrived from China, seemingly prepared to demolish their town of Mt. Marie (and maybe Trip and Christa’s marriage in the process).
Unlike so much realistic minimalism, Perfectly Broken is actually at its strongest, its most magical, in its depictions of real life. Not in a nuts-and-bolts sense (the sort of blunt cataloguing of reality I mentioned before), but in the ability to dramatize the mystery of human relationships and, in a grander sense, life itself. Rather than giving us a narrative that feels like an accumulation of foreshadowed plot points, Warren’s key conflicts remain unpredictable to resolution, and even beyond, echoing with the potential for evolution, as life itself does. Somehow, in spite of this, Warren’s narrative remains sharp and cohesive, never leaving the reader doubting its truth or its writer’s level of control. The feeling overall is one of watching real life happen—an enthralling version of real life at that—not acting as a bystander to the flat verisimilitude so much realism becomes. To a great extent, the narrative earns this effect through the dominance (and repetition) of its themes. Life and death, success and failure, art and commerce: these are the dualities that inform Perfectly Broken. These themes never feel forced, though. They develop organically, along with the story. There’s a symbiotic relationship between the thematic and the dramatic in this text, a union that leaves the whole far greater than its parts.
In extolling its other virtues, I realize I’ve forgotten one of Perfectly Broken’s greatest, which is its rendering of physical action. Whether in the extended life-and-death struggle on the Lamont property, a series of scenes that makes up the book’s literary “point of no return”, or in the powerful (and captivating) erotica sprinkled throughout the text, Warren is able to build incredible momentum, the sort of anticipation that could easily have readers finishing this book in one sitting.
Overall, Robert Burke Warren’s Perfectly Broken is an exceptional debut novel that points to greater things in its author’s future. Through its precise prose, the alchemical composition of its story, and the honest emotion that pervades its pages this book is a study in how to make realistic minimalism work, one that never puts the appearance of truth above the reality of it. One that never forgets fiction at its best is a little like magic.