Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7929
SOURCE: Phelan, James. “Self-Help for Narratee and Narrative Audience: How ‘I’—and ‘You’?—Read ‘How.’” Style 28, no. 3 (fall 1994): 350-65.
[In the following essay, Phelan discusses theoretical aspects of second-person narration, derived from narratological and rhetorical analysis, and the application of second-person narration in Moore's short stories in Self-Help.]
1. HOW ARE YOU?
A voice addresses you. Not from clouds, a mountaintop, or a burning bush. From this page. It asks how you are and what you're up to. It is a friendly, though unfamiliar, voice. You are unsure of how to react. You have an impulse to shout out that you're fine, you're reading, you'd be grateful not to be disturbed. But you also don't want to be rude, so you just say “OK” and “studying second-person narration.” The voice wants to know if you've read Lorrie Moore's Self-Help. Oh yes, you say, in fact, you've just begun reading an essay about it. The voice asks what the essay's about and if it's any good. You can't tell yet; so far the critic seems more interested in showing off his cleverness than in saying anything about Moore's book. If he doesn't quit, you'll quit reading. OK, says the voice, fair enough; I'll go mute, if you promise to stick around. In fact, to erase the sound of my voice, let's listen to Lorrie Moore's at the beginning of her short story “How”:
Begin by meeting him in a class, a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes.
A week, a month, a year. Feel discovered, comforted, needed, loved, and start sometimes, somehow, to feel bored. When sad or confused, walk uptown to the movies. Buy popcorn. These things come and go. A week, a month, a year.
2. WHO ARE YOU?
Perhaps this question would be better phrased as “Who are the ‘you's?’” to indicate that it refers to the second-person addressees in the two texts of the previous section (i.e., the text of this article and Moore's text) rather than to you who are now reading the words of this sentence. The rephrasing does sharpen the question, but, as we shall soon see, trying to answer it will call the logic that motivates the sharpening into doubt. The rephrased question depends on a clear and stable distinction between an intrinsic, textual “you”—a narratee-protagonist—and an extrinsic, extratextual “you”—a flesh-and-blood reader. Both texts, however, undermine the clarity and stability of the distinction. In the first text, the “you” addressed by the voice “from this page” is both textual and extratextual: it refers not only to the narratee-protagonist but also to “you” the actual reader.1 The “you” who is unsure of how to react may or may not be both narratee and actual reader: at that moment, the discourse is blurring the boundaries between them. At the end of the paragraph, the “you” addressed by the voice is again textual and extratextual, and the shift to homodiegetic narration (from “the voice” to “I”) foregrounds that dual address.
Moreover, this play with the location (textual and/or extratextual) of the addressee is only part of the text's story of reading. When we read “You are unsure of how to react” and recognize that the “you” who is narratee-protagonist need not coincide with “you” the actual reader, another audience position becomes prominent: the observer role familiar to us in reading homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narration, the position from which we watch...
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characters think, move, talk, act. In fact, what happens as we read “You are unsure of how to react” is frequently an important dimension of reading second-person narration: when the second-person address to a narratee-protagonist both overlaps with and differentiates itself from an address to actual readers, those readers will simultaneously occupy the positions of addressee and observer. Furthermore, the fuller the characterization of the “you,” the more aware actual readers will be of their differences from that “you,” and thus, the more fully they will move into the observer role, and the less likely this role will overlap with the addressee position. In other words, the greater the characterization of the “you,” the more like a standard protagonist the “you” becomes, and, consequently, the more actual readers can employ their standard strategies for reading narrative. However, as recent commentators on second-person narration have consistently observed, most writers who employ this technique take advantage of the opportunity to move readers between the positions of observer and addressee and, indeed, to blur the boundaries between these positions (Fludernik, Kacandes, McHale, Richardson).2 In short, it is not easy to say who you are.
The same difficulty is present in the opening section of Moore's story. Because Moore starts the first paragraph with the narration of an event that the actual reader is not directly involved in—girl meets boy3—the observer role is initially more prominent. But in the second paragraph, where the gender of the “you” is not specified and the general trajectory of the “you's” experience is widely recognizable, the actual reader is likely to feel the pull of the addressee role. In fact, by showing the movement from observer to addressee rather than from addressee to observer, the passage illustrates how second-person narration almost always retains the potential to pull the actual reader back into the addressee role. Again, with Moore's text, the question, “who are you?”, does not have a clear and simple answer.
Although it is not easy to say who “you” are, watching “you” read can be highly instructive. In the rest of this essay, I would like to pursue that instruction by attending to the way in which the dynamics of second-person narration invite a reexamination of concepts of audience from two distinct but related traditions of narrative study: narratology's “narratee” and rhetorical theory's “narrative audience.” My contention will be that each tradition has something to teach the other and that both concepts are necessary to understand the complexities of reading second-person narration. I shall then illustrate the usefulness of the two concepts in a rhetorical analysis of Moore's “How.”
3. NARRATEE AND NARRATIVE AUDIENCE
Perhaps the most striking thing about the widely circulating concepts of narratee and narrative audience is that no one has carefully considered their relationship to each other. Are the concepts synonyms and the terms interchangeable? Does one concept subsume the other? If so, which is the more encompassing? Alternatively, are the two terms complementary, overlapping, or incompatible? What does their relation tell us about the similarities and differences of structuralist narratology and the rhetorical theory of narrative? A study of second-person narration will help us answer these questions, but first I want to review the essays in which these two concepts were initially formalized, Gerald Prince's “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee” (1973) and Peter J. Rabinowitz's “Truth in Fiction: A Re-examination of Audiences” (1977).
Prince's purpose is to call attention to a previously neglected link in the chain of narrative communication and to demonstrate that “narratees deserve to be studied” (8). He argues, in effect, that the logic of differentiating among authors, implied authors, and narrators applies as well to readers (or receivers), implied readers (or addressees), and narratees (or enunciatees).4 The author addresses actual readers (receivers); the implied author the implied reader (addressee); and the narrator the narratee (enunciatee). Prince shows that a narrator's discourse frequently reveals evidence about the narratee's identity even in narratives where there is no explicit address to the narratee. In characteristic structuralist fashion, Prince seeks to find the underlying commonality of diverse narratees and, as a result, proposes the idea of a “zero-degree” narratee, an enunciatee with minimal positive traits: knowing the narrator's language, being able to infer presuppositions and consequences as they are reflected in that language, having an excellent memory. Different narratives will then assign further traits to their different narratees. In “The Narratee Revisited” (1985), however, Prince acknowledges that the approach through the zero degree violates Ockham's Razor because, in effect, it describes virtually all narratees as deviations from a nonoccurring standard. Therefore, Prince proposes instead to “specify all and only classes of signs particularizing any narratee, all and only signs of the ‘you’ in narrative discourse” (300).
More generally, Prince's structuralist narratology assumes that the narrative text is an object with a communicative purpose. His effort is to locate the presence and delineate the functions of the narratee within that object. These functions, tellingly, are all instrumental, all part of the narratee's possible role in the communication: the narratee “constitutes a relay between the narrator and the reader, he helps establish the narrative framework, he serves to characterize the narrator, he emphasizes certain themes, he contributes to the development of the plot, he becomes the spokesman for the moral of the work” (23).
Rabinowitz, as his title suggests, frames his discussion of audiences as part of a larger inquiry into “truth in fiction,” specifically an inquiry into how certain “facts” of a fictional narrative may be true at one level of reading but not at another. Indeed, my phrase “level of reading” turns out, in effect, to be a synonym for “kind of audience.” Rabinowitz posits four:
(1) the actual or flesh-and-blood audience: you and me in both our idiosyncratic particularity and our socially constructed identities;
(2) the authorial audience: the hypothetical ideal audience for whom the author designs the work, a design that includes assumptions about what that audience knows and believes;
(3) the narrative audience: the “imaginary audience for which the narrator is writing” (127), an audience upon whom the narrator projects a set of beliefs and a body of knowledge; and
(4) the ideal narrative audience: the audience “for which the narrator wishes he were writing” (134), the audience that accepts every statement of the narrator as true and reliable.
Rabinowitz emphasizes, first, that readers take up places in the four audiences simultaneously and, second, that this simultaneity is largely responsible for readers' complex relations to truth in fiction. When we enter the authorial and narrative audiences of, say, Jane Eyre, we find that there is no significant difference between the narrative audience and the ideal narrative audience and that there is some significant overlap in what the authorial audience and the narrative audience take to be true. Both of the latter two audiences, for example, operate with the same world maps; both attach the same social significance to a marriage between a master and a governess; both have some faith in the power of romantic love. But the audiences' beliefs also significantly diverge. Most obviously—and importantly—the authorial audience knows that Jane is a fictional character narrating fictional events whereas the narrative audience assumes that a historical personage is recounting her autobiography. Furthermore, each audience has a different view of the narrative's supernatural events: for example, Jane's hearing Rochester call her name despite being miles away from him. The authorial audience recognizes that this event is possible only in fiction.5 The narrative audience accepts the event as Jane does: wonderful and strange, but true. Indeed, the very fact that Jane does not try to convince skeptics in her audience is evidence that she assumes her audience will accept its truth.
Since the publication of “Truth in Fiction,” rhetorical theorists have not found much practical use for the concept of “ideal narrative audience.” In the “Afterword to the Second Edition” of The Rhetoric of Fiction (1983), Wayne C. Booth adopts Rabinowitz's model minus the ideal narrative audience. Rabinowitz himself drops the category from his discussion of audiences in Before Reading (1987). In Reading People, Reading Plots (1989), I claim that “although the ideal narrative audience is a logical category of analysis, it has insufficient analytical payoff for me to want to invoke it” (141). Studying second-person narration and trying to understand the relation between the concepts of narratee and narrative audience have made me rethink that conclusion. In order to explain how, I first need to explain why most rhetorical theorists have felt Rabinowitz's first three audiences have been sufficient to account for most author-narrator-reader relationships.
The rhetorical approach is rooted in the relation between narrative strategies and the activities of readers in the way that what occurs on the levels of both story and discourse influences what readers know, believe, think, judge, and feel. In the case of, say, an author who employs an unreliable narrator, one important readerly activity is the rejection of the narrator's assumptions, knowledge, or values. (Many other activities will follow from this rejection, but those activities will vary from one narrative to the next.) In explaining the relation between narrative strategy and readerly activity, the rhetorical critic focuses on how an actual reader can recognize the signs of unreliability and infer the author's different assumptions, knowledge, or values. The key to the rhetorical transaction, then, is the gap between the narrator's assumptions about her audience and the author's assumptions about hers. In explaining the transaction, the rhetorical critic focuses on the way in which an actual reader can recognize that gap and the way in which that recognition is itself a part of the authorial audience's understanding of the narrative. In this way, the activity of the narrative audience gets subsumed by the activity of the authorial, and differentiating between the narrative audience and the ideal narrative audience has seemed less important than attending to this subsumption. For example, in “Haircut,” answering the question of whether Whitey's customer is Whitey's narrative or ideal narrative audience seems less important than recognizing that Whitey assumes he is an ideal audience and that Lardner assumes readers will recognize Whitey's moral obtuseness. By focusing on the difference between what Whitey expects his audience (ideally) to believe and what Lardner expects his audience to do with Whitey's expectations, the rhetorical critic, in effect, erases the distinction between the narrative and the ideal narrative audiences. And, as this example of “Haircut” suggests, erasing the distinction means that all narrative audiences are ideal narrative audiences. So while the term “ideal narrative audience” has dropped out of use, the concept has not; it is more accurate to say that in practice, Rabinowitz's third and fourth audiences have been conflated into the single category of narrative audience. As I turn to look more closely at the relation between this concept and Prince's concept of the narratee, I will suggest why I think it is useful to separate the two audiences once again.
Having seen all this about narratee and narrative audience, what can we conclude about the relation between them? Rabinowitz, who naturally wants to distinguish his concept from Prince's, offers two answers in “Truth in Fiction.” First, the “narrataire … is someone perceived by the reader as ‘out there,’ a separate person who often serves as a mediator between narrator and reader. The ‘narrative audience,’ in contrast, is a role which the text forces the reader to take on. I think that my analysis, centering on an activity on the part of the reader, more successfully explains why certain texts evoke certain responses” (127n14). Second, the default position of “narrative audience” is not degree-zero; instead, it is much closer to “actual audience.” Rabinowitz puts it this way: the “narrative audience is much like ourselves, with our beliefs, prejudices, our hopes, fears, and expectations, and our knowledge of society and literature—unless there is some evidence (textual or historical) to the contrary” (128-29n16).
These answers initially do more to sharpen the differences between the rhetorical approach and the structuralist one than to differentiate clearly narratee from narrative audience. The key difference in the approaches is encapsulated by Rabinowitz's claims that his model “center[s] on an activity on the part of the reader” and that the narrative audience is “a role the text forces the reader to take on” (127n14). “Activity,” “force,” “experience” are key terms for the rhetorical theorists. Prince's model, by contrast, sees the text as a message and wants to identify the structural properties of that message. “Component,” “relay,” “framework” are key terms for narratologists. The two approaches are not entirely incompatible: a text that exerts a force upon its reader is a communicative object of a certain kind. But the approaches are not exactly the same suit traveling under two different designer labels, and it is not surprising that they view the narrator's audience differently. As Rabinowitz says, Prince's narratee remains “out there,” distinct from the actual reader; a narrative audience, by contrast, occupies some part of the actual reader's consciousness and, given the default position, the actual reader also gives traits to the narrative audience.
Confronting this difference, we might be tempted to decide that each concept is adequate within its own theoretical framework: that is, that the concepts overlap but are ultimately neither interchangeable nor in conflict. Consequently, such a response might go, when we want to do structuralist analysis, we should talk about narratees, and when we want to do rhetorical analysis we should talk about narrative audiences. I would yield to this temptation, if it were not for my reading of second-person narration. Second-person narration shows that the two concepts are, ultimately, complementary and that both structuralist narratology and rhetorical theory need to recognize that complementarity. It shows further, as I mentioned above, that there are good reasons for reintroducing the distinction between the narrative and ideal narrative audiences.
Let us return to the basic definitions: a narratee is “someone whom the narrator addresses” (Prince, “Introduction” 7). A narrative audience is “the imaginary audience for which the narrator is writing” (Rabinowitz, “Truth” 127). An ideal narrative audience is “the audience for which the narrator wishes he were writing” (Rabinowitz, “Truth” 134). And let us return to the beginning of Moore's story:
Begin by meeting him in a class, a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes.
A week, a month, a year. Feel discovered, comforted, needed, loved, and start sometimes, somehow, to feel bored. When sad or confused, walk uptown to the movies. Buy popcorn. These things come and go. A week, a month, a year.
Is it adequate to say, as structuralist narratology would, that the unnamed “you” addressed by the narrator is the narratee and the protagonist, that the narrative's implied reader is different from this narratee, someone who infers from the narrator's address a larger cultural story about female-male relationships? Although this account gets at a good part of the communicative structure of the text, it is not fully adequate. It leaves out the way that the second-person address exerts pressure on the actual reader—even the male reader, as in the second paragraph—“to take on the role” of the narratee-protagonist as “you” experience(s) the ups and downs (especially the downs) of the relationship. In other words, continuing to assume that the narratee is a distinct character who is “out there” will mean not just that we prefer the structuralist to the rhetorical framework; it also will mean that the structuralist analysis will neglect a significant aspect of how the text attempts to communicate.
Perhaps, then, the rhetorical approach will be more adequate. It would say that in Moore's text the unnamed “you” addressed by the narrator is the narrative audience and the protagonist and that the authorial audience needs to infer the larger story about female-male relationships that Moore is telling.6 This approach does enable us to account better for the effects that follow from “taking on the role” of the “you,” but again the account is unsatisfactory according to its own criteria of explanatory adequacy. Equating the narrative audience with “you” leaves out the way in which we take on an observer role within the fiction, the way in which we recognize our difference from “you” and regard her as a person “out there” being addressed by the narrator. This observer role is different from the role we adopt as implied readers (or members of the authorial audience) because in the observer role we believe in the reality of the events. Some of “what happens to us” when we read “How” depends upon our dual perspective inside the fiction, on the way that we step into and out of the enunciatee position, while we remain in the observer position and discover what the narrator assumes about our knowledge and beliefs in the enunciatee role. Furthermore, moving into the enunciatee role means that we move into the ideal narrative audience—the narrator tells us what we believe, think, feel, do—while in the observer role we evaluate our position in the ideal narrative audience.
If this analysis is correct, then structuralist narratology needs the concept of “narrative audience” to complement its concept of “narratee,” and rhetorical theory needs the concept of “narratee” to complement its concept of “narrative audience.” And both approaches need the further concept of “ideal narrative audience.” For the sake of clarity and consistency, I propose that we adjust the definitions to reflect the complementarity. Let Prince's definition of narratee stand: the audience addressed by the narrator (the enunciatee). Let Rabinowitz's definition of narrative audience be modified: the actual audience's projection of itself into the observer role within the fiction. In taking on that role, we will always become believers in the reality of the fictional world; consequently, much of our emotional response to narrative derives from our participation in this role. Furthermore, let Rabinowitz's definition of the ideal narrative audience stand: “the audience for which the narrator wishes he were writing” (“Truth” 134). The ideal narrative audience may or may not coincide with the narratee, and the narrative audience may or may not find itself in accord with the assumptions of the ideal narrative audience.
The situation of watching traditional drama clarifies the distinctions. For the mimetic illusion and the emotional force of a play to work, we must enter the observer position of the “narrative” (“dramatic”?) audience and believe in the reality of, say, Othello, Iago, and Desdemona. Indeed, the oft-discussed instances of people leaping upon the stage to stop the action are, in these terms, examples of what happens when we enter so deeply into the narrative audience position that we fail to maintain our simultaneous participation in the authorial audience. This role is clearly distinct from that of an enunciatee or “narratee,” someone addressed by a speaker. However, in a soliloquy or aside addressed to (rather than overheard by) the audience, the roles of observer and enunciatee, of “narrative audience” and “narratee,” are likely to overlap. But again, the degree of overlap will depend on the relation between the narrative audience and the ideal narrative audience. In a soliloquy addressed to the audience, the narratee and the ideal narrative audience will coincide; these roles will converge with that of the narrative audience to the extent that the observer can share in the assumptions the soliloquist makes about the audience's beliefs, knowledge, and values. The soliloquies of Shakespeare's villains, for example, create distance between the audience as narratee (or ideal narrative audience) and the audience as observer within the fiction.
In narrative, where we always have narrative audiences and narratees, one of the variables in narrative discourse will be how much the narratee and the narrative audience overlap. As I suggested earlier, what second-person narration shows is that the more fully the narratee is characterized, the greater the distance between narratee and narrative audience; similarly, the less the narratee is characterized the greater the coincidence between the two.7 If we return again to the two texts with which I opened this essay, we can see that in the first the identity boundaries between narratee and narrative audience are blurred and that the blurring depends on the lack of characterization of the narratee. In Moore's text, on the other hand, the narratee is designated as female and as moving in a certain kind of social milieu, and these designations allow individual readers to differentiate themselves from her, even as they remain in the observer position.8
4. HOW I—AND YOU?—READ “HOW”
Before turning to a rhetorical analysis of “How,” I want to consider the kind of claims about reading the rhetorical approach wants to make. By focusing on the text's designs on its reader, the rhetorical approach seems to promise an account not just of the structure and form of the text but also of the experience of reading. But in that promise also lies the problem. Recall Rabinowitz's description of the difference between “narrative audience” and “narratee”: the “narrative audience is much like ourselves, with our beliefs, prejudices, our hopes, fears, and expectations, and our knowledge of society and literature—unless there is some evidence (textual or historical) to the contrary” (“Truth” 128-29n16). In 1994, after many years of work on the difference that difference makes in reading, Rabinowitz himself would, I am confident, be among the first to ask, “Who is ‘us’?,” and to point out that attention to difference suggests that the text will not necessarily exert its force on all readers in the same way.
Rabinowitz's distinction between the actual and the authorial audiences is helpful for negotiating between the force of the text and individual difference, though I do not believe it completely solves the problem. The concept of authorial audience has the advantage of positing a hypothetical reader addressed by the implied author who is able to discern a text's intended force (just as you might be my hypothetical reader who is fully understanding all of my points). The concept of actual reader enables Rabinowitz to acknowledge that many readers will not feel that intended force and that those who do may have widely different responses to it. The model, then, seems as if it can stand as a heuristic for reading, a delineation of some of the various roles available to the actual reader. As long as the model does not say that authorial reading is the best or only worthy kind of reading, it seems not entirely incompatible with the recognition of difference.
If we probe more deeply, however, the problems of difference reemerge. If we are a diverse group of readers, then our different cultural experiences and the resulting differences in beliefs, hopes, fears, prejudices, and knowledge will lead us to hypothesize different authorial and narrative audiences as we infer these positions from the details of any given narrative. Consequently, I propose that the model be taken as a helpful heuristic in a different way. It describes the experiences of reading: an entry into a narrative audience, a recognition of a narrator's ideal audience and narratee, an effort to step into the author's intended audience, a relation of those positions to our actual beliefs. It does not, however, judge those experiences according to their proximity from some single standard. Instead, the model invites a sharing of experiences, especially sharing that involves discussion of the textual grounds for those experiences, so that different readers can continue to learn from each other.9 Thus, the title of this section of the essay.
In “How,” the functions of the narratee and narrative audience cannot be separated from the authorial audience's knowledge of the story's dialogic relation to three especially significant intertexts: (1) the common cultural narrative (especially among young to middle-age adults of the middle and upper-middle classes) of developing an (unsatisfactory) relationship and trying to disentangle from it; (2) the standard narrative in self-help books (especially of the kind that end up on The New York Times best-seller list); and (3) the previous short stories in Self-Help, especially “How to Be an Other Woman.” As I noted above, “How” identifies the narratee as female, but the second-person address blurs the separation of narratee and narrative audience frequently enough for the observer of either sex to be pulled into the narrative's subject position: you fall in love, become part of a couple, meet your partner's family, feel uneasy about the relationship, try—unsuccessfully—to find a good time to leave, try being with someone else, have your partner need you because of illness (or weakness), feel a renewed tenderness, discover that it is not enough, slowly resolve to leave, feel very guilty, finally muster the courage to say goodbye, survive the partner's anger but find that you are unable to escape the sadness of the whole experience.10
Even as Moore uses the second person to make the narrative audience feel the pull into the subject position, she uses the narratee to put a distinctive spin on the general narrative by switching the standard gender roles. Not only is the “you” female, but the male expresses stereotypical female desires: “The touchiest point will always be this: he craves a family, a neat nest of human bowls; he wants to have your children” (57). In this way, Moore is reclaiming a subject position for women in this general cultural narrative. But it is hardly a position to be envied, as the interaction with the other two intertexts reveals. Where the standard narrative in the self-help genre always leads its audiences (actual and authorial) onward and upward toward Self-Fulfillment and the Better Life (if genres had official songs, self-help's would be “Nearer My God to Thee”), Moore's narratee-protagonist is on a slow course to nowhere. Moore's critique of the self-help genre combines with the very generality and even triteness of the narrative to underline the story's satiric strain and mitigate the narrative audience's involvement with the narratee-protagonist as a mimetic character. Strong emotions for the narratee seem less appropriate than knowing laughter about modern relationships and self-help books. Yet the story's relation to “How to Be an Other Woman” and Moore's skill with the second-person address result in the knowing laughter itself existing alongside, and in some uneasy tension with, the narrative and authorial audiences' genuine feeling for the narratee's situation.
“How to Be an Other Woman” is a companion piece to “How” because it places the female narratee in a different relationship to the man in her life. In that story, the narratee-protagonist desires a deeper, more reliable relationship with the man she is involved with but must face, first, the frustration of always being of secondary importance to him, and, second, the pain of his ultimate rejection. Together the stories paint a very bleak picture of women's chances for satisfying relationships. When you want him, he's married (or otherwise committed; one twist in “How to Be an Other Woman” is that the man is separated from his wife and cheating on the woman he lives with, a twist that certainly expands the circle of hurt women). When you decide that you don't want him, you are too kind and too weak to be able to leave. And when you finally do, you do not escape to happiness. This effect of the intertextuality invites the authorial audience to entertain multiple ways of completing Moore's laconic title, yet these ways seem to point back to the wisdom of her choice. She leaves it at “How” because what else is there to say? Adding “It Usually Goes” or “It Hurts” or even an interrogative that cuts off the last part of the earlier title—“to Be?”—seems redundant. “‘How?’” you ask. This is “How.”
Even more than this intertextuality, Moore's specific modulation of the narrative discourse enables her both to flaunt the triteness of her narrative and to generate genuine feeling with it. I will look once more at the opening paragraphs and then at just two more of the story's many highly nuanced passages.
Begin by meeting him in a class, a bar, at a rummage sale. Maybe he teaches sixth grade. Manages a hardware store. Foreman at a carton factory. He will be a good dancer. He will have perfectly cut hair. He will laugh at your jokes.
A week, a month, a year. Feel discovered, comforted, needed, loved, and start sometimes, somehow, to feel bored. When sad or confused, walk uptown to the movies. Buy popcorn. These things come and go. A week, a month, a year.
I have already discussed the way that this passage begins the fluctuation for the actual reader between the positions of the narratee and the narrative audience; now I would like to focus on some features of the narrative discourse that are characteristic of the whole story. First, the presentation of various alternatives, which goes along with the story's relation to the self-help genre, establishes a separation between the narrator and the narratee; unlike the case of Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, where the protagonist uses second person to narrate his own story, Moore uses an external narrator to address her narratee-protagonist. Second, although many of the sentences have the surface form of imperatives (“Begin by meeting him” “walk uptown,” “buy popcorn”), the very fact that the story is about the desire for love also gives the sentences another effect. They are not just imperatives but also descriptions of the narratee's willing actions. At the same time, the imperative tone and the consistency of the second-person address make it clear that the narratee and the ideal narrative audience will coincide in this story: the narratee is always doing the bidding of the narrator. Third, this dual-directed quality of the verbs is continued by the frequent but not ubiquitous use of the future tense, a technique that allows the narrator simultaneously to predict and to report the events of the story. Thus, on the one hand, the story appears to remain within the confines of a self-help book: rather than being the account of one person's actual experience, it is a primer of how one might behave in a relationship. On the other hand, the story appears very much to be an account of one person's experience as it unfolds. Through these techniques and effects, Moore invites us to attend both to the satiric and to the mimetic elements of the story.
The second passage I want to consider occurs just after “you” have met an actor, who can quote Coriolanus's mother, and with whom “you” go to bed or from whom “you” run as fast as you can:
Back at home, days later, feel cranky and tired. Sit on the couch and tell him he's stupid. That you bet he doesn't know who Coriolanus is. That since you moved in you've noticed he rarely reads. He will give you a hurt, hungry-to-learn look, with his James Cagney eyes. He will try to kiss you. Turn your head. Feel suffocated.
The narratee-protagonist/ideal narrative audience here remains clearly distinct from the narrative audience. The narrative audience in the observer position recognizes how much is going on beneath the surface of the narratee's actions. Her complaints are stand-ins for the narratee's larger unhappiness. The problem is not that this man does not know Coriolanus or does not read enough; the problem is that he is not someone else. The narratee is cranky because she is not as forthright as Coriolanus, not able to say what is really on her mind. Thus, though her complaints apparently point to ways that he might change his behavior to please her, these changes will not be enough. So, his “hurt hungry-to-learn look” is not a response that offers her any real hope. He can learn all he wants but he will still be himself. That is what is suffocating.
All this takes on a special cast because of the second-person narration. While the clear distinction between the narratee and the narrative audience allows us to infer so much about the narratee's behavior and situation, the “you” address also invites us to project ourselves—as narrative audience, authorial audience, and actual readers—into the narratee's subject position. Consequently, the inferences we make as we occupy the narrative-audience position lead us to a complicated vision that mingles narratee and self in the narratee's position. We both occupy the position and know what the position is like in a way that the narratee herself does not. In this way, we feel addressed by the narrator but not fully coincident with the narratee. Different flesh-and-blood readers will then respond differently to this complicated positioning: some may empathize more fully with the narratee, some may grow impatient or indifferent or condemnatory, and others may turn away from this involvement and refocus on the story's mockery of its own triteness and of the self-help genre. If Moore had employed a standard homodiegetic or heterodiegetic narration, she could have built the same inferences into the passage, but it is difficult to see how she could have also retained the effects resulting from this complicated mingling and separation of narratee and narrative audience.
The third passage I would like to examine more closely occurs in the story's last three paragraphs:
You will never see him again. Or perhaps you will be sitting in Central Park one April eating your lunch and he will trundle by on roller skates. You will greet him with a wave and a mouth full of sandwich. He will nod, but he will not stop.
There will be an endless series of tests.
A week, a month, a year. The sadness will die like an old dog. You will feel nothing but indifference. The logy whine of a cowboy harmonica, plaintive, weary, it will fade into the hills as slow Hank Williams. One of those endings.
Again the narratee/ideal narrative audience and narrative audience are clearly distinct. This time, however, there is much less of a gap between the two audience's understandings of the events and the discourse. The first paragraph here reminds the authorial audience of the narrative's triteness: you might see him; you might not; it happens both ways. In either case, though, it won't make much difference. Instead, “There will be an endless series of tests.” This sentence is ironic for both narratee and narrative audience; the narrator has previously employed the same sentence in discussing the man's illness. Here it glosses the previous paragraph and extends its meaning: whether the narratee never sees him or sees him functioning fine without her, life after the relationship will be an endless series of tests to diagnose what is now her illness, the lingering sadness of the whole experience. And the last paragraph underscores the endlessness by suggesting that even the apparent end, the death of that sadness, does not bring renewal. Stretched out over yet another of the story's many spans of “a week, a month, a year,” the dying gives way to the emptiness of indifference, “one of those endings.” Narratee, ideal narrative audience, and narrative audience all nod their heads in understanding here. This close positioning of the complementary audiences strengthens the second-person's general invitation for the narrative, authorial, and actual audiences to project themselves into the narratee's position. Despite the triteness of the narrative, underscored one last time by “One of those endings,” that position contains real pain. By keeping the narratee, the ideal narrative audience, and narrative audience closely aligned here, Moore is able to build genuine emotion into her ending. Again, as actual readers we may choose to turn from this emotion or critique it as sentimental. But Moore's ending can be usefully compared to Umberto Eco's example of how to generate sincere emotion within a postmodern consciousness that is aware of language as already worn out, overloaded with meaning from other contexts: the man who wants to tell a woman that he loves her madly but worries that romance novels have turned a direct expression of love into cliché can say, “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly” (227). Even as Moore's narrative flaunts its triteness and engages in the send-up of the self-help genre, it also invites its readers to respond as we do to traditional mimetic fiction.
5. YOU, ME, AND LORRIE MOORE
Having focused so much on the relations among narratee, ideal narrative audience, and narrative audience in second-person fiction, I would like to close with a comment on those between authors, actual or implied, and actual readers. Brian McHale has suggested that one of the metathemes of postmodernism apparent in second-person narration is love since the mode depends on violating traditional ontological boundaries (between the fictional and the nonfictional realms) in such a way that reading and writing themselves take on an erotic charge (227). I believe that McHale's point is sound though I also find applying it wholesale to the reading of Self-Help runs the risk of violating the thematic spirit of Moore's book. What I would like to propose instead is that the complexities of the reading-writing transaction in “How” and the other second-person stories add another layer to Moore's undermining of the self-help genre. In using the second-person address to invite her actual readers to adopt multiple positionings, Moore implicitly comments on the simplistic assumptions about readers operating in the self-help books. In extending her invitations, Moore compliments her readers' intelligence by implicitly expressing confidence that we can find our ways. When we summon the requisite intelligence and experience the satisfactions that follow from accepting the invitations, we also turn Self-Help into mutual help, with author and reader once again affirming the value of the activities they engage in for themselves and for each other.
In other words, the voice from this page offers you testimony about the value of rhetorical transactions. One of those conclusions.11
A full analysis of the audience positions would also include some account of how the implied reader's position is part of the text's play with audience, but for purposes of clarity, I have not presented that part of the analysis (and, indeed, the text hardly deserves such attention).
For important earlier work on the technique, see Bruce Morrissette and Mary Francis Hopkins and Leon Perkins. In a sense, the theoretical section of this essay is also a revision of my discussion of the relation between narrative and characterized audiences in chapter 5 of Reading People, Reading Plots.
Although the sex of the “you” at this point in the narrative is not definitively marked, it soon will be: at a wedding, his mother “will introduce you as his girl” (56). For more detailed commentary on this beginning, see Brian Richardson.
In “The Narratee Revisited,” Prince admits that in the earlier essay, he “too often conflated” narratee, addressee, and receiver (302). In order to avoid a similar conflation here, I have included the alternative terms for these concepts. As Prince explains,
The narratee constitutes a special case of the enunciatee (to adapt Greimassian terminology): it is the enunciatee—the encoded or inscribed “you”—in a narrative text and it may or may not coincide with the ostensible addressee of that text and/or with the receiver of it: thus, I might explicitly address a narrative to X but (consciously or unconsciously) inscribe Y as a “you” in it and (accidentally or not) Z may turn out to be its actual receiver.
Although this delineation of the different readerly roles increases the precision of our analysis, it also runs the risk of creating a terminological tangle around “addressee” when we discuss second-person narration. In order to avoid the tangle, I shall hereafter follow Prince's model and use “enunciatee” to designate the “narratee” and reserve “addressee” for the implied reader.
In Wuthering Heights, by contrast, Emily Brontë asks her authorial audience to view the supernatural events—the life after death of first Catherine and then Heathcliff—as genuinely possible. This demand on the actual reader is one reason so many people find the book both powerful and strange. Just how Wuthering Heights communicates this demand is a complex matter that would take a separate essay to demonstrate; for now, let me just say that the unreliable Lockwood's common sense faith in the impossibility of the life after death is one important (though not of course sufficient) indicator.
Note the similarity between structuralism's implied reader and rhetorical theory's authorial audience. These two concepts seem to me largely interchangeable.
This is the insight upon which Robyn Warhol builds her useful study of “distancing” and “engaging” narrative address in nineteenth-century British fiction.
Although my primary concern here is with second-person narration, I intend the point about the complementarity of narratee, narrative audience, and ideal narrative audience to be useful when talking about homodiegetic and heterodiegetic narration as well. To take just two examples, in Lardner's “Haircut,” Whitey's narratee is the customer in the barber chair; in the narrative audience, we observe the haircut and the story telling, and we recognize that Whitey assumes the customer is the ideal audience simply because the customer is a man from out of town. This recognition, in turn, helps characterize Whitey and helps distance our position in the narrative audience from the position Whitey attributes to his ideal audience. In Lord Jim, the shifting of narratees and the difficulty of determining Marlow's ideal narrative audience are both crucial parts of the narrative audience's experience because they signify how much the narrative is about Marlow's effort to tell Jim's story in a way that will then enable himself to come to terms with it.
In chapter 5 of Reading People, Reading Plots, devoted primarily to Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, I discuss the narratees in “Haircut,” Lord Jim, If on a winter's night, and a few other texts as examples of what I call a “characterized audience” and distinguished them from the narrative audience. Although I still find that those designations are helpful, I believe that employing the concepts of narratee, narrative audience, and ideal narrative audience as complementary allows for a fuller and more precise account of the narrative discourse of these texts.
This formulation has much in common with Wayne Booth's concept of “coduction.” See The Company We Keep (70-75 and passim).
The story is working against the standard “happily ever after” heterosexual romance narrative. Whether gay and lesbian readers will be able to move easily into the enunciatee position is, I think, highly debatable.
For helpful commentary on this essay, I am grateful to Jane Greer and especially Peter J. Rabinowitz.
Booth, Wayne C. The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction. Berkeley: U of California P, 1988.
———. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.
Eco, Umberto. “Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable.” Reflections on The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. London: Secker and Wartburg, 1985. 65-72. Rpt. in Modernism/Postmodernism. Ed. Peter Brooker. New York: Longman, 1993. 225-28.
Fludernik, Monika. “Second-Person Fiction: Narrative You as Addressee and/or Protagonist.” AAA—Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 18 (1993): 217-47.
Hopkins, Mary Francis, and Leon Perkins. “Second-person Point of View in Narrative.” Critical Survey of Short Fiction. Ed. Frank N. Magill. New Jersey: Salem, 1981. 119-32.
Kacandes, Irene. “Are You in the Text? The ‘Literary Performative’ in Postmodernist Fiction.” Text and Performance Quarterly 13 (1993): 139-53.
McHale, Brian. Postmodernist Fiction. London: Methuen, 1987.
Moore, Lorrie. Self-Help. New York: NAL, 1985.
Morrissette, Bruce. “Narrative ‘You’ in Contemporary Literature.” Comparative Literature Studies 2 (1965): 1-24.
Phelan, James. Reading People, Reading Plots: Character, Progression, and the Interpretation of Narrative. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1989.
Prince, Gerald. “Introduction à l'étude du narrataire.” Poétique 14 (1973): 178-96. Rpt. and trans. as “Introduction to the Study of the Narratee.” Reader Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Ed. Jane P. Tompkins. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 7-25.
———. “The Narratee Revisited.” Style 19 (1985): 299-303.
Rabinowitz, Peter J. Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1987.
———. “Truth in Fiction: A Re-examination of Audiences.” Critical Inquiry 4 (1977): 121-41.
Richardson, Brian. “The Politics and Poetics of Second-person Narration.” Genre 24 (1991): 309-30.
Warhol, Robyn. Gendered Interventions. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1989.
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Lorrie Moore 1957-
(Full name Marie Lorena Moore) American short story writer, novelist, children's writer, and editor.
The following entry presents an overview of Moore's career through 2001.
Among the most promising American short story writers to emerge during the 1980s, Moore is distinguished for the clever wordplay, irony, and sardonic humor of her fiction, all of which usually masks an underlying sadness or trauma experienced by her characters. Best known for her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and the short story collections Self-Help (1985) and Birds of America (1998), Moore presents female protagonists who are often exploring loss or moving toward a new, undefined stage in their lives. Her darkly comic stories are filled with relationships in which the partners feel alone and devoid of hope. Her adult characters typically find themselves coping with realizations that their lives will not fulfill their hopes and dreams; consequently, they experience feelings of displacement and unease. Moore's fiction has appeared in numerous periodicals, including the New Yorker, which featured one of her best known stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in 1998.
Born in Glen Falls, New York, Moore was interested in creative writing as a young child. Her parents participated in a local community theatre, where Moore learned to appreciate drama and language. Academically gifted, she advanced quickly through public school and won a Regent scholarship, which she used to attend St. Lawrence University. Her writing career began at age nineteen when she won first prize in a Seventeen magazine fiction contest for her short story “Raspberries.” Moore won several academic honors as an undergraduate, including the Paul L. Wolfe Memorial Prize for Literature, and was editor of the university's literary journal. After graduating in 1978, she worked for the next two years in Manhattan as a paralegal while attempting to develop her writing talents further. She entered Cornell University's Master of Fine Arts program in 1980, where she studied with Alison Lurie, and in 1982 received her M.F.A., staying on as a lecturer at Cornell through 1984. Her first volume of short stories, Self-Help, contained pieces she had written for her master's thesis. In 1984 Moore accepted a position at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she remains as the Delmore Schwartz Professor in the Humanities and a member of the English department. She was also the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence at Baruch College in 2000. Throughout her career, Moore has received a number of prestigious prizes and fellowships, including the A. L. Andrews Prize at Cornell in 1982 for three of the short stories later published in Self-Help. She was named as a Granville Hicks Memorial fellow in 1983, and received a National Endowment for the Arts award and a Rockefeller Fellowship in 1989. Along with winning three O. Henry awards—for “Charades” (1993), “Terrific Mother” (1994), and “People Like That Are the Only People Here” (1998)—Moore has received six Best American Short Story awards and, in 1996, was included the “Best of Young American Novelists” issue of Granta 54. Her story, “You're Ugly, Too,” appeared in the 2000 anthology Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. Birds of America was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle Award and was named one of the Best Books of 1998 by the New York Times.
Since the 1930s, the American short story has been noted for moving away from streamlined, carefully crafted prose toward minimalism and the sophisticated, witty, experimental work of Moore and other contemporary short fiction writers. Self-Help is one of the first of a group of short story collections that helped redefine the genre in the mid-1980s. The nine stories mock the popular form of “how-to” books, and most are written in the second person, including “How to Be an Other Woman,” “How to Become a Writer,” and “Go Like This,” which tells the story of a woman confronted with the news that she has terminal cancer. Other stories in the collection explore the often trying relationship between mothers and daughters. While Moore is best known for her short fiction, she has explored other genres as well. Moore wrote her first novel, Anagrams (1986), during her early years in Wisconsin. It is the story of a nightclub singer, Benna, who tries unsuccessfully to rearrange the letters of words to make anagrams, and similarly tries to make sense of the disjointed details of her life. In this work, as in Self-Help, Moore experiments with point-of-view. The eight stories of Like Life (1990) are less satiric than those in her earlier collection. Thematically, the stories are concerned with romance, particularly the pain and irony that can result from relationships gone awry. Two of the stories, “Vissi d'Arte” and “Starving Again,” focus on male protagonists who both fail at creating a lasting bond with an object of affection. “You're Ugly, Too,” which depicts the destructive effects of loneliness on a woman in her thirties, contains a haunting, ambiguous ending. The novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? opens in Paris, where Berie Carr and her husband are attending medical conference and hoping to renew their flagging marriage. Berie, however, cannot help remembering her fifteenth year, when, with her best friend Sils, she worked at a Canadian amusement park called Storyland. Sils played Cinderella at the park, but Berie, who had not yet attained physical maturity, was a cashier. The park's happily-ever-after fairy tale theme contrasts sharply with the reality of the girls' growing up and the challenges they face. A bildungsroman with a female protagonist, the novel is full of humor, derived primarily from wordplay, but the overarching theme is one of loss. Berie reminisces about her lost childhood and her lost optimism for the future.
Birds of America contains twelve stories—with ten focusing on female lives and perceptions. The title has been variously interpreted, with some seeing it as a reference to nineteenth-century naturalist and painter John James Audubon, who killed birds before enshrining them for posterity in his watercolors. The women in the collection, like nearly all of Moore's female characters, are Midwestern, well-educated, and in their thirties or forties. They have lived sufficiently to have experienced loss but still believe in the potential for exciting possibilities. A thread that runs through many of the stories is physical pain, the result of either accident or disease—Down's syndrome, polio, cystic fibrosis, or cancer. With two exceptions, however, the diseases and misfortunes do not afflict the protagonists; rather, they occur in the lives of a sibling, a child, or a parent and affect the protagonist in unexpected ways. “Real Estate” contains two plots that intertwine. The first involves a woman who realizes that her cancer is no longer in remission; the second concerns a young man who turns to armed robbery when he is fired from his job. The most celebrated of the stories in Birds of America is “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in which a baby is diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer. The mother finds a blood clot in the baby's diaper, and the nightmare of an emergency room visit, surgery, and chemotherapy begins. The staccato nature of thoughts and events are memorably captured in Moore's raw and nuanced telling of this devastating event in the life of a young family. Moore has also authored a children's book, The Forgotten Helper: A Story for Children (1987), and edited an anthology of stories about childhood, I Know Some Things (1992), republished in 1997 as The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories About Childhood.
Critics have considered Moore to be one of the foremost practitioners of the innovative and urbane American short fiction that emerged in the final two decades of the twentieth century. While Self-Help has been acclaimed by reviewers, her novel Anagrams has been regarded as far less illustrative of Moore's talent. Critics have praised Like Life for its emotional engagement and broader thematic scope. Some of the short stories in this volume, notably “You're Ugly, Too,” have been considered as representative of the best in American short fiction. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has been generally well received, though some reviewers found the novel's Parisian sections overly coy and questioned Moore's ability to sustain the breadth and scope of the novel form. Birds of America has been widely complimented for its sharply etched vignettes and the maturity of Moore's narratives. In particular, “People Like That Are the Only People Here” has attracted notice for its emotional power, which has been considered by many reviewers as evidence of Moore's skill with narrative control. Moore's incorporation of humor, particularly puns and one-liners, has been both admired and admonished by critics, with some arguing that Moore's jokes lessen the emotional connections between the text and the reader.
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SOURCE: Jenkins, Victoria. “Two Teenage Girls, One Praying ‘For Things to Happen.’” Chicago Tribune Books (23 October 1994): 3.
[In the following positive review, Jenkins examines the themes and characterization in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?]
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (an odd, unpromising title for this slim, exquisite memoiristic novel) opens in Paris, where Benoite-Marie Carr and her husband, Daniel, eat brains every night. He likes the “vaporous, fishy mousse of them,” but “Me, I'm eating for a flashback,” Berie says, “hoping for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood.” She gets it, too, not in Proustian volume but in exhilarating, crystalline recall.
The year Berie flashes back to is 1972, the summer she is 15 and working as a ticket seller in an upstate New York theme park called Storyland, where rides and enactments depict nursery rhymes and fairy tales, and local girls dressed up as Bo-Peep or Miss Muffet wander the grounds. Here little girls, tongue-tied with admiration, get to ride around in a papier-mache pumpkin coach with Berie's beautiful best friend, Silsby Chaussee, Cinderella herself in a strapless gown.
But while publicly engaged in impersonating the icons of childhood, these teenagers, underneath their pantaloons and sateen gowns, are raucous and irreverent, growing up as fast as they can. They've got fake ID's and know the lyrics to all of Janis Joplin. On their breaks they meet in the alley behind Hickory Dickory Dock to smoke Salems and Sobranies and make fun of the French-Canadian tourists who flood across the border and bedevil the locals with penuriousness and broken English. The girls play air guitar, sing harmony, belch and swear and flip each other off, then laugh uproariously at their lame wit.
Saturday nights they drink and dance at roadhouses on the outskirts of town with construction workers and car salesmen, or “Sometimes we danced with each other—boyless and defiant, with a tight, parodic pout. We would do the twist in a deeply satirical way.” Afterward they rely on Sils' good looks to cop them a ride home, and they climb in, “… Sils in front, I in the back, and we'd head up to the lake again and I'd watch the guy's right arm go slowly up, stealing up behind Sils on the car seat making its way, a cheap stole, around her, and I'd pray there wasn't a gun. I was a Baptist and had always prayed in a damp squint, for things not to happen. Sils was a Catholic, and so she prayed for things to happen, for things to come true. And things do happen to Sils.
This is the story of a friendship, about the fierce, deep ways girls love each other and how girls define themselves by what their friends are and they are not. How sometimes a single summer and the weird caprice of nature, the inequities of genes and hormones, can shape a life. A whole shared childhood of intimacy and malfeasance bonds these pals, but at 15 Sils has grown breasts and has a boyfriend from “glamorous Albany” riding his motorcycle up to see her. Berie hasn't even menstruated yet, though she pretends otherwise.
Berie's lagging development and the widening gulf between her and Sils is routine stuff for a coming-of-age story, the pain of being left behind, replaced by a boy, but the tough precision of Moore's language and her own self-deprecating wit slice past sentimentality. Sils, she says, “… was a high school girl and this was the first sex she'd known. It drugged her with secrets. It had stolen her away, left her smile deranged, her hair a mess.” Moore isn't looking back through a soft-focus lens—for her 1972 is all sharp edges and hard surfaces to knock against.
And music, the names of the bands and their songs like a mantra, the cohesion that the music of a particular generation provides, one thing shared, at least, no matter how different other experiences may have been. “Rebellion, revolution, and the songs that went with them,” Berie says to her husband. “We ice skated to ‘Eve of Destruction.’ ‘The western world, it is exploding,’ and we'd do these little spins and turns.”
In many ways Berie seems the passive partner in a lopsided friendship, but it is ultimately she who acts, and her action changes things forever. “It wasn't that scary to do this, for some reason,” she says, “because—unlike the time I ran under a truck stopped for a red light, rather than walk all the way around it, and unlike the time I hitchhiked alone at night to the lake just to test myself, to learn the meaning of myself good god whatever that was, and unlike the time I shoplifted from a downstreet store a sweater I had coveted grossly … I was doing this for Sils and her emergency.” Teenagers, behaving as though there are no consequences.
Occasionally the novel returns to Paris and the present, where Berie and Daniel limp ruefully forward through the complexities of their marriage, bantering, arguing, snatching the map out of each other's hands. Berie's limp is actual, too, caused by a bone cracked in a fall, still fragile, like the habits and assumptions that support a relationship, a fracture so harrowing she can't tell the truth about it.
In Paris, Berie goes slowly, “… galumphing along through a sea of French women who have exquisite shoes and haircuts, overbites unruined by orthodontia, faces unbedecked by optometry, a great, nearsighted, chomping faith in their own beauty. …” Moore, though, trips through the City of Light balanced adroitly on the fine line between laughter and tears.
As a child, Berie says, she thought it must be possible to split her voice, to sing chords “… to people myself, unleash the crowd in my voice box, give birth, set free all the mood and nuances, all the lovely and mystical inhabitants of my mind's speech.” She couldn't do it and abandoned the effort, but in writing Lorrie Moore can.
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Self-Help (short stories) 1985
Anagrams (novel) 1986
The Forgotten Helper: A Story for Children [republished as The Forgotten Helper: A Christmas Story, 2000] (juvenilia) 1987
Like Life (short stories) 1990
I Know Some Things: Stories about Childhood by Contemporary Writers [editor] (short stories) 1992; republished as The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood, 1997
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (novel) 1994
Birds of America (short stories) 1998
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SOURCE: Shone, Tom. “Smart-Aleck Scenes.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4779 (4 November 1994): 22.
[In the following review, Shone offers a positive assessment of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, commending Moore's characterizations and serious themes.]
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? begins with this sentence: “In Paris we eat brains each night.” It's a typical opening from a writer who has mastered the art of button-holing New Yorker readers; but it will raise a particular question among Moore's fans: is Lorrie Moore eating her words? For braininess—and in particular its pipsqueak younger brother, quickwittedness—is something her fiction normally prizes above all else. Her stories brim over with clever, cranial bits of word play—puns, anagrams, wisecracks—which are usually to be found on the lips of her heroines. They are a distinct type: bundles of bangles and bravado who keep the world at arm's distance with their spiky tactlessness, their obtusely angled wit. As the beleaguered boyfriend of one of them in Moore's first collection of short stories, Self-Help, says: “Riva, I'm worried about you. Everything's a joke. You're always flip-flopping words, only listening to the edge of things. It's like you're always constantly on the edge.”
This neatly echoed reviewers' worries about Moore—would she be able to deepen this tone, quit the edge of things and find her way to an emotional centre dense enough to support a novel? Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, her second, opens in the familiar Moore territory of soured marriages and overripe puns: a husband and wife, Berie and Daniel, are on holiday in Paris, avoiding each other's gaze with over-enthusiastic sightseeing, papering over the silences in their conversation with old jokes.
Typically, a couple in a Lorrie Moore short story might sit down to dinner cracking jokes, and leave the table cracking heads. Before either the reader or Moore knows it, the date, from a relatively good start, has flopped: the puns have written the plot. Her first novel, Anagrams (1987), worked in a clever, rather casuistical way, and left the reader brow-beaten in admiration. Here, however, she has found a subject which gives her smart-aleck tone more room for manoeuvre, and also more rationale: it is a story about where that tone comes from, about what first caused the smart aleck to smart.
Leaving her marriage stalled in Paris, Berie introduces the reader to her childhood friend, Sils, and to Storyland, an amusement park in upstate Canada, where they both worked one summer in the early 1970s when they were both fifteen. Sils is beautiful, is employed to dress up as Cinderella, and has a boyfriend who drives her home on his motorcycle every day after work. Berie is flat-chested, employed as the park's cashier, and when it comes to first love, has to make do with adoring her best friend—“I knew her outfits off by heart”, she says. Together, they tip-toe up to the worst excess of 1970s teenage culture. Never part of the “truly wild” bunch, they listen to their recordings of Neil Young concerts (“lap-top recorded by a bootlegger with a cough”), they smoke dope, but steer clear of anything heavier. “I feared chromosome damage”, says Berie, “I feared actually starting a brand-new species.” Moore seems to have relaxed. The opportunities for humour in the book are taken up gently, on the wing, rather than en route to a punchline, and she has invented a wonderful tone for her ugly-duckling narrator: braced by embarrassment, but never loitering for picturesquely gawky effect.
Nobody else gets much of a look in on the close, obsessive adolescent world of Berie and Sils; and the first thirty pages or so of the novel have a solipsistic tilt to them which takes a little getting used to. Berie's family barely gets a mention; her parents are like the adults in a Peanuts cartoon, filling the air above with distant adult burblings. Moore instead gives her foreground over to gaudy images from the Storyland theme park—Sils, for instance, in her Cinderella ball-gown, on her papier-mâché pumpkin, snatching a quick cigarette break; or another girl, Randi, playing Bo-Peep, wandering around shouting, “Have you seen my fucking sheep?”
Moore cannot resist elaborating: “Ten years later Randi would have a nervous breakdown selling [Mary] Kay cosmetics.” That life isn't a fairytale seems an obvious point to make; having Bo-Peep lose her mind as well as her sheep compounds that obviousness with over-neatness. The same fault afflicts a passage in which Berie takes Sils to an abortion clinic and their cab passes an old doll hospital. Moor has Sils observe, “There's the old doll hospital, with all its cheap irony”—which is either a rather risky game of self-puncturing pathos, or a simple case of a writer shooting herself in the foot, depending on how you look at it.
These wobbles in tone are isolated, however. Far more representative is the use Moore makes of the taxi-driver, Humphrey, who drives them to the abortion clinic and with whom Berie begins to build up a curious, tentative fondness. At last, she thinks, a man who will drive her home after work, even if she does have to pay him. When it is discovered that she has paid for her friend's abortion and the taxi rides with money lifted from the Storyland till, she has another lift home, this time from the local sheriff: “How much more complicated it was for me, just me, to get a guy to drive me home from the lake”, she thinks.
The novel ends with that familiar source of soured dreams and sullied youth—the class reunion—but Moore keeps her nerve, and exchanges her wisecracks for a particularly affecting form of cracked wisdom: “I had gone out in to the world and in it imagine myself sweet and good compared to the jagged acrimony I found everywhere. … By comparison to what I found there, I had become sour, mean, sophisticated.” The passage makes the novel—which has somehow contrived to be both sophisticated and sweet—all the more startling.
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SOURCE: Whitworth, John. “He Wouldn't A-Wooing Go.” Spectator 273, no. 8679 (12 November 1994): 40.
[In the following review, Whitworth offers a positive assessment of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, though notes that Moore's humor and shallow characterization of men may not appeal to some readers.]
This is a short novel [Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?], and somewhere round it the word ‘poetic’ beats its bat-like wings. It is Alison Lurie (who ought to know better) who uses it about an earlier book of Lorrie Moore's. When you hear the word ‘poetic’ you reach for your revolver, do you not? But hold your fire: things are nowhere near as bad as that. There isn't too much description of the natural world; there isn't too much shimmering exultation; the protagonist is a young girl rather than a young boy, and that cuts out a good deal of the poetic stuff.
Berie Carr is French Canadian. In the present tense she lives in Paris with her Jewish-medical husband Daniel who can't stand the unwrapped unsanitariness of the bread and pushes Berie down the stairs (an accident, and Berie can be very irritating). They are childless, not by choice but because they share a bad gene; they are considering, have considered, adoption.
In the past it is the Sixties in Horsehearts. Is there such a place, is it any odder than Steeple Bumpstead? Berie is 11 or 15 or the age between. Her best friend Silsby is beautiful but Berie is intellectually precocious, flat as a board. They work in an amusement park full of nursery characters. Berie takes the entrance money (and fiddles the till to buy Sils an abortion, so I suppose her later childlessness just serves her right), Sils is Cinderella and their friend Randi is Bo-Peep.
‘Have you seen my fucking sheep?’ she'd ask, stepping into the alleyway (or Memory Lane if it was raining or lunchtime), hitching up her pantaloons, the elastic of which always itched her. Ten years later Randi would have a nervous breakdown selling Mary Kay cosmetics. …
If you don't like this sort of thing, then don't buy the book. Me, I love it, a sort of French-Canadian Beryl Bainbridge, playing the faux-naif card for all it's worth. It's a novel about women, not nasty to the men (husband Daniel gets a very fair shake). But men remain, to employ E. M. Forster's terminology, resolutely flat, never round; they are plot-necessities. The women suffer and crack jokes and so forth.
Frogs turn up a lot. Boys are frogs, vulnerable and odd, not human—girls prefer them that way. In the middle of the book is a joke about a middle-aged woman who meets a frog in the woods. She won't kiss him to turn him into a prince.
I'm sorry—but at this point in my life I'm actually more interested in a talking frog.
At this point in my life! The writing is poised, witty, made for the short story. A long, short story, a novella that ends on a Joycean epiphany we forgive because it has been earned. A Girls' Choir sings an arrangement of a Schubert Rhapsody,
a valedictory chorus to our childhood. … All of us could hear it, standing in the midst of it, no boys, no parents in the room, no one else to tell us, though we never managed to sound that beautiful again.
The American-ness is strange. I don't know the records she plays in her version of the Sixties and there is a small, golden bugger floating in the dark on page 67, startling to English persons. It's either an insect or a piece of nasal detritus, I'm not sure which.
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Duffy, Maureen. “Fallen Arches.” Time (3 October 1994): 76.
Duffy asserts that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is a “wisp of a story” with weighty literary pretensions.
Giles, Jeff. “The Human Comedy.” Newsweek (28 September 1998): 80.
Giles provides a profile of Moore and offers a favorable discussion of Birds of America.
James, Caryn. “I Feel His Lack of Love for Me.” New York Times Book Review (9 October 1994): 7.
James contends that Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is Moore's “richest work yet,” praising Moore for allowing darker themes to emerge from underneath her jokes.
Johnson, Claudia. “A Sad and Gory Land.” London Review of Books (23 February 1995): 28-30.
Johnson commends Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, holding that Moore has created a powerful coming-of-age story in the American tradition with a female protagonist.
Kakutani, Michiko. “An Elegy for Lost Youth, with Hurts But Few Tears.” New York Times (23 September 1994): C31.
Kakutani lauds Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, asserting that it is a touching portrait of lost youth.
———. “And What Have They Done with Their Lives?” New York Times (11 September 1998): E46.
Kakutani evaluates the strengths of Birds of America, praising Moore's ability to depict lives in a state of transition and lauding the humor, pathos, and “sharp, unsentimental” portraits of characters in the stories.
Kirn, Walter. Review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, by Lorrie Moore. New York (10 October 1994): 78.
Kirn criticizes Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? for its excessive “stagy badinage” and faults the book for trying to be too glib.
Lange, Alexandra. “The Aviatrix.” New York (14 September 1998): 116.
Lange offers a profile of Moore and her fiction upon the publication of Birds of America.
Larsen, Eric. “That Anteroom of Girlhood.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (27 November 1994): 15.
Larsen praises Moore's evocation of female adolescence in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? but finds shortcomings in the contrived presentation of her protagonist's adult life.
McManus, James. “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” New York Times Book Review (20 September 1998): 6.
McManus praises the wit and humor in Birds of America, applauding Moore's descriptive ability with words. McManus also commends the balance of hilarity and deeper themes, calling the collection a “sublimely dark book.”
Moore, Lorrie, and Molly McQuade. “The Booklist Interview.” Booklist (15 October 1998): 402.
McQuade presents Moore's comments on her life and work upon the publication of Birds of America.
Saari, Jon. Review of Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. Antioch Review 57, no. 2 (spring 1999): 241.
Saari evaluates the strengths and weaknesses of Birds of America.
Weber, Bruce. “Life Is Grim? Yes, But Good for a Laugh.” New York Times (28 November 1998): B9.
Weber offers an overview of Moore's literary career and her life as a New York transplant in the Midwest, as well as a discussion of Birds of America.
Yang, June Unjoo. “Book of Revelations.” Women's Review of Books 16, no. 2 (November 1998): 15-16.
Yang praises the subtle insight and compassion of Moore's best fiction, though finds shortcomings in her tendency toward self-indulgent humor and linguistic gimmickry in Birds of America.
Additional coverage of Moore's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 10; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 116; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 39, 83; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 39, 45, 68; Contemporary Novelists; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 234; and Literature Resource Center.
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SOURCE: Griffith, Michael. “‘All of Us Dislike the Laws of Nature’: New Fiction in Review.” Southern Review 31, no. 2 (April 1995): 365-80.
[In the following excerpt, Griffith offers a positive review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, commending Moore's deft characterization and comic wit.]
In a way, all of us dislike the laws of nature. We should prefer to make things happen in the more direct way in which savage people imagine them to happen, through our own invocation.
—Robert Parrish, The Magician's Handbook, quoted in Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods
I, too, dislike it: but natural law is always there, ready—like a bunched rug, a stray skate—to trip those who forget their feet. No tread can be light enough. As Dueña Alfonsa puts it to the mooning John Grady in Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, “[W]e all come to be cured of our sentiments. … The world is quite ruthless in selecting between the dream and the reality, even when we will not. Between the wish and the thing the world lies waiting.” In one way or another, each of the books here under review—four novels, two collections of stories—has at its center a struggle to ignore or set aside or conjure away some inescapable fact or limitation; each is about the way the ruthless world insinuates itself between the wish and the thing.
Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is so sprightly and so deftly turned that the reader is tempted to take its light touch for a light heart. But this slim and witty book (her fourth) is Moore's most ambitious work yet. It's a novel in part about a middle-aged woman's disappointment that the world hasn't delivered on its promises:
I longed for a feeling again, a particular one: the one of approaching a room but of not yet having entered it … that anteroom of girlhood, with its laughter as yet only affianced to the world, anticipation playing in the heart like an orchestra tuning and warming, the notes unwed and fabulous and crazed—I wanted it back!—those beginning sounds, so much more interesting than the piece itself.
If the metaphors here (“as yet only affianced,” “unwed and fabulous and crazed”) seem pointed, it's for good reason: the narrator, Berie Carr, is trapped in a marriage that has degenerated into edgy shtick punctuated by out-and-out hostility. She and her husband Daniel are in Paris for a medical conference (and, we assume, a potentially revivifying change of scene), and they communicate in a tense but breezy code of puns, comic riffs, “mais oui/may we jokes, and Pépé LePew imitations.”
So Berie, via a prodigious effort of memory, crowds back into the anteroom of being fifteen, when it seemed that the only possibilities were “deferment and make-believe.” Fueled by the cervelles she eats nightly in Paris and by the wish “for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood,” Berie looks back to the eventful summer when she—still waiting for her body, and her identity, to bud—was the adoring sidekick/confidante of Silsby Chaussée, the most sophisticated girl in Horsehearts, New York.
In a way Berie didn't understand at the time, Sils—precocious, beautiful, at ease in the world—was her first love, and Berie painstakingly re-creates her in memory, drags down the “jewel box kept in a medicine cabinet in the attic of a house on the moon … where their unchanging forms are kept.” The friends worked at an amusement park called Storyland, Berie taking tickets, Sils playing a world-weary Cinderella (the kind of fairy tale heroine who, chain-smoking on break, says of a starstruck little girl, “She kept asking me about the prince. She's not two. You'd think she'd get it. Ceci n'est pas une pipe. … There is no prince.”) Their exploits that summer were for the most part unextraordinary—but the familiar tales are enlivened by Berie's graceful voice and by the way she packs her story with remembered detail. Hers is a past whose colors have lost none of their heraldic blaze; this is what might result if you set Proust loose amid the detritus of adolescence in early-1970s America—vats of Yardley lip gloss, Windex-colored punch shooting up the sides of a Jet-Spray cooler, gold-filter Sobranis, framed posters of Spiro Agnew and the Desiderata, cheeseburgers at the Dairy Dreem, soundtrack by Deep Purple, Cheap Irony, and the James Gang.
The summer ended messily, with Berie exiled to church camp after she pocketed money from her register to bankroll an abortion for Sils. And that, in a sense, was that. The banishments continued, each more abstract than the last, from atonement camp to boarding school and then out of girlhood altogether—to college, to marriage and its falterings, to the grim anticlimax of adulthood.
This sounds like the standard stuff of coming-of-age novels, but in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? the jokes and kitsch and nostalgia are set into a framework that makes them resound with grief. We see Berie moving languorously through Paris, visiting museums and sparring with Daniel and eating “the pastries with the funny names: Divorce, Religieuse, Gland”—her strained marriage and the strange city doing the duty of Proust's cork-lined room. The reader is reminded again and again that this is a virtuoso show of memory, that Berie's childhood is being not so much recalled as reinvented, not so much recollected as discovered. As she puts it early on:
My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song—nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.
So this narrative, a product of the “elsewhere” of Paris and adulthood, is cobbled together from what Berie has been able to unearth and rearrange. Every detail in the book has a doubled, and ambivalent, message: we see the joy with which Berie invokes that “unwed and fabulous and crazed” summer of anticipation, but it's a joy always undercut by the knowledge that the mind grows less fearless than numb, that narrative flourishes only after life has gone and happened … with or without one's notice.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is not without flaws. Invoking the ghost of Proust in a novel of less than one hundred fifty pages is a dangerous game—it cultivates in the reader a hankering for epic scale, epic ambition. And the book ends abruptly, without telling as much as we'd like to know of Berie's present situation; about Daniel we learn only what we can descry behind his tireless jokery, and he remains, amid the “fallen archness” of their marriage, a kind of anti-straight man. At one point, in the hospital after Daniel has (accidentally?) pushed Berie down the stairs, she warns him away from his mode of manic comedy: “Don't be clever,” she says. “Don't be like that now.” It's a sentiment the reader may have beaten her to.
But these are quibbles; Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is the best book yet by this gifted writer. “You wanted an adventure and instead you got Adventureland,” Sils used to tell Berie, and that was true enough—but in the right hands, even the ersatz joys of storyland have their thrills.
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SOURCE: Miner, Valerie. “Connections and Disconnections.” Women's Review of Books 12, no. 7 (April 1995): 14-15.
[In the following excerpt, Miner provides a mixed review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, praising Moore's prose style but finding flaws in the story's extenuated form as novel rather than a novella.]
Longing permeates so much American fiction these days. Longing for an idealized past, longing for hope that will get you through the day, longing for real connection with family, culture, nation, in a society that compels us to respond immediately, keep our eyes on the inside lane and go for it. What Rebecca Brown and Lorrie Moore bring to this frenzied moment is a talent for paying attention.
These two veteran storytellers are writing first-person, female accounts about the nature of caring. In [Rebecca Brown's]The Gifts of the Body, which attends eloquently to physical action, the narrator takes care of strangers who become friends. Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? keeps vigil on feelings as family and friends metamorphose into strangers. The author of each of these wistful odysseys has something interesting to learn from the other. …
The shift from Rebecca Brown's spare, physical world to Lorrie Moore's fluently expressed universe of emotions is dramatic. While Brown's narrator meditates on the pain of losing those for whom she cares, Moore describes a painful inability to connect. Her narrator fails in loving her parents, brother, foster-sister, grandmother, husband and even, in the end, her girlhood confidante.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is a commemoration of friendship found and lost and, beyond that, a lament for the cohesive, affectionate world Berie imagines she should be experiencing. The relationship between Berie and Sils is driven by adventurous camaraderie and laced with a diffuse, erotic awakening. In a friendship that spans pre-adolescence to premature adulthood, Berie and Sils explore duckponds, attend R-rated movies, shop for bras and men's sweaters and sneak into taverns. For Berie, this relationship is a refuge from her indifferent family and a respite from the provincialism of the Adirondack town of Horsehearts. When both girls land jobs at a local amusement park called Fantasyland, it seems the ideal territory for campy high school dreams.
Moore's inhospitable emotional and geographical landscape recalls stark settings from Joyce Carol Oates and Alice Munro. Berie aches for a place of richer cultural and psychological patterns, while Sils lusts for the wet heat of Hawaii. They are unaware that their lives seem destined to diverge. Berie grows up in a middle-class college-cultured home of hired housekeepers and visiting foreign students; Sils' mother works at a motel and her brothers are trying to sing their way into recording history. Berie remains deeply loyal to her friend, breaking the law to help her and in doing so precipitating the rift between them.
An eerily naive romance about marriage runs through this book. Touching childhood moments are fetishized in marital language. Berie's brother Claude is described as a “child spouse.” When Sils leaves a meal for a friend, Berie thinks: “How odd in memory to conjure it, the dressed cucumbers and celery assembled as if by a wife for her husband …” Of her boyfriend, Berie says: “We were child bride, child groom, each seeking the other animal's heart.” But nothing about the lassitude of her parents' home prepares the adult Berie for the unsatisfactory relationship with her own husband.
And hopping around each of these moldy wedding cakes are frogs. Lots of frogs. Early in the book, Berie recalls:
The week she was hired as Cinderella, Sils made a painting of this, what we'd done with the frogs those years before. She painted a picture in deep blues and greens. In the background, through some trees, stood two little girls dressed up as saints or nurses or boys or princesses—what were they? Cinderellas. They were whispering, And in the foreground, next to the rocks and lily pads, sat two wounded frogs, one in a splint, one with a bandage tied around its eye; they looked like frogs who had been kissed and kissed roughly, yet stayed frogs. She framed it, hung it in her bedroom, and titled it Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?
A charming story, but during the course of the novel, Moore recruits too many frogs to determine or explain the title—chorusing frogs, frog jokes, ecologically threatened frogs, a frog-like baptismal leap. Berie, herself, is a kind of amphibian, not completely settled on land or sea, in small-time larceny or born-again Christianity, in Paris or Horsehearts.
The great pleasure in this book is Moore's smart, agile style.
In those days in Horsehearts, nothing, no building, had air-conditioning. After a summer rain, humidity soaked into the wood—the moldings, railings. Windows swelled at the sashes and joints. The steps and banisters went pulpy soft, the varnish gummy, the doors sticky and suddenly trapezoidal. The steamy heat fogged the glass, made every cracker in the house go stale. Earwigs roamed and measured the sinks. The hot tar roofs and rubber-lined gutters filled the air with a damp burnt smell.
Berie has a fine, laconic wit.
“Bonjour, Mademoiselle!” I call in greeting, and when I get close, go suddenly formal; I stick my hand out and my fingers lock and go stiff, like a fistful of knives and forks. Luckily, she leaps up and hugs me, does the one kiss on the cheek, then two, three, four. “Four is chic now,” she says.
“I need Dramamine for four,” I say.
Moore's writing is layered, musical, gleaming with original phrases.
At the foot, in the dim light of the little lamp she kept on when I was there, I lay curled in a sleeping bag and looked at her, beginning with her toes: the rubbery blue nexus of veins on top of her feet, the tendons splayed like the bones of a fan, the discolored sheen of the nails shimmery and vague as mother-of-pearl.
The form of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is more problematic. With some editing, it would have made a successful novella, but the story is too thin for a novel. Perhaps Moore is really best in the short story form, for in this book she sometimes loses her grip not only on narrative line, but also on language. There are startlingly clunky sentences: “We feel ourselves moving minusculely against some process, some momentum, that we become inadvertently a part.”
As Berie ages, she seems less interested in experience than in sensibility; her youthful disappointment turns into an exasperating adult petulance. Ennui is cheaper than hope or despair. Yet while Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? may not be Moore's greatest book, it serves well as a grave and often moving lament for lost youth, for bygone ideals, for unrealized dreams and missed connections.
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SOURCE: Stabile, Carole. Review of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, by Lorrie Moore. Belles Lettres 11, no. 1 (January 1996): 45-6.
[In the following review, Stabile praises the poignancy and power in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, lauding Moore's ability to depict the sense of nostalgia and wistfulness that adults feel when examining their earlier lives.]
“Things,” Lorrie Moore tells us in her second novel [Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?], “stiffen and shift in memory, become what they never were before.” For Berie Carr, visiting Paris with her husband, Daniel, memory possesses a richness—a fertility—that throws the present into shadowy relief. Daniel is attending a medical conference on Tay-Sachs, a disease for which both he and Berie carry the gene. She is, as she puts it, “safe” in a predictable life that holds little hope for surprise, adventure, or even pain.
The summer of 1972 unfolds against this background of middle-class stability and safety. This is the summer of Berie's 15th year—a season full of pain, urgency, chaos, and life. More than anything, this is a story about friendship, about the love that sustains two young women in spite of (or perhaps because of) the norms of femininity that threaten to divide them. Silsby Chausée is the girl we are taught to want to be: “beautiful—her eyes a deep black-flecked aquamarine, her skin smooth as soap, her hair long and silt-colored but with an oriole yellow streak here and there catching the sun the way a river does.” Berie is the girl many felt they were: awkward, too skinny, cerebral, and “bypassed by Mother Nature.”
This is also the summer they work at Storyland an amusement park in upstate New York—where, characteristically, Berie is a ticket taker and Sils a Cinderella in a papier-mâché pumpkin, her “cider-colored” breasts a constant reminder of the comparative poverty of Berie's “two wiener-hued puffs.” But for Berie, this is the last summer of reckless adolescent abandon: that time when the all-too-adult consequences of adventure become apparent in gut-wrenching ways.
Storyland comes to embody much of the animation and banal terror of adolescence. With its fairy-tale characters and transient tourism, Storyland itself captures much of that strange, carnivalesque sensation of adolescence. Berie and Sils sneak off “into the alley between Hickory Dickory Dock and Peter Pumpkin Eater's Pumpkin” to smoke cigarettes with their friend Randi, a Little Bo Peep who greets them by saying, “Have you seen my fucking sheep?”
For all its humor, the novel is a pained and painful reminder of that agonizing bridge between adolescence and womanhood. Berie resents the advent of Sils' heterosexuality, recalling how when the boys would shoot frogs in the swamp, she and Sils would wade into the water and (unsuccessfully) attempt to patch the frogs back together. Prophetically, Sils makes a painting of this, titled “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?,” the very week she is hired as Cinderella. This title serves as a constant reminder of what gets lost or left behind in the transition from adolescent to adult.
If you have ever been driving a car on that first warm day of spring—a day when summer once again seems possible—and heard a song that immediately propels you into a moment from the past richly suggestive of the future, you'll understand the poignancy and brilliance of Moore's novel:
It seemed even then a valedictory chorus to our childhood and struck us deep in the brain and low in the spine, like a call, and in its wave and swell lifted us, I swear, to the ceiling in astonishment and bliss, we sounded that beautiful. All of us could hear it, aloft in the midst of it, no boys, no parents in the room, no one else to tell us, though we never managed to sound that beautiful again. In all my life as a woman—which began soon after and not unrichly—I have never known such a moment.
In the end, the beauty of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? lies not in its conjuring up of teenage angst, but in its ability to conjure up much of the headiness and magic—that inexplicable sense of infinite possibility—that makes growing up bearable and the memory of it so exquisitely sad.
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SOURCE: Blyth, Catherine. “A Child's-Eye View.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4894 (27 January 1997): 20.
[In the following review, Blyth lauds the selection of stories chosen by Moore in the anthology The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood.]
Roald Dahl did much to dispel cosy notions of the story for children. Lorrie Moore's anthology, The Faber Book of Contemporary Stories about Childhood, takes a similar line with adult tales of childhood. This collection shows that the construction of childhood innocence is a myth propagated by adults for adults. Moore distinguishes between stories about childhood and stories for children with her opening choice, “Lies” by Glenda Adams, in which Josephine watches her family disintegrate amid adultery and child abuse. Returning to school at the end of her vacation, “the teacher told us to write the story of our family”. When presented with Josephine's stark account, the teacher makes it clear what a child is allowed to see and know: “This isn't the real story of your family, is it? You made it up, didn't you?” Josephine recognizes these as orders and not questions, demarcating the territory of childhood adults seek to impose upon children.
A disillusionment with adult lies informs many of these tales. “Gorilla, My Love” by Toni Cade Bambara exposes bad faith. Hazel faces a life-crisis when her adored Hunca Bubba decides to change his name back to Jefferson Winston Vale, signalling the end of a cherished childhood intimacy. Jefferson renounces his cuddly uncle's nickname because he intends to marry, and his transformation represents a breach of promise to Hazel whom he had pledged to wed when she was a toddler. This disappointment is framed around the memory of seeing Gorilla, My Love at the cinema, and finding the movie bears no resemblance to her expectations. She complains, “I get so tired grownups messing over kids just cause they little.” Disappointed expectations also figure in “Tinsel Bright” by Kirsty Gunn, which exposes a capacity for deceit when a little girl discovers a darker motive for her father's fancy for dressing as a Christmas fairy.
Stories like these are counterpointed by examples of children's humour at adults' expense. “The Point” by Charles D'Ambrosio Jr, the story of a fatherless adolescent boy, is anything but mawkish. This is a story of sexual awakening. Kurt, who is dramatically named for the first time when he is propositioned by the difficult Mrs Gurney, casts a jaded eye over these adult buffoons. The crux of the tale is his borderline status, contrasting his manly sense of responsibility with his shocked withdrawal from Mrs Gurney's clumsy sexual advances.
A child's introduction to the world, the guesswork and improvisation involved in daily encounters with something new and unknown, is essential to all the tales. Sandra Cisneros captures the sensory immediacy of children's experience and the limited language they have for self-expression. In “Barbie-Q”, the present tense is used throughout to imitate a child's limited grammatical range, effectively thrusting the reader into the narrative world. A child's impulsive desire pulsates throughout the narrative with a staccato beat—“And there! And there! And there! …” “My Lucy Friend Who Smells Like Corn” also successfully uses a child's register. The verb “to like” resonates throughout, accumulating different shades of meaning with an increasingly subtle narrative voice. In the opening paragraph, a hurried, unpunctuated stream of associations describing the narrator's understanding of Lucy has the quality of an excited child who has not learnt to pause for breath. In the second paragraph “like” accrues the further sense of love—“But me I like that Lucy”—emphasizing children's tendency to hero-worship their peers (a theme explored in Jamaica Kincaid's “Gwen”). In the third paragraph, a liking for Lucy becomes a desire to be like Lucy, and so on.
Stories of familiar rites of passage unite us in our need to remember the feel of growing up. Lorrie Moore's collection only features tales told in the first person, the majority recalling the past. As is generally true of the genre, these short stories focus on occasions marking a turning-point for the central character. They offer a commentary on the adult speaker's understanding of him or herself, illustrating the process of editing and revision that goes into self-knowledge. This collection reminds us how important our stories of childhood are for our understanding of adulthood.
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SOURCE: Moore, Lorrie, and John Blades. “Lorrie Moore: Flipping Death the Bird.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 34 (24 August 1998): 31.
[In the following interview, Blades provides an overview of Moore's personal background, literary career, and fiction upon the publication of Birds of America, and reports Moore's own comments on her life and work.]
“Try to be something, anything else,” Lorrie Moore urged would-be writers in her debut short-story collection, Self-Help, published by Knopf in 1985. For those who stubbornly persist in their “unfortunate habit,” Moore had this tip on how to succeed: “Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age—say, 14. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at 15 you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire.”
Moore's dictum came in the story, “How to Be a Writer,” packaged in Self-Help with a half-dozen other seriocomic “how-to” pieces. Perversely enough, Moore was a conspicuous failure only when it came to following her own advice—the book, which began as Moore's graduate thesis at Cornell, was an instant success, propelling the young writer into a literary fellowship with Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Barry Hannah, Bobbie Ann Mason and other writers who reconstructed the American short story in the 1980s in vastly different ways.
Moore's subsequent books—two novels, Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), plus another collection, Like Life (1990)—were welcomed with escalating acclaim, reaching a peak when Caryn James in the New York Times nominated her as “the most astute and lasting” writer of her generation.
Those judgments are not likely to be revoked with the publication of Birds of America, her third collection, out next month from Knopf. Whether documenting the inhuman comedy of home ownership (“Real Estate”), charting the decline of a Hollywood actress (“Willing”), or keeping a frightened vigil with parents in a children's cancer ward (“People Like That Are the Only People Here”), these stories are as innovative and emotionally complex as anything Moore has written.
The spiritual and physical transience of her characters helps account for the book's Audubonish title: most of them exhibit some form of avian behavior, however discrete and illusory—looping, migrating, soaring, disappearing on the horizon. “I realized, when I was writing the last couple of stories, that this bird imagery was just running through the book,” Moore tells PW in an interview on and around the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison, where she's taught creative writing since 1984. “To some extent, unrest and searching always make for a good story’.” As it turned out, Birds of America was also the title of a lesser-known Mary McCarthy novel, “but I decided to go ahead because enough people I talked to had never heard of it.”
However grateful for her precocious success as a fiction writer, Moore insists that it's as much the result of hard work as good luck. “I'm not so lucky that I've had any bestsellers or movie sales,” she says. “I've had nonstop financial problems my whole adult life. It's always been a constant balance, year to year: ‘Where's the time? Where's the money?’”
One might also ask, where's the self-pity? The bitterness? The rage? If Moore suffers from these or any of the other maladies in which mid-list writers are occupationally prone, they're nowhere in evidence. On the contrary, as she talks about her hardships, financial and otherwise, she has a distinctly carefree, way-it-is attitude, a mordant cheer. That's a quality she liberally transmits to the characters in her stories—largely populated by materially and spiritually discontented singles, fractious couples, the recently or soon-to-be divorced, many of whose lives are shadowed by misfortune, illness, tragedy.
However profoundly befuddled or bereft, they usually respond by “flipping death the bird” (as Moore puts it in her story, “Dance in America”), with wisecracks, zingers and jokes. That “impulse toward a joke,” muses the heroine of “Agnes of Iowa,” another story in her new collection, is what “made any given day seem bearable. People need to laugh.”
Despite the lyric grace and poetic agility of her prose, Moore's most distinguishing feature has always been her resilient humor, which regularly asserts itself in the most odd and irregular places in her stories. Her prevailing tone is comic despair, suggesting (as she once put it) that “although life is certainly not jokeless, it probably is remediless.”
Moore can be hilarious on the page (so hilarious that her one-liners and epigrams could be compiled into a mid-sized “wit-and-wisdom-of” collection). And yet for a few critics, Moore's aggressive comedic impulses tend to sabotage her characters’ credibility. Reviewing Like Life, Merle Rubin complained in the Los Angeles Times that Moore glibly provides “material for all the standup comedians in Los Angeles, but with very little ability to create convincing characters or tell stories that invite us to suspend our disbelief.”
Asked about the criticism, Moore explains that she's incapable of harnessing her humorous instincts—not that she'd want to. “The world just comes to me that way. If you record the world honestly, there's no way people can stop being funny. A lot of fiction writing doesn't get that idea, as if to acknowledge it would trivialize the story or trivialize human nature, when in fact human nature is reduced and falsified if the comic aspects are not included.”
In person, Moore is no standup—or sitdown—comedian. She answers PW's questions earnestly and patiently, the Eastern inflection still evident in her voice, even though she's been a Midwesterner for almost 15 years. A confessed “shy person,” Moore is friendly and forthcoming enough about her work but cautious about her private life, preferring to meet PW at a coffee house rather than at her home, and adamantly discouraging all autobiographical readings of her fiction. If she's not riotously funny in person, Moore does laugh easily and often. Regally tall, she has longish brown hair with gold highlights and dark, reflective eyes, as animated as “shy stars,” to borrow her description of a character's eyes in her story, “You're Ugly, Too.”
Born in Glens Falls, N.Y., 41 years ago, Moore was the second of four children whose father was an insurance executive. “Was I a typical second child, fighting for attention by trying to be funny?” she asks, rhetorically anticipating PW's question. “I was very, very shy, but we all loved to laugh and joke and amuse each other.” Moore says that her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which centers on the wistful friendship of two 15-year-old girls, “does draw upon a feeling from my own childhood.” But, she insists, “it doesn't correspond in any exact way at all.”
FIELD GUIDE TO LIFE
In retrospect, Moore's literary career seems almost foreordained. In 1976, at the age of 19, she won Seventeen magazine's story contest. Two years later, she graduated from St. Lawrence University, in upstate New York. Taking a job as a paralegal in Manhattan, Moore quickly tired of the drudgery and enrolled in the Cornell M.F.A. program, where she caught the attention of Alison Lurie, another novelist and academic whose guidance and encouragement convinced her she could write for a living.
At Cornell, Moore wrote a series of what she calls “mock-imperative narratives,” counseling readers on “How to Be an Other Woman,” “How to Talk to Your Mother …” and simply “How.” Impressed by Moore's efforts, Lurie recommended her to her agent, Melanie Jackson, who became the first of two long-lasting alliances, rare in contemporary publishing.
Jackson, who had recently left the Candida Donadio Agency and was looking for new writers, sent her stories to Victoria Wilson at Knopf. Wilson not only published Self-Help but also brought out her subsequent four books, through Birds of America. “She also has Anne Rice,” Moore says of her editor. “Which is the reason she can afford to publish people like me. I always think of Anne Rice as the reason I have my house in Madison.”
When PW suggests that her career has the idiosyncratic, fairy-tale flavor of one of her stories but without all the melancholy comedy and anguish, the author laughs and forcefully suggests otherwise: “I was discouraged all along, by my parents and other people who said, ‘You have to be practical.’ All but two or three of the stories in Self-Help were rejected by magazines. It was a fluke that I got the book published.”
Coming to Madison directly from Cornell after she was offered an assistant professorship at the University of Wisconsin, Moore says she was initially oblivious to the city's social and historical attractions. “With all my friends and family living back East, I felt quite isolated and estranged. For the first three or four years, I spent half the year in Madison, half in New York.”
The more time she logged in Madison, however, the more it grew—or forced itself—on her. “I had my job, I was dating a guy from Wisconsin who's now my husband, and I thought, ‘What am I doing in New York?’ I couldn't even afford a decent apartment. I was living in Hell's Kitchen, above a meat market.”
Now a full professor of English, Moore not only has a house near campus and a husband, Mark, a “struggling” lawyer, but a four-year-old son, Benjamin. Living in a culturally progressive university town also puts her in close proximity to an informal community of writers, including novelists Kelly Cherry, Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton. “I've settled in,” she says. “I'm middle-aged and happy, and I actually like Madison now.”
On this agreeably warm, breezy summer afternoon, one can only wonder what's not to like about this energized city, situated on an isthmus between two sparkling, photogenic lakes, with the Wisconsin statehouse at the center. “I have lots of free space,” Moore says. “I don't feel like a prisoner of campus, or locked in by teaching creative writing, because I take a lot of leave time.”
Judging from what is easily the most atypical and unsettling story in Birds of America, however, Moore's life in Madison hasn't been entirely free of grief and pain. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” largely takes place in a hospital's pediatric oncology ward (or “Peedonk”), where a “Mother” and a “Husband” are living a parental nightmare: their “Baby” has been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Almost as funny as it is frightening, “People Like That …” recalls the comic rage of Stanley Elkin and Flannery O'Connor, but it's still a one-of-a-kind story, astonishingly balanced between heartbreak and “sick” humor.
No matter how far she distances herself from autobiographical fiction, Moore confirms that the story accurately approximates an ordeal she and her husband experienced with Benjamin. (At one point, the Mother declares: “I write fiction. This isn't fiction.”) “We went through something that was very, very difficult with our little boy,” Moore says. “It was as if the house had been set on fire, but we'd gotten out the back door. I was stumbling around for a year after that, and the only thing I could think of, the only thing I could possibly write was that story. I felt I was drawing much more explicitly and fearlessly on my actual life, which up until that point had failed to traumatize me. At that point, I was traumatized.”
From this story and others in Birds of America, it's evident that Moore has accumulated a lot more hard experience and practical know-how than when she was so freely—and satirically—offering advice to aspiring writers in Self-Help. That's an apprentice book she'd just as soon forget, Moore says, along with her first novel, Anagrams. Even so, she's not ready to disown the book or to retract her discouraging words, stressing the awful truth behind the mockery. “I still think you should become a writer only if you have no choice. Writing has to be an obsession—its only for those who say, ‘I'm not going to do anything else.’” In Moore's case, it's been a serendipitous obsession for her and her readers. With a third novel now under way, it's one that's likely to take flight in even more unexpected directions.
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SOURCE: Moore, Lorrie, and Don Lee. “About Lorrie Moore.” Ploughshares 24, nos. 2-3 (fall 1998): 224-29.
[In the following interview, Lee provides an overview of Moore's life, literary career, and fiction.]
Lorrie Moore hasn't had a full night's sleep in three and a half years. It's not what you think, however. She has not, like one of her characters, fallen prey to love woes or obsessive-compulsive panic. If anything, Lorrie Moore is far tougher than most people would suspect. It's simply that she has a feisty three-and-a-half-year-old son. “This particular parenting experience has been like a large nuclear bomb on the small village of my life,” she says.
The author of two novels and two short story collections, with a third, Birds of America, due out this fall, Moore has lived in Madison, Wisconsin, for the past fourteen years. Since 1984, she has been teaching at the University of Wisconsin, where she is now a professor of English. By all appearances, she has had a remarkably stable writing career. “I've rarely felt any pressure to publish,” she concedes. “I really feel like I'm writing what I want, at a pace that is the natural one.” Indeed, her biography reads like a model of serendipity, a guide to “How to Become a Writer”—the title of one of Moore's earlier stories, which begins: “First, try to do something, anything else.” The irony of that line speaks volumes of her literary and personal temperament. While success has come quickly and easily to her, she has worked hard for it. Like most writers, she runs through dozens of drafts before getting a story or a book right, going back and forth from longhand to the computer, revising and polishing. And while Moore's fiction is renowned for its wit and humor, filled with repartee, pithy one-liners, and wisecracks, she considers the essence of her work to be sad.
Nicknamed “Lorrie” by her parents, she was born Marie Lorena Moore in 1957 in Glens Falls, New York, a small town in the Adirondacks. Her father was an insurance executive, her mother a former nurse turned housewife. Moore, the second of four children, remembers her parents as rather strict Protestants, politically minded, and culturally alert. A quiet, skinny kid, Moore fretted, quite literally, about her insubstantiality. “I felt completely shy, and so completely thin that I was afraid to walk over grates. I thought I would fall through them. Both my younger brother and I were so painfully skinny, it still haunts us. Here we are, sort of big, middle-aged adults, and we still think we're these thin children who are going to fall down the slightest crevice and disappear.”
Academically precocious, she skipped ahead in school, earned a Regents scholarship, and attended St. Lawrence University. There, as an English major, she was the editor of the literary journal and won, at nineteen, Seventeen magazine's fiction contest. It was her first publication, and it unearthed some surprising facts about her parents. Her father revealed that he had had literary aspirations of his own. He'd been in a writing class with fellow students Evan S. Connell and Vincent Canby at Dartmouth; he brought down some stories from the attic that he'd once sent to The New Yorker. Her mother, too, had wanted to be a journalist. Yet her parents' revelations did not necessarily strengthen Moore's resolve to become a writer.
Her expectations for herself were modest. Entering St. Lawrence, she hadn't been exactly bursting with ambition. “I think I probably went to college to fall in love,” she laughs. “I had the same boyfriend from the second week of college until I was twenty-four. I don't recommend it. But I have to tell you what it allowed—it allowed me to study, and write, and have a very serious student life, whereas other people were still busy shopping around for boyfriends and girlfriends.” After graduating, she moved to Manhattan and worked as a paralegal for two years, then in 1980 enrolled in Cornell's M.F.A. program, where she was in a class of five—two fiction writers and three poets—who were thrown together with second-year students to make up a single workshop.
As she became more devoted to her writing, she found that music, her first love, was now a distraction. Like her father, she played the piano, and even had had a professional gig as a freshman, at a reception for Eugene McCarthy. (She'd been playing in a dormitory lounge, the dean of women students heard her, and she asked Moore to provide background tinkle for the reception the day after the next. She was paid fifteen dollars.) But at Cornell, she decided she had to give up music. “It was eating into similar energies,” she says. “The typewriter and the piano were actually similar ideas, for my mind and for my hands. I was completely unaccomplished musically. Nonetheless, I was having ecstatic experiences in the practice room at Cornell and wasn't getting any writing done. So I had to choose.” Slowly, the sacrifice began to redound, as her stories were accepted at magazines—one by Ms., for which they paid her but never ran, others by Fiction International, John Gardner's Mss., and Story Quarterly. The publications were encouraging, but she was still not convinced they would lead anywhere. “I remember thinking, rather naïvely, that I would give myself until I was thirty, and if I hadn't published a book by then, I would probably have to find something else to focus on, that I obviously just was completely deluded and I didn't know what I was doing.”
In 1983, when she was twenty-six, Knopf bought her collection, Self-Help, comprised almost entirely of stories from her master's thesis. One of Moore's teachers at Cornell, Alison Lurie, had mentioned that her agent, Melanie Jackson, was looking for clients. Neither Moore nor her classmates really knew what an agent was. “I sent her the collection, and she sent it to Knopf, and they took it. Now, I realize, that doesn't happen ordinarily,” Moore says. Self-Help, which was published in 1985, produced a flurry of attention, reviewers comparing her to everyone from Grace Paley to Woody Allen. Six of the nine stories are written in the second-person mock-imperative, ironically imitating self-help books for contemporary women, particularly in regard to romance. One story begins, “Understand that your cat is a whore and can't help you.” Another, called “How to Be an Other Woman,” starts, “Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night,” then continues, “After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events.”
By this time, Moore had been hired at the University of Wisconsin, but Madison often proved too lonely for her, and, whenever she could, she returned to Manhattan. “It was all very difficult,” she says. “I lived in Little Italy for the summer, then found an apartment in Hell's Kitchen. I kept moving back to New York to worse neighborhoods and paying more rent.” Not incidentally, the predicaments of East Coast sophisticates landlocked in the Midwest became a motif in Moore's next two books. Anagrams, her first novel, published in 1986, features Benna Carpenter and Gerard Maines, occasional lovers who live in Fitchville, U.S.A. The novel is structurally anagrammatic, the characters' relationships and occupations changing from chapter to chapter; Benna also has a daughter and a best friend who are, the book reveals, imaginary. “It got many bad reviews,” Moore says. “I actually had to stop reading them. I just couldn't take it anymore.”
Her next collection in 1990, Like Life, received raves, the eight stories showing a growing narrative authority, accompanied by her distinctive wit and mordant observations about love in the modern age. In “You're Ugly, Too,” Zoë Hendricks is languishing in Illinois, teaching college history. It's not that different from her last job in Minnesota, where her blond students assumed, because she is a brunette, that she is from Spain. She escapes to New York to visit her sister, who pairs her with a man at a party. Zoë braces herself for the initial conversation: “She had to learn not to be afraid of a man, the way, in your childhood, you learned not to be afraid of an earthworm or a bug. Often, when she spoke to men at parties, she rushed things in her mind. As the man politely blathered on, she would fall in love, marry, then find herself in a bitter custody battle with him for the kids and hoping for a reconciliation, so that despite all his betrayals she might no longer despise him, and in the few minutes remaining, learn, perhaps, what his last name was, and what he did for a living, though probably there was already too much history between them.”
“You're Ugly, Too” was the first of many of her stories to be published in The New Yorker (and then to be reprinted, with regularity, in annuals such as The O. Henry Awards and The Best American Short Stories), but, in 1989, it was a controversial piece for the magazine. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we're breaking so many rules with this.’” Robert Gottlieb had taken over as the editor, but the turgidity of his predecessor, William Shawn, still gripped the institution. “I could not say ‘yellow light,’ I had to say ‘amber light,’” Moore remembers. “And that was the least of the vulgarities I'd committed.”
In her next book, the short novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, which came out in 1994, Moore took a different tack and focused on adolescence. Lauded as her richest work, the novel has Berie Carr, a thirty-seven-year-old photography curator, in a childless, failing marriage. During the three weeks that she is in Paris with her husband, who is attending a medical research conference, Berie replays the summer of 1972, when she was fifteen. She worked as a cashier at an Adirondacks amusement park called Storyland, where her beautiful best friend, Silsby Chaussée, was costumed as Cinderella.
Moore took the title for the book from a Nancy Mladenoff painting, which depicts two girls worriedly standing over a pair of bandaged frogs—injured from too many kisses. The novel evokes the fairy-tale purity of Berie and Sils's love for each other, as well as their hopes for the future, beyond this fallow period when they have “no narrative”: “it was liquid, like a song … It was just a space with some people in it.” Yet, heartbreakingly, the novel is just as much about the end of possibility, the realization that the narrative—all that waiting—has arced prematurely into disillusionment: “By then my parents had moved from Horsehearts to the east coast of Florida with my grandmother, who, when I visited, stared at me with the staggering, arrogant stare of the dying, the wise vapidity of the already gone; she refused to occupy the features of her face. The living didn't interest her; she grew bored when anyone spoke. In her yawn I could see the black-and-white dice of her filled teeth, the quiet snap of her spit, all gathered in a painting of departure. It is unacceptable, all the stunned and anxious missing a person is asked to endure in life. It is not to be endured, not really.”
Birds of America, Moore's new book—her fifth from Knopf with the same editor, Victoria Wilson—is her longest yet. “Almost three hundred pages,” she marvels. “Unbelievable. You could keep a small door open with this.” Of late, Moore has become more interested in the novelistic terrains of place and time and memory. She also notes the inclusion of children in her most recent work. She realized after the fact that nearly all twelve of the stories in Birds of America have a jeopardized child in them—most of them written well before she herself became a mother.
Moore is taking the next year off from teaching to work on a new novel. “It's on my own nickel, so we'll see if we end up in a shelter,” she says. “Having a child, you can start to feel money pressure, and if you get a bad review, you might think, How's my kid going to go to college?” The new novel will be a marked departure for her. “It's actually about hate. It's hard to get in the same room with it. It may not be a book that is possible for me to write.”
Lorrie Moore claims her literary ambitions have become more prosaic than ever. “I used to stay up all night and write and read, and I was quite obsessive. But now it's a much more modest endeavor. When your life gets crazy and complicated, your hopes turn into ‘I hope I get enough sleep so that I can get some writing done this year.’”
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1511
SOURCE: Barnes, Julian. “The Wise Woman.” New York Review of Books (22 October 1998): 15.
[In the following review, Barnes praises the stories in Birds of America, noting the serious edge underlying Moore's trademark humor and wit which adds depth and power to the collection.]
Lorrie Moore is good at bad jokes. She's good at good jokes, too, and makes many of them. But good jokes are the sign of a certain control over the world, or at least of a settled vision, the sort of vision a writer has. Good jokes are finally just jokes; whereas bad jokes are more revelatory of character and situation. Wonky puns, look-at-me one-liners, inappropriately perky comebacks: these don't necessarily denote lack of humor, more a chin-up flailing at the discovery that the world is not a clean, well-lighted place; or that it is for some, but not for you, as the light falls badly on you and mysteriously casts no shadow.
Birds of America, Moore's third collection of stories, is cleverly laid out. It begins with seven stories of the kind at which she has always been supremely adept: shrewd, blackish tales of women on the edge of unraveling, smart women whose situations wouldn't be so bad if they weren't hopeless. The uncertainly married daughter on a motoring tour of Ireland with her seemingly hyper-efficient mother; the shy librarian trying to live with a political activist and finding personal commitment as hard and strange as the wider sort; the lawyer going home for a Christmas of relentless charades and sibling dysfunction; the wife and mother trying therapy for the death of her cat, having visited “all the stages of bereavement: anger, denial, bargaining, Häagen-Dazs, rage.”
“She was unequal to anyone's wistfulness.” “She hadn't been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She'd been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, ‘There you go.’” “Blank is to heartache as forest is to bench” (this, naturally from a scholastic tester). “She looked at Joe. Every arrangement in life carried with it the sadness, the sentimental shadow, of its not being something else, but only itself.” As a reviewer you are tempted merely to quote your way through this emotional territory, one in which sassy, or at least wryly percipient, women get involved with slower, generally well-meaning but finally hopeless men. Life constantly refuses to show such women the plot, or give them a big enough part, or allow them to wear enough makeup in the chorus line so as not to be recognized. Love? Love turns out to be “flightless, dodo,” and its fault-lines no less painful for being familiar. When Olena the librarian (her name already an anagram of Alone) discovers her lover is having an affair, his justification is so puny as to be almost winning: “I'm sorry … it's a sixties thing.” Simone, one of the robuster female characters, thinks that love affairs are like having raccoons in your chimney. How so?
“We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney. … And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead.” Simone swallows some wine. “Love affairs are like that,” she says. “They all are like that.”
There is serious pain at the edges of some of these opening stories (a child with cystic fibrosis, one with Down's syndrome), but the focus is on the tribulations—bitter, occasionally veering to bittersweet—of the thirty-something Midwestern female. The harsher critic, lolling in the front seats like an auditioning producer, might be tempted at this point to growl, “Fine, but what else can you do?” Whereupon Lorrie Moore proceeds to show us. The next two stories arrive from a male point of view (just in case we were wondering): an acrimonious academic dinner party (“Albert indicates in a general way where they should sit, alternating male, female, like the names of hurricanes”) and a road story about a blind lawyer and a hopeless house painter scratching their way round the South. From this point the stories grow bleaker (“He possessed a streak of pragmatism so sharp and deep that others mistook it for sanity”) and invite broader extrapolation.
Before Audubon painted his Birds of America, we are reminded, he first shot them. There have been stray birds all through the book, bashing into windows, being tough on the dinner plate, flightlessly embodying love. Briefly, they now waddle center-stage, as the road couple attend the famous duck parade at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis and watch “these rich, lucky ducks” walk their red-carpeted way from foyer fountain to elevator. And what does this pampered life point up? That of “all the other birds of the world—the mange-hollowed hawks, the lordless hens, the dumb clucks—[who] will live punishing, unblessed lives, winging it north, south, here, there, searching for a place of rest.”
The tonality becomes darkest in the last three stories, lit by bright truths to drive you mad. A woman in traumatized remission from cancer; a baby with cancer; a woman who has accidentally killed a child and retreated from the deed into sudden marriage. But marriage has never been much of a haven in Mooreland, as its endurers report. “The key to marriage, she concluded, was just not to take the thing too personally.” “Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically.” Marriage, another character notes, is an institution—as in mental institution. As for cancer: we are reminded of the title story in Moore's last collection, in which a woman is told that a mole removed from her back is precancerous. “Pre-cancer,” she repeats, “Isn't that … like life?”
“People Like That Are the Only People Here” was the story I was most eager, but also most anxious, to reread (like most of the others it first appeared in The New Yorker). Eager because the subject matter—a baby with cancer—takes Moore into her toughest territory, where every pitch of tone, let alone any joke, good or bad, looks the most exposed. Anxious because when The New Yorker first published the story, they chose to illustrate it with a very large and fetching photograph of Moore herself. Since, in the story, the baby's unnamed mother is a writer and teacher living in the “Modern Middle West,” as Moore does; the magazine was inciting its readers, despite the “fiction” strap, to treat it as a true-life account. This skewed the story and did Moore a disservice (it would still be a disservice even if the narrative turned out to be entirely autobiographical). In Birds of America it is freed into fiction; the rest of the book supports it, indeed builds toward it.
This doesn't make it any the less precisely harrowing. What, after all, could be more cosmically bad-jokey than the world of Peed Onk, that jaunty, demystifying reduction of Pediatric Oncology? Here are parents preparing to bury children, unable to take the pain of their little bald boys (statistically, it tends to be boys) upon themselves, moving between guilt and terror, between tormented relaxation in the cramped Tiny Tim Lounge (which would have been larger had Tiny Tim's child survived, rather than died, at the hospital) and the curt professional lingo of the staff: “It's a fast but wimpy tumor,” the oncologist remarks consolingly. Reflecting on the experience, the mother wonders, “How can it be described? … The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things.” True, as elsewhere; and Moore gives “People Like That Are the Only People Here” some light metafictional embellishment to emphasize this. But the story can only work—as it compellingly does here—if it is loyal to the full tonality of the original trip, articulating its terrors and banalities, its boredom and its death-defying jokes.
Lorrie Moore has always been a clever, witty writer. The experimentalism of her early career seems currently in abeyance; Birds of America is formally conservative (indeed, in only one of the stories is the main narrative even intercut with a subsidiary one). As against that, her emotional range has deepened, and the sharp vignettes of her first work have yielded to the richer thirty- or forty-page narrative. Talent and promise often remain just that, throughout a career; Capote had remarkable talent and promise all his life. Moore retains the avian eye of her early books, and an unwavering sense of social tone; she is thankfully still clever and witty, but her depth of focus has increased, and with it her emotional seriousness. I hesitate to lay the adjective wise on one of her age. But watching a writer move into full maturity is always exciting. Flappy-winged take-off is fun; but the sight of an artist soaring lifts the heart.
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SOURCE: Brookner, Anita. “The Way We Live Now.” Spectator 281, no. 8881 (24 October 1998): 46-7.
[In the following review, Brookner praises the narrative skill and characterizations displayed in Birds of America, calling the stories “convincing and disturbing.”]
In Hollywood films of the late 1940s and 1950s there was always a substantial role for the heroine's girlfriend who was wacky and wry enough to offset the languishing love affair in the foreground. (I believe this role was pioneered by Henrietta Stacpole in The Portrait of a Lady.) [In Birds of America] Lorrie Moore's voice is that of the heroine's girlfriend, droll, hardworking, and marked down for a second best. There is nothing wrong with this: the disabused onlooker sees most of the game, but only if she is wide awake and a participant in the greater confusion.
Moore's protagonists, generally but not always women, are travelling, sometimes literally, towards an unknown destination, or have ended up with unsuitable partners and are forced to enact an uneasy separateness. Sometimes family festivities have the unexpected effect of revealing a hidden or lost antipathy. Lovers fail to love one another. There is a lack of closure in these instances: will X go back to Y? Will mother and daughter achieve a genuine reconciliation? Will sisters ever retrieve their original symbiosis? This doubt is the measure of our distance from the genuine happy ending which those Hollywood films proposed. This is the way we live now.
In ‘Which is More than I can Say about Some People’ a mother and daughter are driving determinedly round Ireland, defying the discomfort and not getting along too well. They are bent on kissing the Blarney Stone, not realising that this will bring their various disaffections into high relief. The mother has difficulty in scrambling up from the hazardous position, and the daughter sees that her mother is an old woman, and, once they are safely grounded, raises her glass of Guinness as a toast. It is the first tribute her mother has ever received. Here at last, and uniquely, is a species of happy ending.
She had never been courted before, not once in her entire life, and now she blushed, ears on fire, lifted her pint, and drank.
The comma after ‘pint’ is the hallmark of a stylist.
Or take Olena in the story of that name. Olena is a librarian, the shy daughter of Romanian immigrants who wanted her to be American and to call herself Nell. But although Olena goes through all the American rites of passage, principally a shaky love affair, the graft does not quite take. In the middle of her unsatisfactory nights comes the stark realisation: ‘She missed her mother the most.’ This sentence is repeated, thus rather losing its impact. But the point is made: innocence and experience cannot be reconciled without the one compromising the other.
In fact when these stories begin, innocence has all but been lost, waylaid somewhere on the road from one place to another. Mack and his blind lover Quilty are taking a sort of holiday; they are travelling to New Orleans by way of various small towns and encountering cemeteries in whichever place they pass. Longingly Mack looks out of the car window at the posters appealing for news of missing children. He has a five-year-old son whom he left behind long ago with his abandoned wife. But Quilty thinks he is looking for young men, other lovers, and Mack is too tired or too unhappy to explain. Thus the mutual incomprehension will create an impasse in their relationship, an impasse which each is willing to overlook. This too is the way we live now.
Sometimes things get worse, infinitely worse: a baby develops cancer, or is let fall against a wall, smashing his head. But on the whole life is just about manageable.
Someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet … Although of course in real life you seldom saw the actual spaceship. Usually there was just a lot of drinking, mumbling, and some passing out in the family room.
Wives leave husbands; husbands fail to understand. Husbands or lovers are in any case disappointing, are dyslexic, or work in the car business. Partners may, almost certainly will, get together again, but something has been lost. Maybe it was lost before they met. The women's consciousness seems to be fragmented, but only as if there had been no wholeness to start with. Like Olena missing her mother they are hapless, adrift, with no memory of completeness. This condition is the very touchstone of these stories; it is dire but it is partially corrected by self-awareness. Self-awareness can also bring a certain dismay: everyone is vaguely ashamed. But the fact that no one is genuinely happy or spontaneous is convincing. This is how grown-ups proceed. Although these tales are resolutely American the condition is well known in other contexts.
Expertly handled, Lorrie Moore's stories are both convincing and disturbing, most of all to the old-fashioned reader in search of information and encouragement. She is a true observer of millennial unease and thus something of a marker for our decade. I believe her stories will endure. They are marvellous illustrations of obstinacy and ruefulness. The heroine's girlfriend had exactly the same outlook. It did not seem to sour her nature. That is where fiction parts company from fact. Lorrie Moore has inspected the gap between the two and done something to bridge it.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1177
SOURCE: Fleming, Juliet. “Deer in the Headlights.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4987 (30 October 1998): 27.
[In the following review, Fleming comments on the stories in Birds of America, faulting Moore for “curiously unhoned” writing and the abundance of meaningless jokes, puns, and wordplay in her fiction.]
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore's third collection of short stories, has been widely praised in the United States as representing the coming-of-age of one of the country's “most brilliant” writers. Set in the American Midwest, ten of the twelve stories are concerned with the small triumphs and larger despairs of a series of female protagonists, women whose objects of love are themselves, a child, the past, a cat, a briefly glimpsed visiting lecturer or a patronized husband (happily married Therese is having an affair with an assistant DA: “It is nothing, except that it is sex with a man who is not dyslexic, and once in a while, Jesus Christ, she needs that.”) The luckiest of them, like Therese, have forged an uneasy truce with their own failures; the rest remain starkly undefended from the meaninglessness of life, and the unmanageable horror of death. The cumulative effect of the stories is infectious and terrifying; it reaches its apotheosis in “Real Estate”, the story of a woman whose cancer-filled body keeps her on earth long enough to witness her husband's repeated failure to keep faith with her; and in “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”, an account of paediatric cancer which was first published in the New Yorker last year.
“People Like That” (that is, people whose lives have been forever changed by cancer) begins in panic, and ends in the certainty that a child's death is, to its parents, simply intolerable. Taking her possibly cured infant son home from the paediatric oncology ward (the “peed onk” of Moore's charmless title), the nameless Mother allows herself to dismiss the children and parents left behind: “For as long as I live, I never want to see any of these people again.” Her failure of sympathy is a function of the situation; a child's illness forces its mother to confront that which cannot be borne, and her inability to cope is alarming because it might, in similar circumstances, be our own. But the honesties of this semi-autobiographical story are rendered brutal, for it does not fully hide the fact that it is standing as witness to its author's own fears, faced and unfaced, for the health of her child. In Moore's story, the Husband urges his wife, who is a writer, to “Take Notes”. She insists it is beyond her skill to write of such a thing: “Sweetie, darling, I'm not that good. … To say nothing of the moral boundaries of pecuniary recompense in a situation such as this.” Clearly Moore is that good; the story was written, together with a heartbreaking evocation of the baby, whose character is a function of his mother's love: “In Radiology, the Baby stands anxiously on the table. … Let's get out of here, his eyes beg. Pick me up!” But the problem of form is never resolved, and resurfaces abruptly in the story's last lines—“There are the notes. Now where is the money?” Moore may intend this as a demonstration of her own involvement in an activity that, within the story, she finds to be immoral; but as self-criticism the gesture is, like much of her writing, curiously unhoned.
Admiration for Moore usually begins with her language, her “lovely sentences” and “innovative” word games. One critic recently gave the following example of such a game (from Anagrams, one of Moore's two novels): “When I was little, I thought Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby were the same person. … It was a shock for me quite late in life to discover that Jean Cocteau and Jacques Cousteau were not even related. Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable, and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters.” This meditation is characteristic of Moore's language-obsessed characters, who make puns, produce anagrams of their own names, and comfort themselves with metaphors when the going gets, as it always does, tough. But thoughts on the instability of meaning (however imprecise) do not constitute innovative novelistic discourse. Every one of the stories in the present collection involves fun with words: “Every third Monday, he conducted the annual departmental meeting—aptly named, Agnes liked to joke, since she did indeed depart mental.” This is best sustained in “What You Want To Do Fine”, which charts the not unsuccessful relationship between a straight and a gay man. Asked what Pittsburgh Pirates slugger made the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1988, Quilty's answer is Linda Ronstadt: “She was in the Pirates of Penzance. I know it went to Pittsburgh, but I'm just not sure about the Hall of Fame part.” Mack increasingly realizes that his relationship with Quilty is a sort of cosmic pun—an intersection whose beauties and frustrations arise from the fact this it is not fully one. But in those few other places where Moore intends her language games to be more than a demonstration of the wit or anomie of a particular character, they fail to amount to anything other than the assertion that language is at play.
In “Which Is More Than I Can Say about Some People”, Abby Mallon misses her job at American Scholastic Tests, where she spent her days producing such questions as “spider is to web as weaver is to blank”. The indifference of the world to human taxonomies, its capacity to propose analogies that can be neither understood nor resisted, is then underlined by the use of this device in the narrative itself, which characteristically renders Abby's thought in free indirect discourse: “Also, blank is to heartache as forest is to bench” “Blank is to childhood as journey is to lips”.
Of course, the argument of this story, which describes Abby's journey with her mother to kiss the Blarney stone, is that to fail to mean anything in particular may be to succeed—having kissed the stone, Abby is able, “in a kind of hesitant philately”, to piece together a nonsense but meaningful toast to the mother who failed her. In “Willing”, another piece of Blarney is achieved with equal care to demonstrate the specular relationship between an actress and her friend; “Charlotte studied Sidra's face, headlights caught in the stare of a deer. Guns don't kill people, thought Sidra fizzily. Deer kill people.” To unravel such propositions is to be none the wiser: Charlotte is to Sidra as headlights are to deer? Guns are not to people as deer are? Moore's point is that characters speak as they live, “asyntactically”. Her talent is to be able to imagine forms of life that depend on an emotional and linguistic bricolage, and articulate themselves through misunderstandings, bad puns and compromise. Of such things are fictional and real lives made. But relentlessly sustained at the narrative level, as it in Birds of America, such writing is to brilliance as, say, headlights are to guns.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2019
SOURCE: Mead, Rebecca. “A Predilection for the Zinger.” London Review of Books (10 December 1998): 28.
[In the following review, Mead examines the stories in Birds of America, commenting on Moore's ability to jolt readers with abrupt endings and weightier subjects framed within tales full of sarcasm, barbs, and lighthearted puns.]
It is rare these days for a book or story to get talked about without the attendant behind-the-scenes efforts of publicists, and the notice of reviewers, and the author making appearances on breakfast television shows. But that is what happened in January 1997, when the New Yorker published Lorrie Moore's short story, ‘People like that Are the Only People Here’. What was so powerful about this story? The subject-matter, in the first place, was irresistibly painful. It concerns a mother, never named, who finds a blood clot while changing her baby: ‘what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?’ The baby is rushed to the hospital (‘Such pleasingly instant service! Just say “blood”. Just say “diaper”. Look what you get!’), where a scan reveals that he has a malignant tumour on his left kidney. The mother first tries to blame her own body for the ultrasound reading—‘I've never heard of a baby with a tumour, and frankly, I was standing very close’—then blames her bad parenting skills for the incomprehensible truth:
Just once, before he was born, she said: ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.’ A joke, for God's sake! After he was born she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over and over again, like a novel by Mrs Camus. Another joke!
The baby enters Paediatric Oncology, Peed Onk, and the parents enter the heartbreaking fellowship of adults passing their days in the Tiny Tim Lounge, exchanging wan, strenuously hopeful smiles. (The story's title is provided by a visiting friend, who, noticing the ‘airy, scripted optimism’, asks: ‘Are people like that the only people here?’)
But the story also gained its galvanic energy from a meta-narrative about the mother's profession, that of being a writer. ‘Take notes. We are going to need the money,’ her husband tells her on learning of the child's diagnosis: a chill mandate, the cool-headed pragmatism of which horrifies her. Later in the story, noticing that she is not writing, he says, ‘This is the kind of thing you've always written about,’ to which she replies, outraged, ‘This is life. This isn't a “kind of thing”,’ and the catalogue of IV infusions and chemotherapy and cardboard ‘no nos’ attached to the child's arms post-surgery to prevent him yanking out his tubes continues. In the end, the Baby is pronounced well enough to be brought home into an uneasy peace, a period of watch and wait, a resolution that is neither comic nor tragic but disturbingly ambivalent. And the story concludes with a sudden, acerbic jolt:
There are the notes. Now where is the money?
With this writerly meta-narrative, Moore's story became more than a particularly harrowing instance of the ironised examination of domestic life for which she is known. It became a comment on, a resistance of and a response to the contemporary vogue for memoir. This had begun respectably enough several years earlier with books like Susannah Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted and Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, but by 1995 it had generated such florid productions as Michael Ryan's memoir of sex-addiction, Secret Life, which included a confession even of his inappropriate intimacy with his dog, Topsy. In January 1997, when Moore's story came out, the publishing world was bracing itself for Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, the account of the incestuous affair she conducted with her father when she was 20.
While the bestseller lists indicated an appetite for true-life stories, critics had started to express distaste for the publishing alchemy which was turning dysfunction or disaster into large advances. Moore's story brilliantly gave a critique of the trend and a repudiation of it. It wasn't necessary to know whether the events Moore described had actually happened to her and her family; she was making a case for fiction which is, as the writer Mother says in the story, ‘the unlivable life, the strange room tacked onto the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science’.
It would be good if this case did not need to be made, but it does: literary fiction in America, particularly the kind of small-bore literary fiction which Moore practises, seems to occupy a smaller and smaller cultural space. Apart from the superstars like Philip Roth or Toni Morrison, literary writers in America are accorded a social status roughly equivalent to that of artisanal potters producing, like them, lovely, unnecessary work that hardly anyone cares enough about to want. (That's the kind of writer Kathryn Harrison was before she set aside novels for memoir.) In such a climate, the writers of literary fiction resort to certain safer precincts, among them the creative-writing schools dotted around the country, where student loans and foundation grants provide the support that the marketplace doesn't. Moore teaches at Wisconsin-Madison University, and many of the stories in Birds of America, her third short-story collection (she has also written two novels and a children's book), are set in the never-never land of Midwestern academic outposts, far from the more plausible cultural centres of New York or Cambridge, Massachusetts, and peopled by men and women who have landed there without knowing quite why or how. (One of her characters says that he went to Champaign Urbana once: ‘I thought from its name that it would be a different kind of place. It was just this thing in the middle of a field. I went to a Chinese restaurant there and ordered my entire dinner with extra MSG.’) Though the academy is hardly ever more than a backdrop for her, Moore nonetheless captures the weird, self-involved aimlessness of academic life, the curious way in which, like a psychoanalysis, it becomes both the method and the object of observation. In the story ‘Community Life’, a university librarian called Olena describes how she dropped out of graduate school: ‘I did try. I read Derrida. I read Lacan. I read Reading Lacan. I read “Reading Reading Lacan”.’
If Moore's setting is often the dislocated, self-generating intellectual provinces of the Midwest, her subject is often the sense of not being quite where you should be in your life, of not quite getting what you thought the world was going to give you. Moore's characters know you can't go home again, but they also know that there's nowhere else to go. In the first story of this collection, ‘Willing’, a middle-aged movie actress gives up Hollywood and returns to her native Chicago, where she sets herself up in a residential hotel, eats Hostess cakes and drinks sherry, and makes a hopeless go of it with a motor mechanic because, she tells a friend, ‘I want to sleep with someone. When I'm sleeping with someone, I'm less obsessed with the mail.’ In ‘Agnes of Iowa’, a woman returns to her Plains hometown after a harried post-collegiate decade in New York (‘I feel like I've got five years to live, she told people, so I'm moving back to Iowa so that it'll feel like fifty’), and there she marries a man and enters the state so many of Moore's characters live in, that of disappointed making do: ‘It was life like a glass of water: half-empty, half-full. Half-full. Half-full. Oops: half-empty.’ In ‘Which Is More Than I Can Say about Some People’, Abby marries Bob after her dog dies of kidney failure, and the marriage is as successful as that auspicious start would suggest; in ‘Terrific Mother’, Adrienne, who has been responsible for the death of a friend's toddler in a freak accident, slides into a depression, and her subsequent marriage to her long-time boyfriend is less an attempted cure than a symptom of hopelessness. (‘I'm going to marry you till you puke,’ he insists, lovingly.)
Jane Austen's heroines are never seen except in their hopeful, pre-marital condition, and Moore's women are hardly ever seen except in the slump and settling that comes in those years after the lesson that marriage is a compromise has been learned and overlearned. Her men are hapless or fickle, and unreliability seems to be their default mode; Moore's stories are studded with aphorisms that could be collected on a calendar for weary wives: ‘Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically’; ‘She had entered a puritanical decade … when the best compliment you could get was “You would make a terrific mother.” The wolf-whistle of the Nineties’; ‘I married my husband because I thought it would be a great way to meet guys.’
Lines like this illustrate Moore's predilection for the zinger, the heavily ironised pun. A frequent criticism of her work is that she is sometimes too fond of her own jokes, and becomes too clever-clever. There's something to this: many of her characters strike the same bitterly humorous note—who knew that there were so many barb-hurling Dorothy Parkers in the Midwest?—and there are moments when the self-regard of the humour seems a little much. But sarcasm is the resort of the weak, and Moore's characters use it in precisely that defeated spirit. So though the reader may cringe when yet another of Moore's long-suffering women cries, ‘Did God have her mixed up with someone else? Get a Job, she shouted silently to God. Get a real Job. I have never been your true and faithful servant,’ the heavy-handedness of the punning is purposeful: ‘When you told a stupid joke to God and got no response, was it that the joke was too stupid, or not quite stupid enough?’ Jokes are the inadequate weapons of the over-matched combatant.
That line comes from one of Moore's most affecting stories, ‘Real Estate’, in which, as in ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’, such lightness is laid on top of a far weightier and bleaker theme. Ruth, another weary wife, has dealt with her husband Terence's extra-marital flings by adopting the blitheness of the mad: ‘in the end they'd made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!’—and on for another two full pages of ‘Ha!'s. She is two years into remission from the cancer which, she says, she has been given a 50-50 chance of surviving for more than five years (‘how mean not to lie and say 60-40!’). Her one daughter, Mitzy, has become a world-famous ballerina, celebrated for being overweight, who is preternaturally self-absorbed and worried that her fans like her work, but not her. (‘Mitzy was an only child, so it was natural that her first bout of sibling rivalry would be with her own work.’) In an unconvinced attempt to renew their blighted lives, Ruth and Terence move to a new house, where it falls to Ruth to deal with the many impediments to home improvement, problems which have the quality of Biblical plagues: there is an infestation of raccoons, of crows, and even of teenagers, when it is revealed that a 15-year-old runaway has been living periodically in the attic. As domestic life becomes more and more of a struggle, the only cure for the crows is a shotgun and Ruth senses her illness returning like rising damp: ‘Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite.’ Interwoven with the story of Ruth is a subplot in which a young man, having been dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job, becomes an armed robber, though one with a quirk: he demands that his victims sing him a song by heart before he takes their VCRs and TVs. These two stories twist together in the end, with the perfect symmetry yet messy veracity—the strange room tacked onto the house—which are among the deepest satisfactions that fiction has to offer.
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2803
SOURCE: McGraw, Erin. “Man Walks into a Bar.” Georgia Review 53, no. 4 (winter 1999): 775-78.
[In the following excerpt, McGraw discusses the use of humor in contemporary American fiction and offers a positive review of Birds of America.]
A young comic says to his friend, “Ask me what's the most important thing about comedy.”
“What's the most—”
An old joke. But like most old jokes, this one has a bit of truth at the core: Comedy does rely on timing, and generally the most effective timing is quick. The successful comedian turns logical and perceptual corners a step ahead of the audience, and often we laugh at jokes not just because we're amused but because we're surprised. In this way comedy is able to deal with subjects that threaten us—most often and famously sex and death—by catching us with our guard down. A joke teller inverts our world, explores new aspects of culture, and suggests parallels or alliances (especially in popular culture) that we hadn't noticed before:
—What do you get when you cross a fourteen-year-old boy with Viagra?
Sex, popular culture, and a reversal of expectation—made funny because they're packed into a single, tight turn.
Since jokes thrive inside a close narrative space, the short story would seem a natural home for them. Some writers—for instance, Ralph Lombreglia in a raucous manner, Donald Barthelme in a sweeter one—do wire a kind of stand-up humor into their tales, which take on a nervy energy as a result. But a lot of writers approach the short story with a gravity that sometimes borders on reverence, as though the dramatization of human experience were too delicate a business to withstand the rough-and-tumble play of a few jokes. Whatever humor exists in such stories tends to take the form of wry wit, an ironic meditativeness that isn't intended to wrest an actual laugh from the reader.
Perhaps we can blame this exaggerated delicacy on James Joyce, whose stories in Dubliners have so strongly influenced writers for most of this century. Those tales are fragile tragedies, portraits of characters forced to acknowledge the smallness of their own lives and aspirations. Joyce was not by nature a depressive, and still less a romantic; his novels are fueled by an expansive comic vision that ranges from crass jokes to beautifully articulated plays on words. But when he approached the short story Joyce seemed to feel that a somber mien was called for. Many writers since have followed his lead, and those who haven't—James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and S. J. Perelman, to name a few—are often ghettoized as “mere” humorists, inconsequential, writers of the fictional equivalent to light verse.
The typical twentieth-century short story traces the psychological journey of its main character from a point of relative ignorance to one of deepened, often unwelcome self-knowledge—the famous Joycean epiphany. Delineated in this way, the short story becomes primarily a lyric genre, emphasizing the communication of experience and emotion over the plot-driven mechanics of narrative. Most short-fiction partisans cherish precisely this lyric quality, the elevation of a character's transforming moment. But does the elevation of a transforming moment necessarily have to be so grave?
A close, cautious, highly serious narrative tone tends to keep a story's emotional line pure, even simple. But humor is a complicating impulse, one that keeps us from immersing ourselves too wholly in the emotional transactions going on in or between characters. Humor requires that both writer and reader stay on their toes, alert for incongruities that might change the expected direction of a scene. For these reasons, comedy makes fiction a high-wire performance. And jokes—more than quiet wit, more than a wry sensibility—create the most obvious performance of all.
Telling a joke, whether in life or in fiction, is a brave act. Once the teller begins, “A man walks into a bar,” he or she can feel the audience sitting up, alert now, waiting none too patiently to be amused. If the audience is not amused, the joke teller will have failed. If the audience is amused, the teller will be rewarded by a small, thrilling explosion of energy—and then the expectation that more jokes will come. Is that small explosion worth the tension and resulting expectation? I think so.
Humor in fiction pulls readers out of the saturating dominance of pure feeling, bringing to the page several levels of possibility and inference. Presented well, humor gives stories a wider intelligence, the sense of an edge against which we can test ourselves. Stories that elicit big laughs from the reader don't exclude the possibility of tragedy or sorrow, but they force tragedy or sorrow to be rendered clearly, and they give the story a bigger sense of possibility, a much wider emotional continuum.
All of the books reviewed here, each of which contains humor as a substantial proportion of its technique, are written by women. In part, I selected them to steady the balance, since my last essay-review featured books by men. But the most interesting (and in some cases audacious) uses of humor in short fiction lately seems to come from female writers. The subjects these writers take on are no less serious than the subjects addressed by men, but more women seem to be experimenting with tone and narrative breadth, moving away from a restricted, heavily internalized approach to one that is more fluid and public in its address. Perhaps this all-female tilt is merely coincidence: three of the books under consideration are by writers long known for their use of humor. But I hope that I'm spotting a trend toward a greater reliance on humor by many writers. I would welcome such a trend—believing as I do that humor does not make fiction trivial or less challenging, but rather that, in the right hands, it can allow fiction's range and implications to become immense. …
Toward the end of Lorrie Moore's “Community Life,” a librarian named Olena—who passes slow time at work thinking up adverb-specific puns called Tom Swifties—gets a phone call from her boyfriend Nick. He's trying to charm her after having confessed to an infidelity with a pretty co-volunteer on the campaign for local politician Ken Teetlebaum, then further confessing that he's still seeing the woman. He calls Olena after returning from a trip to the Senior Citizens Association.
“You should see this,” he said. “Some old geezer raises his hand, I call on him, and he stands up, and the first thing he says is, ‘I had my hand raised for ten whole minutes and you kept passing over me. I don't like to be passed over. You can't just pass over a guy like me, not at my age.’”
She laughed, as he wanted her to.
This hot dog's awful, she said frankly.
“To appeal to the doctors, Ken's got all these signs up that say ‘Teetlebaum for tort reform.’”
“Sounds like a Wallace Stevens poem,” she said.
“I don't know what I expected. But the swirl of this whole event has not felt right.”
She's a real dog, he said cattily.
She was quiet, deciding to let him do the work of this call.
“Do you realize that Ken's entire softball team just wrote a letter to The Star, calling him a loudmouth and a cheat?”
“Well,” she said, “what can you expect from a bunch of grown men who pitch underhand?”
There was some silence. “I care about us,” he said finally. “I just want you to know that.”
“Okay,” she said.
“I know I'm just a pain in the ass to you,” he said. “But you're an inspiration to me, you are.”
I like a good sled dog, she said huskily.
The comedy of this passage is complex. Nick tells Olena a funny story. She responds with quips, and keeps thinking up apposite Tom Swifties in a steady, silent counterpoint. Miscommunication, that comic staple, swells, even though Nick and Olena keep talking and talking. But the overall effect of the passage is not so much funny as wrenching. The distance between Olena's angry, defeated Tom Swifties and the detachment of her comments to Nick demonstrate how little she trusts his practiced, dishonest lines, and how little he sees of her heart. The conversation is a small duet of loneliness and evaporated hopes.
Conversations that illustrate the deadness at the center of a relationship are hardly unusual in fiction. Nevertheless, this one is striking. Olena's sorrow comes through with exceptional sharpness—I like a good sled dog, she thinks, and the reader remembers all the tedious fund-raisers she has attended with Nick. Her pain is revealed because of the scene's humor, and it's communicated more effectively than it might have been through a more cautious approach.
Throughout Birds of America, Lorrie Moore keeps delivering this kind of one-two narrative punch. Some jokes feel not so much like humor as like bloodletting. Some hit with an impact that leaves the reader stunned. And some are simply funny. When a character named Agnes is asked at a New York party by “a black-slacked, frosted-haired woman whose skin was papery and melanomic with suntan” where she is from, Agnes says, “Iowa.”
The woman in black touched Agnes's wrist and leaned in confidentially. She moved her mouth in a concerned and exaggerated way, like a facial exercise. “No, dear,” she said. “Here we say O-hi-o.”
Often the humor is offhand—Agnes teaches a Great Books class, but teaches it “loosely, with cookies.” In “Beautiful Grade,” Albert throws himself a party after his third divorce and says, “From here on in, I'm just going to go out there, find a woman I really don't like very much, and give her a house.” And in “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” Aileen takes to drink after the death of Bert, her cat.
he was such a smart, funny guy—big and loyal; and verbal as a dog.
“What do you mean, verbal as a dog?” [her husband] Jack scowled.
“I swear it,” she said.
“Get a grip,” said Jack, eyeing her glass of blended malt. … “You've got a daughter. There are holidays ahead. That damn cat wouldn't have shed one tear over you.”
“I really don't think that's true,” she said a little wildly, perhaps with too much fire and malt in her voice. She now spoke that way sometimes, insisted on things, ventured out on a limb, lived dangerously. She had already—carefully, obediently—stepped through all the stages of bereavement: anger, denial, bargaining, Häagen Dazs, rage. Anger to rage—who said she wasn't making progress? She made a fist but hid it. She said she got headaches, mostly prickly ones, but sometimes the zigzag of a migraine made its way into her skull and sat like a cheap, crazy tie in her eye.
“I'm sorry,” said Jack. “Maybe he would have. Fund-raisers. Cards and letters. Who can say? You two were close, I know.”
It's hard to stop quoting, because one joke leads to another, giving the writing a brilliant surface over the stories' dark content—the shaky, flickery nature of love, the even shakier nature of existence. In the heartbreaking “Dance in America,” the narrator dances with her old friend's eight-year-old son, a sweet, gifted boy dying of cystic fibrosis. “Terrific Mother” begins when a woman at a picnic is urged to hold her friends' new baby. The picnic bench collapses, the woman falls, and the baby's head hits “the stone retaining wall of the Spearsons' newly terraced yard and [bleeds] fatally into the brain.” Lives in this book are imperiled, but dancing goes on, yards are landscaped: our lives are a joke, pitting our small change for joy against the certainty of loss. A dreadful joke. But, nevertheless, sometimes funny.
For pure outrage, nothing in Birds in America can match its penultimate story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.” The story became notorious when it first appeared in The New Yorker with a coy cutline asking the reader to determine whether the story was fiction or nonfiction. Moore does have a son who had a kidney tumor, but she has written in her end note in Best American Short Stories, one of the sites where the piece has been anthologized, “This story has a relationship to real life like that of a coin to a head.”
The story's appearance generated more interest than anything since Susan Sontag's “The Way We Live Now,” the first prominent piece of fiction having to do with AIDS. But interest in “People Like That” came not so much from the subject matter, dramatic as it is, as from the narrative style. Here is Moore's opening:
A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither. The whole thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain. A start: the Mother finds a blood clot in the Baby's diaper. What is the story? Who put this here? It is big and bright, with a broken khaki-colored vein in it. Over the weekend, the Baby had looked listless and spacey, clayey and grim. But today he looks fine—so what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow? Perhaps it belongs to someone else. Perhaps it is something menstrual, something belonging to the Mother or to the Babysitter, something the Baby has found in a wastebasket and for his own demented baby reasons stowed away here. (Babies: they're crazy! What can you do?) In her mind, the Mother takes this away from his body and attaches it to someone else's. There. Doesn't that make more sense?
When, in the next paragraph, the Mother calls the hospital, she is told to come in immediately. “Such pleasingly instant service! Just say ‘blood.’ Just say ‘diaper.’ Look what you get!”
I can't think of any other fiction that feels as emotionally audacious as this—one part of the narrative voice rattling along with exclamation points about babies and service, another noting with frightening precision the khaki-colored vein in the blood clot. So many sharp details give the action an immediacy that is as brilliant as a flashbulb, almost unbearably clear. Moore's use of “the Mother,” “the Husband,” and “the Baby” lends the story a fairy-tale flavor—and like fairy tales, this story feels as if it sprang from our most potent nightmares, narrated by a voice that can't stop laughing from pure horror.
Not once does Moore's terrible comedy flag. She describes Peed Onk (the medical staff's breezy shorthand for the pediatric oncology unit): the bald children, the glassy-eyed parents determined to be upbeat, the pianist in the surgery lounge playing “Carol of the Bells” so that it sounds “not only unfestive but scary, like the theme from The Exorcist.” And when the Oncologist meets with the Mother and the Husband and points out that, as far as cancers go, this is a good one, the Mother says, “We win.”
The Husband suggests that the Mother, a writer, should take notes to write about this. They'll need the money. She responds,
Sweetie, darling, I'm not that good. I can't do this. I can do—what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet. Sometimes I can do those. Honey, I only do what I can. I do the careful ironies of daydream. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer? I'm sorry. My stop was two stations back. This is irony at its most gaudy and careless. This is a Hieronymus Bosch of facts and figures and blood and graphs. This is a nightmare of narrative slop. This cannot be designed. This cannot even be noted in preparation for a design—
Although, of course, it can, as Moore well knows. By putting the events on the page she has created a design, with crisis leading to denouement, complexity to resolution. Every event in human existence can be made into a story, however we may struggle and resist that narrative tidying. Characteristically, Moore relies here on humor to mount her resistance, and she creates a story of despair and terrified hope. In the end, hope wins, and the Baby lives, at least for now. This provisional happy conclusion comes with a cost, and Moore gives full voice to that cost.
The story ends:
There are the notes. Now where is the money?
Shocking? Sure. Funny? Yes, in its sheer outrage. Like Job, Moore insists on telling the truth, not what is supposed to be the truth, and only humor is large enough to contain everything she means to say.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 498
SOURCE: Urquhart, James. “Dysfunctional Sitcoms.” New Statesman 128, no. 4418 (8 January 1999): 58.
[In the following review, Urquhart lauds the writing in Birds of America, commending Moore's ability to capture awkward situations realistically and her ability to portray adults looking back on their lost childhood.]
Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories [Birds of America] comprises a dozen punchy diatribes, laments and elegies to crumbling lives or broken relationships, all taut within the disciplines of the form. Only “What You Want to Do Fine” betrays any slack in the wire of Moore's concentration; it lacks the restraining architecture of the short story form and wanders lost in its own landscape, as though excerpted from a longer, absent work.
Moore writes well about childhood, searching for the innocent key that might unlock the wisdoms that supposedly arrive with age. In “Two Boys”, a story from her previous collection Like Life, she writes of the character Mary feeling “the edge of a childhood she'd never quite had or couldn't quite remember float back to her”. In her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, two mature children find that they have forsaken the painful exhilarations of youth to gain only the resigned compromises of the adult franchise.
Birds of America pushes further these extremes of emotional fragility. Moore's fondness for word games serves as an index of insecurity. And Moore's characters, mostly women, seem stranded and self-mockingly insecure in an isolated, unheroic age. In “Terrific Mother”, “jetty-laggy” Adrienne begins to babble nervously when patronised by a pompous academic at a plush symposium dinner. Then she smiles at him, and he replies: “Baby talk. We love it.”
Most of the stories explore the ambiguous space between the requirements of adult behaviour and the faulty equipment salvaged from childhood with which we attempt to cope with our lives. My favourite, “Beautiful Grade”, is about a dinner party at which a divorced law tutor puts up a queasy defence of his decision to date Debbie, one of his former students who is less than half his age. Moore's delineation of each diner's meagre powers of empathy is astute. Their morbid rapport confirms the unalterable private grief of soured hope and misplaced, unreciprocated love.
Lorrie Moore is at her most strident in the penultimate story, subtitled “Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”, in which Mother and Husband struggle with Baby's cancer. Mother, a writer, is goaded by Husband into writing up the whole affair to raise money for the child's treatment. But she cannot do it. The reality is too grim, and too distressing, not the stuff of the imagination at all. “This is the kind of thing that fiction is,” she tells herself, “it's the unliveable life, the strange room tacked on to the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science.”
Moore offers us fragments of this unliveable life. Her stories serve as fresh perspectives of dysfunctional sitcoms, nuanced with bleakness in place of absurdity; and she challenges her readers to act, not observe.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 300
SOURCE: Malin, Irving. Review of Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. Review of Contemporary Fiction 19, no. 1 (spring 1999): 196.
[In the following review, Malin offers praise for Birds of America, complimenting the style and descriptions in the stories.]
Perhaps the titles of Moore's first two books offer a clue to her surprising, wonderful fiction. Self-Help and Anagrams suggest that words are our salvation, that language, artfully (re)arranged, helps us to resist those forces which we feel every day. Her style delights us; it suggests that we can—if only briefly—dance. Moore's latest collection [Birds of America] is her best.
In “Willing” an aging actress finds that she has lost her place in Hollywood. She now lives in a plain place; she eats, drinks, loves without any sense of hope. Only her ability to describe her condition, only her creativity rescues her from total despair. Moore describes Walter, the actress's lover, in this way: “His mouth was slightly lopsided, paisley-shaped, his lips anneloid and full, and he kissed her hard. There were small dark pits of annihilation … and she threw herself into them … falling.” The style is jittery, vital, surprising—note the mixture of common and uncommon words, the short and long words, the “falling” of the sentence. The description—of darkness and surrender—is lively, transforming content into unexpected form.
Although I do not have the space to discuss her other stories, I must alert you to the brilliant story of cancer, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.” (That title is worthy of close reading.) The narrative is jerky; it refuses to offer the platitudes of beginning, middle, end; it spins reflexively, implying that fiction can cure us, that it is a miracle—a moment of pleasure in a conventional, dreary commonplace world.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3611
SOURCE: Frank, Michael. “Fiction in Review.” Yale Review 87, no. 2 (April 1999): 157-74.
[In the following excerpt, Frank examines the stories in Birds of America, commending the “complexity, substance, and gravitas” of the tales and noting Moore's affinity for writing about displaced characters in difficult situations.]
When Lorrie Moore's short story “People Like That Are the Only People Here” [from her collection Birds of America] appeared in the 27 January 1997 issue of The New Yorker, there was an unusually audible murmur—of appreciation, empathy, and plain outright curiosity—among readers and admirers of both the writer and her form. Even if the magazine hadn't made the mistake of running Moore's photograph alongside her story and printing it with a misleading, fact-or-fiction-blurring subheading (“Have writers of memoirs taken over a field that once belonged to novelists? The question is at the heart of a story of a mother and child”—it was not), the visceral narrative of a baby's cancer diagnosis and surgery would have, on its own, raised the issue of whether the material originated in the writer's lived experience. With its expertly calibrated mixture of anger and agony, its dead-on depiction of hospital horrors and habits, and its ink-black gallows humor, the story reached out, seized the reader, and announced, I have been here, I have seen this dark place and these dark things.
Whether Moore saw in truth or through imagination, or with a mixture of the two, is not ultimately pertinent. Seeing is not capturing, and it is not storytelling. The murmur that greeted Moore's bold and beautiful story ought more rightly to have been a murmur of recognition—that a gifted writer, a writer groping, like all writers always, for the material that best suits or most stretches her voice, had found some that did both. Now, nearly two years later, “People Like That” returns between hard covers as the centerpiece of Moore's new collection, Birds of America, and naturally undergoes comparison with its companions. Has the story inaugurated a change of direction in Moore's fiction, or is it merely (though “merely” seems a meager word to bring anywhere near such a fine piece of writing) Moore at her absolute best?
The answer is a little of each. Although no individual story in Birds of America approaches “People Like That” in the success of its marriage of subject and voice, the volume as a whole clearly shows a writer opening up her decidedly nimble, socially astute, and irony-spiked prose to matters of more complexity, substance, and gravitas. Moore does this in two ways at least. One is by turning her attention to physical suffering: in more than half of these twelve stories, central or ancillary characters are stricken with what Flannery O'Connor used to call a Dread Disease. Cancer appears on several occasions, but people, usually children, also struggle with Down's syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and polio. An infant dies from cerebral hemorrhage, parents are killed in a car accident, and so on. Many of these events and ailments provoke from Moore astute and often comic insights into the way pain focuses and transforms lives, while attention to a more modest kind of pain—the pain of regular living, with its reduced expectations, frictional marriages, alternately joyful and sobering love affairs—is what further gives Birds of America a heft and a vigor that her earlier collections (Anagrams,Self-Help, and Like Life), for their many delights, sometimes lacked.
This is not to suggest that Birds of America is a gloomy book. Lorrie Moore is incapable of gloom. This is one of her attributes but also, perhaps, one of her shortcomings. Even at their most bleak, her characters are seldom without sanity-restoring perspective, a broad philosophical observation, or a sense of humor. In almost every character, certainly in every story, Moore lays in an inventory of jokes or quips or puns, as though to keep everyone provisioned and warm no matter where the narrative barometer insists on heading. As a storyteller, Moore seems too often in complete control; with the exception of “People Like That,” there is very little sense (even if that sense is illusory, as it often is) of a story seizing a writer, telling itself like a dream or under the influence of a spell. Nevertheless, the reader responds warmly to Moore's fictions, smiling and often laughing out loud. The reader likes to be entertained, and Moore is often a very entertaining writer. Yet the reader might not turn to Moore the way he or she would to Anton Chekhov or William Trevor or Alice Munro, to see human behavior laid out knowingly, with a sweep that sometimes surprises, sometimes unnerves, and regularly produces a sense of awe that the short story can take in, and give out, so much life.
How Lorrie Moore handles her Dread Diseases says a good deal about her general sensibility and story-making methods. Moore is far too deft a writer to take a disease-of-the-week approach to the illnesses that befall her characters; in fact, again with the exception of “People Like Us,” she doesn't often meet them head on, as though they were The Subject At Hand. Instead she drops these blood-quickening afflictions into the midst of what are, for the most part, representative Moore milieus, where people solidly inhabit the upper middle class (by education if not always finances), pursue academic or arts-related careers, live in (or take vacations from) shabby houses that have a roomy Midwestern amplitude, and spend much of their time seeking—and attaining and losing and joking about—elusive romantic happiness. In this new collection, it is as though Moore had made a conscious decision to return to targets she knows intimately and see what happens when she puts a sharper and more piercing arrow in her bow and lets it fly.
The results vary. In “Dance in America,” the unnamed first-person narrator, a dancer visiting her old boyfriend, Eugene, and his family, sketches out the facts of the long-ago romance, describes Eugene's present marriage, and then reports straight out, in a way that relies too heavily on direct exposition, that Cal, Eugene's son, has cystic fibrosis. “I cannot imagine anything in my life that contains such sorrow as this, such anticipation of missing someone,” she tells us. Moore brings us, vividly, funnily, through the human dynamics of the weekend, to the moment when all the characters erupt in a dance that asserts “the body's magnificent and ostentatious scorn”—of death? Of disease? Cystic fibrosis scorned with a dance? The whole feels a little, well, too little.
In “Which Is More Than I Can Say about Some People” Abby's sister, Theda, we learn early on, has Down's syndrome and is of a sweet and sunny disposition; Abby, by contrast, is mordant, restive, and fearful, dissatisfied with her marriage and ambivalent about the trip she takes to Ireland with her mother. But why does Theda have Down's, the reader wonders; what is this information doing here—how is it (is it at all?) meant to have shaped Abby's life, her marriage, her mother's life, the relationship between mother and daughter? Moore of course never spells it out, she doesn't in fact even offer much detail, but a gentle connection emerges between the way Abby comes to understand her mother—and herself—and the fact that in their family they have lived with this very hard thing. By the end Abby has seen the fear beneath her mother's intrepidity, forgiven her for her limited capacity for affection, acknowledged the “knack for solitude” her mother has taught her, and recognized with the sort of penetrating maturity that characterizes this volume that “it was really the world that was one's brutal mother, the one that nursed and neglected you, and your own mother was only your sibling in that world.”
Even when, as in this story, the afflictions are not as solidly integrated into the characters' behavior and evolution as they might be, the accompanying moments, the firmly and finally won perceptions of self and other, show Moore at her most insightful about the human animal. Sometimes, as in “Real Estate,” the insights speak directly to the nature of a disease—in this case cancer, which causes Ruth, the protagonist, to reflect that “her body, so mysterious and apart from her, could only produce illness.” (Later, as her cancer returns, Ruth is said to feel “its poison, its tentacular reach and clutch, as a puppet feels a hand.”) These observations bring a pang of recognition that derives from the accuracy and the elegance with which they are expressed, to be sure, but they resonate so palpably in this story because they take a deserved place in Ruth's carefully drawn life, which is full of reflections of her disease, among them the decaying, possibly haunted house she and her husband move into, its garden invaded by crows; the dark intruder who tries to rob the couple; and the longing Ruth poignantly feels for her absent daughter, Mitzy, “the only good thing her body had ever been able to grow.”
“Beautiful Grade” is an example of a story where the Dread Disease—Bill's sister's mortal childhood polio—is not overtly considered, like Ruth's cancer, but lives in and illuminates Bill's psyche in a subtle way, like a candle guttering in the next room, just out of sight. The story opens at a dinner party full of academics, where the conversation is spiced with opinion, barb, and wit (or “wit”); underneath, naturally, all is aggression, sadness, and problems in love. The divorced Bill is newly involved with Debbie, a daughter-age girlfriend. His best friend sizes up his suntan, his freckles, and his white clothes worn past Labor Day and declares that Bill looks “very—tennisy.” Bill's own mind sparkles with the dry Moorish aperçu. On marriage: “It's the film school of the nineties.” On the word “text”: “Every time he hears it, he feels he should just give up, go off and wear a powdered wig somewhere.”
But more is going on in Bill, and in this story, than glib repartee. As the layers accumulate, the facets of Bill's mind and personality keep flying out from under Moore's chisel. “This taboo regarding age,” he thinks, “is to make us believe that life is long and actually improves us, that we are wiser, better, more knowledgeable later on than early. It is a myth concocted to keep the young from learning what we really are and despising and murdering us.” What Bill really is, it emerges, is unhappy, possibly incapable of happiness. Daughter-age Debbie presses him, gently but with determination. A small bit of happiness is not so hard, she tells him: “It's pretty much open-book. It's basically a take-home”—but not to Bill's home, because Bill's is a home with long shadowed halls, a home haunted by the memory of the “cool wintry light” of his waning first marriage and, before that, farther down the corridor than that, his boyhood demons, the monster he imagined (To keep him company? To contain his pain? To make him feel alive?) when his sister was dying of polio. And not only dying but favored by her parents, because she was more enjoyable than the sober and thoughtful young Bill. Now, in middle age, glimpsing it all “from behind some atmosphere, from across some green and scalloped sea,” he sees that his demon both terrified and thrilled him in a world, his world, that “had already, and with such indifferent skill, forsaken all its charms.” In the complexity of this moment, Moore successfully joins diseases named and unnamed, and the story shimmers with life.
Physical affliction by its nature compels people to spend time out of the web of their regular routine. It hardly seems coincidental that most of the twelve stories that make up Birds of America are structured around a similar time-out, if not necessarily one incited by disease. In Moore's basic story template, the central character finds herself (less often, himself) in a situation of displacement, which gives the narrative a temporal and, in a way, a spatial focus, as though in a narrowed time and place the author can most effectively convey her characters' essences. It is not the long, rhythmic, tangled movements of life that attract Moore, as they do Alice Munro, but the sharper, more contained, more containable interludes. In “Willing,” for example, Sidra, an actress, leaves Hollywood, where “she was starting to have two speeds: Coma and Hysteria,” and returns to Chicago, her hometown, to work out why “she had made too little of her life.” In “Which Is More Than I Can Say about Some People” Abby and her mother travel to Ireland, a journey that manages to put their whole relationship into well-defined relief. Something similar happens between Mack and Quilty, two friends and lovers, when they set out from Chicago on a road trip south in “What You Want to Do Fine,” while “Charades” presents a complicated and often unnerving kind of time-out, the ingathering that takes place when a grown-up nuclear family assembles for Christmas, and the wounds, grievances, alliances, and conflicts of childhood reconstitute themselves like a recipe handed down through generations.
The dilemma of what makes a group of stories a collection would seem to be on Lorrie Moore's mind in this book: not whether they need to be nudged toward accruing into a larger, somehow united whole but how to make them do so. For theme she has her afflictions; for structure, her contained interludes; and then there are the birds. Are they motif? Metaphor? A signature wink at the reader (who, of course, cannot resist keeping track of every rustling feather and flapping wing) or a connecting prop like Vermeer's gracefully unfurled map and side chair with its carved lion's head? Certainly, when a writer titles her collection Birds of America, Audubon hovers. Yet for all her attention to detail, habit, and manners—human plumage, as it were—Moore cannot truly be said to be after something encyclopedic here; her characters are more of a kind than they are varied. In the one direct mention of Audubon, the artist is described as having shot the birds he painted; he is then likened to Ernest Hemingway, who is satirically invoked (by Quilty, in “What You Want to Do Fine”), during a visit to Key West, in mock guidebook-ese: “Before he wrote about them … Hemingway shot his characters. It was considered an unusual but not unheard-of creative method.” The writer as killer: a mocking, waggish notion, yes, but also one with a point. To arrogate a being, even a fictional one, to spread him on the page as Audubon spread his birds, is in a sense to extinguish that which in him is autonomous and apart: the story as coffin, or specimen jar. Again, a sly reminder that Moore is firmly in charge.
Moore's birds come in many forms. Flamingos fly off and foreshadow the end of a romance; as an angry adolescent Abby likens her mother sitting on a toilet to a cuckoo in a clock; dance (in “Dance in America”) is “life flipping death the bird”; birds, standing in for grief, invade a garden after the death of a beloved cat; when a woman waits up for her straying husband, a bird hurls itself against a window. The allusions pile up, and at times the reader feels the writer straining after an effect that, it might be argued, she didn't particularly need in the first place.
From a word-player like Moore, it's hard not to be aware of another meaning of bird—woman, as in British slang for—and it is Moore's women, more than any other element, that hold together and animate her book. Presented (with one exception) in the third person, women are central to ten of these twelve stories. They are mostly in their thirties and forties, ages where they have accumulated a past and thought enough about it to have a nuanced grasp of their own inner lives while still believing, in a fundamental way, that life itself is “bevel[ed] with possibility.” (This lovely phrase describes a potential romance in “Community Life” but applies more generally to a basic stance, a sort of life position, shared by many of Moore's characters.) Moore's women open (and close) themselves to romance, marriage, mothering, and friendship, and they assess themselves, their partners, and their friends clearly and crisply, sometimes tartly, often humorously, and always with a radiating intelligence. Of the wide range of social interactions these women engage in, they are particularly incisively depicted in marriage, which variously holds the “hazard” of turning people into their parents; is “a good idea that, like all ideas, lived awkwardly on earth”; and is “a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically.” And their humor—Moore's humor—can be just so good that it does an injustice to her work not to give a sample or two. Consider the self-absorbed dancer in “Dance in America” who reports that her ex-boyfriend once suggested she rent her house out to “a nice lesbian couple like myself.” Or Therese, in “Charades,” who is dismayed to learn that her younger sister, Ann, is planning a conventional wedding; when she learns that Ann is also going to take the name of her fiancé, Tad, she asks tartly, “You're going to call yourself Tad?”
Little of this prepares the reader for “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” Or maybe all of this does: maybe the new attention to affliction, the use of displacement as a structuring device, the unflinching social observation, and the humor have all been helping Moore tool up for a subject potentially too unwieldy, too macabre, too sentimental, too tricky, too gimmicky for a short story, a minefield of a subject that could lure even a greatly experienced writer toward self-immolation: a child with cancer. As the Mother (unnamed, like the Baby, the Father, the Radiologist) thinks to herself: “Baby and Chemo … : they should never even appear in the same sentence together, let alone the same life.” In a story as in a sentence or a life? No. Moore rises to the subject with elegance, confidence, candor; with genuine courage and expertise.
In book form, “People Like That” has acquired a subtitle, “Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.” Peed onk is the narrator's inferno, a pediatric oncology unit at a children's hospital, where the Baby undergoes surgery for a Wilms' tumor, discovered by accident when the Mother one day finds in his diaper a blood clot “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” Every possible feeling shoots through the Mother when she receives the diagnosis. It is a mistake. It is her kidney that was accidentally X-rayed. It is the end of life (“After this, there … is something else, something stumbling and unlivable, something mechanical, something for robots, but not life”). It is a punishment—for too many babysitters too early on; for unmotherly thoughts (wanting his naps to continue, wanting to kiss him passionately on the mouth); for her jokes (she complained that the repetitive, mind-numbing domestic chores were “like a novel by Mrs. Camus”); for reveling too often in the Baby's “canonical babbling,” the name language experts give to the stories infants tell before they have the words to tell stories with.
The narrator does some canonical babbling of her own. She gets it all down, all of it. The doctor-speak: “You don't know exactly what it is until it's in the bucket.” The wardrobe of disaster, sweatpants and sunglasses, which she begins to wear indoors, “like a celebrity widow.” The way the Husband “begins too many of his sentences with ‘What if’”—and how he insists that she take notes: she is a writer, he argues, and she will have to write about this because they will need the money … or so she says he says; the reader wonders whether it's because he knows that the writing is how she will survive and stay sane.
Moore misses nothing: the paper shoes; the bald little boys who look like brothers; the Oncologist who knows his math; the Tiny Tim lounge (“a cramped little lounge, which, one suspects, would be larger if Tiny Tim's son had actually lived”); her husband's insistence on forming clubs all the time (“When it comes to death and dying, perhaps someone in this family ought to be more of a snob”); the horrific moment when the anesthesia kicks in and is brutal and unforgivable, the opposite of the way it is shown on the hospital's preparatory video; the moments of her anger; the way, when the operation is over, the baby cries like an old person, “silent, beyond opinion, shattered. In someone so tiny, it is frightening and unnatural. … She wants to whip out a gun: No-no's, eh? This whole thing is what I call a no-no.”
Yet the story is a yes-yes. A Yes for conveying so much feeling in all its coloration, for creating suspense, for distilling many characters in few strokes, for telling jokes (“Mrs. Camus”!), for crossing over into this darkness and sending back bulletins from the other side, and for living down her own view of herself: “I can't do this,” the Mother tells the Father. “I do the careful ironies of daydream. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer? I'm sorry. My stop was two stations back.” The bravura performance of “People Like That” leaves the reader—and surely the writer, too—with but one lingering question: what awaits Lorrie Moore two stations ahead?
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3688
SOURCE: Passaro, Vince. “Unlikely Stories: The Quiet Renaissance of American Short Fiction.” Harper's 299, no. 1791 (August 1999): 80-9.
[In the following excerpt, Passaro discusses the development of twentieth-century American short fiction, particularly as defined by the terse realism of Hemingway, and praises the work of talented younger writers, including Moore, whose sophisticated, experimental stories are leading a revitalization of the genre.]
The American short story—an expression we can use with some degree of domestic pride, as when referring to jazz or liberty—has entered a strange phase in its history. To examine the record of story collections published over this last decade, of money paid for them, of reviews received by them, and, most particularly, of magazine outlets for them, is to conclude that the form is in a long twilight, that it has descended sharply from the flash, the good money, and the cultural regard it had under the influence of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in the 1930s, again in The New Yorker—dominated period of the 1950s, and finally in what you might call the second Hemingway period—the “minimalist” days—of the first half of the 1980s, when stories by Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Jayne Anne Phillips, Susan Minot, Richard Ford, and Tobias Wolff were all the rage. How young and glamorous and well paid the story business seemed in the neon-margarita glow of that last period; how mild and unassuming it looks now, quiescent in its waning days, destined for that condition of benign disregard and deadly subsidy that afflicts watercolor painting, quilt making, and, alas, American poetry.
The problem,1 in part, is built into the history of the American short story. The closer it adheres to realism, as in the 1930s and again in the 1950s and 1980s, the more its popular prospects rise, but this happens only periodically. Born of Irving, Poe, and Hawthorne, the American story was from the first experimental, always open to a greater range of formal expressions than stories in the classical French and Russian traditions, such as those by Flaubert, Maupassant, and Turgenev. The original American story was the tale—a brief, halogen-bright lesson in the ways of sin, crime, madness, and decline. Later, Stephen Crane, Jack London, and Sherwood Anderson brought a harsh, native, reportorial sense to American fiction in stories that ranged from slice-of-life to near fairy tale. Henry James painted a European sensibility onto the American scene; his own brand of formal innovation was in taking the highly unusual step in American letters of insisting that there is such a thing as form at all. Yet even James experimented; he wrote ghost stories, and in 1903 he wrote a story, “The Beast in the Jungle,” that spans several decades but has only two or three relatively brief physical scenes and few physical details—a story that is made entirely of spiritual, psychological, and verbal play and is about a thing that in effect never happens. In other words, even James wrote variously, with his feet in two centuries and across several styles. To get a sense of the range of the story in America, consider that during the latter part of James's career he was working at the same time as Mark Twain, Stephen Crane, Bret Harte, Willa Cather, Frank Norris, Kate Chopin, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London, to name only a few—a list that represents just a portion of the range of formal and stylistic approaches then current among American story writers.
Since the turn of the century, however, the American short story has managed to funnel itself down, at least in the college-trained reader's mind, to a fairly strict, quite unexperimental idea of what a literary story ought to be. Roughly speaking, it ought to be what Henry James thought at times it was, what the commercial fiction of Hemingway and Fitzgerald made it into, and what was later written by John O'Hara and John Updike—a piece of narrative prose fiction shorter than a novella, featuring a single “consciousness” that directs the narrative eye and evokes events and sentiments that are grounded in the five senses and other physical realities. This fiction ought to be something between fifteen and fifty pages long, largely if not entirely realistic, with a forceful and prescriptive opening, a revelatory conclusion, and a plot hung on one or two or, at most, three dense emotional turns.
Hemingway, in this scenario, stands as the exemplary American story writer. Think of the opening of “A Clean Well-Lighted Place” or the ending of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.” Hemingway's crisp, reticent stories became the templates from which American fiction writers were supposed to work. One of the reasons the short story now has less impact and less commercial appeal than a decade and a half ago is because today's best short-fiction writers have turned away from his stoical, serious, pared-down approach. Today's short fiction tends to be smart, and wit is an aspect of the literary art form that Hemingway couldn't master and that his followers, consciously or unconsciously, put aside. (His anti-intellectualism, perfectly American and perfectly tuned to the needs of an ever-less-educated reading public, meshed well with his own marked lack of intelligence.) He had a painterly sensibility, a mimic's talents, and an intermittently fashionable attitude; he amalgamated these, under the heavy influences of Gertrude Stein and Sherwood Anderson, into a style that in its earliest expressions had considerable power and grace. His worldview, though, was so steeped in sentimentality and vanity that it made him blind to what you might call “the richer possibilities” of life, to the wide swatch of moral and emotional subtleties in which life is actually lived and with which it is most powerfully depicted. This lack makes itself felt in the tinny aftertaste that even his best fiction can leave: Jake and Brett in Madrid at the end of The Sun Also Rises (“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together”), or the father with the boy in “Indian Camp” (“Is dying hard, Daddy?” “No, I think it's pretty easy, Nick. It all depends”). Hemingway was almost never funny, and he was almost never right—never right, that is, about what we might call the full nuances of human relations, human frailty, and, in the face of that frailty, human morality. Writers like Samuel Beckett or William Burroughs, to name very different examples, changed the way we see the world; Hemingway changed the way we see Pamplona.
Today's American short fiction is more various, more successfully experimental, more urbane, funnier, and more bitingly ironic than that written in the Hemingway tradition. It is also more idiosyncratic in its voices, less commercial, and more expansive in its approach to the requirements of art. To appreciate the work of today's best story writers—Lorrie Moore, for example, or Denis Johnson, or David Foster Wallace—is to recognize that the 1990s have been not at all a waning moment of the story but an innovative and rich one. This decade has seen the publication of remarkable volumes of short fiction by such talents as the aforementioned Wallace, Johnson, and Moore as well as by writers of equal or nearly equal talent, such as Lydia Davis, Steven Millhauser, Joanna Scott, Mary Gaitskill, Thom Jones, William T. Vollmann, Rick Moody, and George Saunders. Quietly—indeed, almost invisibly, with little popular or critical recognition—the 1990s have presented us with some of the best and formally most innovative short fiction in our literature.
That so few venues publish these writers regularly and that so few readers get to happen upon stories by them are circumstances that contribute to the strangeness of this moment. Over the last two decades, writing short stories has passed from being a very tough way to make a living to being an impossible one. The magazines that regularly publish short fiction for a national audience (roughly in order of how well they pay) are The New Yorker,Esquire,GQ,Playboy,The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's Magazine. The so-called women's magazines, such as Cosmopolitan,Redbook, and a few others, publish fiction also, but not regularly, and little of what they do publish turns out to have significant literary value. The New Yorker, which in the 1950s published three stories each week and which as recently as the 1980s published two stories a week, has given up its leadership role as the defining venue for short fiction in the United States. Since the coming and going of its glam-editor Tina Brown,2 the magazine, even with its special “Fiction” issues, including its recent, highly derivative “Future of American Fiction” issue, has reduced the number of stories by perhaps a third, to approximately fifty pieces per year. The New Yorker once supported five fiction editors; now no editors at the magazine attend to fiction full time. The fiction that the magazine does publish is too often excerpted from novels or imminently forthcoming collections, making the magazine seem more a flack for publishers than a site of editorial strength and vision. In addition to The New Yorker's fifty, Esquire's twenty, and Playboy's fifteen to seventeen, GQ,Harper's Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly are responsible for, say, a dozen stories each per year, this latter group (plus Esquire) more reliably preferring short stories to book excerpts that have been pre-sanctioned for mass appeal by book publishers and their publicists.
At best then, roughly 120 pieces of literary fiction appear in widely circulated magazines each year. Prices paid for this work range anywhere from an unusual ＄10,000 (with a very rare story by a well-known author garnering more) to a more common ＄1,500 or ＄2,000 per story.3 To guess that on average the authors are making ＄5,000 per story is to guess very generously in the authors' favor, and to notice that no more (and likely fewer) than a dozen or so of today's best story writers are publishing in these “well paying” magazines more than once a year is to get a sense of how little money there is to be made from writing stories these days. The time is long gone when writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald “ruined” their talents writing stories on commission for large paychecks, pumping out narratives for the dozen or more commercial magazines that sought anything that came off their typewriters. Even during the Depression, these writers could make ＄3,000 or more per story, the equivalent of ＄36,000 per story in today's economy.
So in the late 1980s, while minimalism, after a decade of popular success and artistic dominance, began to play out and while the high-profile outlets for short stories continued to diminish, the first of the more complex and intellectually sophisticated stories now prevalent began to appear.
The earliest of these “new” works might have been Lorrie Moore's first collection, Self-Help, which was published in 1985. Two particular features, in retrospect, make her stories look fundamentally different from the mainstream books of short fiction then being published: her caustic humor, which almost none of her contemporaries shared, and her book's central, structural conceit—that this was a self-help book. The first story in the volume, “How to Be an Other Woman,” stands as a clear example. It is written in the imperative:
Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim's Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow. All the stores have closed. You can see your breath on the glass. Draw a peace sign. You are waiting for a bus. …
After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events. On the stereo you play your favorite harp and oboe music. He tells you his wife's name. It is Patricia. She is an intellectual property lawyer. He tells you he likes you a lot. You lie on your stomach, naked and still too warm. When he says, “How do you feel about that?” don't say “Ridiculous” or “Get the hell out of my apartment.” Prop your head up with one hand and say: “It depends. What is intellectual property law?” …
When you were six you thought mistress meant to put your shoes on the wrong feet. Now you are older and know it can mean many things, but essentially it means to put your shoes on the wrong feet. …
Cut up an old calendar into week-long strips. Place them around your kitchen floor, a sort of bar graph on the linoleum, representing the number of weeks you have been a mistress: thirteen. Put X's through all the national holidays.
Go out for a walk in the cold. Three little girls hanging out on the stoop are laughing and calling to strange men on the street. “Hi! Hi, Mister!” Step around them. Think: they have never had orgasms.
A blonde woman in barrettes passes you in stockinged feet, holding her shoes.
Even in this story, published when she was still in her twenties, Moore could form a surprisingly assured interplay between symbol and comic voice: in this story, you can see it in the return, time and again, to images of shoes, awkward, absurd, and slightly obscene. Since then she has grown as a writer, matured in her mastery of style and in her vision. Many of her stories are fairly traditional in structure, but there is always that quickness of movement, that slightly skewed narrative perspective that keeps you alert and a little uneasy—she could pull something anytime, and you don't want to miss it. In her latest collection, last year's Birds of America, which, shockingly made it onto The New York Times Book Review bestseller list for three brief but, for story fans, glorious weeks shortly after it came out, Moore pushes her fiction further and deeper, in terms of language and emotion, than she has before. She also pulls off many moments of structural wizardry, such as the strange, disorienting, and powerful last page of “Agnes of Iowa,” when she suddenly switches point of view from a wife, who has been the central intelligence of the story, to her husband, watching her sadness overwhelm her, her head sinking, at a table in a New York diner. The pillar of Birds of America, a story already much talked about and certain to be much anthologized in the decades to come, is “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” It is a small masterpiece, a consciously genre-confusing first-person account of motherhood and a gravely ill child, which was published to a good deal of attention in The New Yorker two and a half years ago. The editors of the magazine coyly implied on the contents page that this piece of fiction was really a memoir, and they compounded this implication by illustrating the first page of the story with a photograph of Moore.
Nevertheless, and no matter how truthful to real events, “People Like That …” remains a short story: crafted from a narrative voice and from selected fragments of believable emotion and physical details, each arranged to achieve maximum dramatic effect, and owing no allegiance to facts and everything to felt reality. Moore, who has acknowledged that the piece fictionalizes something that did in fact happen to her son, purposefully plays on the whole notion of a story's autobiographical truth, making the narrator into a writer: “Take notes,” her husband tells her. “We're going to need the money.” Later, she addresses this rather postmodern bit of financial planning. The husband asks:
“Are you taking notes for this?”
“No. I can't. Not this! I write fiction. This isn't fiction.”
“Then write nonfiction. Do a piece of journalism. Get two dollars a word.”
“Then it has to be true and full of information. I'm not trained. I'm not that skilled. Plus, I have a convenient personal principle about artists not abandoning art. One should never turn one's back on a vivid imagination. Even the whole memoir thing annoys me.”
“Well, make things up, but pretend they're real.”
“I'm not that insured.”
“You're making me nervous.”
“Sweetie, darling, I'm not that good. I can't do this. I can do—what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet. Sometimes I can do those. Honey, I only do what I can. I do the careful ironies of daydream. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer? I'm sorry. My stop was two stations back. This is irony at its most gaudy and careless. This is a Hieronymus Bosch of facts and figures and blood and graphs. This is a nightmare of narrative slop. This cannot be designed. This cannot even be noted in preparation for a design. …”
If the newer fictional movement I've described here catches on enough to deserve a name, the name might well come from this last soliloquy: call it narrative slop—but archly and happily. It is slop in a newly minted, best sense of the word—an almost reckless irony and an adamant refusal to bow to the more precious aspects of what in writing classes is called “craft.” An amusing example from the passage just noted: within the metafiction that is this story there appears the meta-meta-fictional discussion with the husband about writing the story, within which come those italicized quotes describing Moore's earlier fiction. Are they real quotes from some gushy reviews, or did she make them up? Voyeuristically, and in a fully mean spirit, I'm hoping they're real. And thus are we dropped, as is so often and intriguingly the case in contemporary fiction, into the DMZ between narrative and reality.
As unusual as Moore's first collection was, and as astonishing as the stories in Moore's more recent Birds of America are, she does not often depart from the poses of standard storytelling. …
In looking now not only at the short story but at the novel as well, it is easy to feel that we are on the verge of something, a change in the reading public's relationship to fiction. It seems impossible, in a society so limited in its number of book buyers, to sustain the life's work that literature must be for so many intense and talented younger writers. Some teach for a living. A few are working in film and television. With the Internet comes the possibility of such an inexpensive distribution system for large blocks of language that writing essentially will become volunteer work, akin to Doctors Without Borders, and similarly oriented toward triage, not for victims of war but for victims of our culture. Commercially speaking, fiction—even the well-written, well-published book—already stands in many editors' and agents' minds as the proposal and development stage in the “content” business, some temporary pre-film transitional format of the narrative condition. It is tempting to think, too, that the further writers remove themselves from the ether of commercial success, the better they might become. One has trouble believing that the possibilities or fantasies or fever dreams of stardom that swam before the eyes of younger writers in the highly imitative Odeon era of the early 1980s did not interfere with their artistic development and the autonomy of their imaginations. Now that the commercial landscape is shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, and there is no longer money in literary prose for any but a handful of practitioners, American fiction might be free enough to muster one more golden age—but if golden, then we shall make it a hidden gold, doubloons in a mollusk-coated trunk at the bottom of the sea.
There are occasional anomalies, of course. Recently, two writers, Nathan Englander and Melissa Bank, received substantial advances (Bank's was ＄275,000) and publicity for their first collections. They are moderately talented, good-looking, young, and Englander, at least, a former Orthodox Jew now gone secular, has an interesting life story to tell on his book tour. There is always room in the marketing machine for these kinds of writers. At the same time, a different kind of collection recently has made it into the popular consciousness and, momentarily, onto the bestseller lists: Houghton Mifflin's anthology of its anthologies, The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by éminence grise John Updike and timed for end-of-the-century considerations. On the whole, though, the short story as such, with no additional marketing angles, still usually fails to generate much commercial interest.
Ms. Brown is to fiction as William Tecumseh Sherman was to Georgia. In the early 1980s, Vanity Fair under Richard Locke and, later, Leo Lerman published, among other works of outstanding new fiction, the entirety of Gabriel García Márquez's short masterpiece Chronicle of a Death Foretold. When Ms. Brown took over the magazine, however, fiction was minimized for a time, then essentially eliminated. She then moved on to The New Yorker, with its long tradition as the nation's premier venue for fiction. Prior to her arrival, The New Yorker had been not only publishing its reliably good two stories per week but featuring such extraordinary occasional events as Max Frisch's Man in the Holocene, which appeared in full in the early 1980s. Brown eventually hired as The New Yorker's fiction editor Bill Buford, an American anglophile and the former editor of Granta, who, if his publishing record is any indication, often seems to prefer to slip excerpts from memoirs and letters into the magazine in places where you'd expect to see short fiction. With Brown's recent departure (Buford remains) and the ascendance of editor David Remnick, it remains to be seen whither goest the short story in The New Yorker.
In the best literary journals—The Paris Review,The Georgia Review,The Threepenny Review,Doubletake,Ploughshares, and so on, where there's sometimes more room for fiction and somewhat more of a commitment to avant-garde work—writers are paid even less, and in some cases not at all.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1857
SOURCE: Brockway, Michelle. “The Art of Reading Lorrie Moore.” Poets and Writers 28, no. 5 (September-October 2000): 16-19.
[In the following essay, Brockway praises Moore's effective use of humor, incongruity, and linguistic play in her fiction.]
Before discovering Lorrie Moore, I could appreciate just about any fiction created by a sharp mind and a skilled pen. But since Self-Help (in the best sense of the term), since Anagrams and Like Life and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?—and especially since Birds of America—my readerly orientation has altered: In addition to brilliance and verbal felicity, I want comedy.
At first I felt uncomfortable with this new predilection. Was an insistence on humor, like my new Fender Stratocaster, yet another sign of maturational regression? Or, having finally succumbed to nihilism, was I only into words for the chuckles?
On the other hand, the author of my taste change could hardly be accused of frivolity; indeed, the word most likely to accompany hilarious in descriptions of Moore's work is surely heartbreaking. What, then, is the relationship between her humor and her fiction's emotional impact, and why has she attracted such a passionate following?
One insightful exploration into the potentially serious business of comedy is Barry Sanders's Sudden Glory: Laughter as Subversive History. The comic, Sanders argues, “shatters the gestures of elegance and continuity and opens a crack, enabling us to glimpse beneath the façade of our socialized, civilized, and regulated lives.”
And isn't that what writers do? Don't we create because we are dissatisfied with the standard depictions of our world? Don't we want to touch something true, to break through oppressive common sense to achieve, if only momentarily, a deeper level of human communion? Aren't all writers (on our good days, at least) revolutionaries—aren't we all comics?
I'm not suggesting, of course, that writers should only depict jesters and carnival revelers. Even the subtlest shift, as Sanders explains, can surprise us “by re-presenting the mundane in an absolutely fresh way.” The stumbler, he says, “permits us to see the grammar of walking, just as the stammerer allows us to hear the grammar of speech. In a sense, both take back what we take for granted.”
Through their own antics and accidents, Lorrie Moore's characters “re-present” a contemporary world that to me feels refreshingly real. Intelligent and well-meaning as the next guy, wisecracking, willfully illogical, these men and women invariably trip over life's accepted wisdom and assurances—only to come up slack-jawed, gawking at an endgame replete with unanticipated incongruities.
In “Go Like This” (Self-Help), for example, as in many Moore stories, her pairing of the banal and the profound elevates the story's depth through humor and artfully avoids Movie of the Week sentimentality, which is so pervasive in considerations of mortality. As a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, the examining doctor treats her to a whistling rendition of “Clementine” (with its unsung but ominously present line, “You are lost and gone forever”). Later the dying narrator announces to gathered friends her plans to commit suicide, and then they “all get up and cry and eat brie and wheat thins.” The callously whistled tune, the guests' eagerness to nibble in the shadow of death, powerfully convey the narrator's painful understanding: Life goes on, whether ours does or not.
Such incongruity abounds in Moore's fiction, even its very syntax. In “To Fill” (Self-Help), a distraught narrator confesses, “I am stealing more and more money. I keep it in my top drawer beneath my underwear, along with my diaphragm and my lipstick and my switchblade these are things a woman needs.” Whoops! Why is a weapon mentioned in the same breath as this woman's tools of sexual attraction? Hmm, but now that I think about it. … The dissonance sends us back to the sentence to determine the cause of our startle, and in the process Moore leads us to consider a certain, and perhaps better unelaborated, snippet of truth.
She constantly sets up our expectations in this manner—then prankishly subverts them. In “Terrific Mother” (Birds of America), a guilt-ridden woman ponders the direction of a romance formed in the aftermath of a child's accidental death: “She had bonded in a state of emergency, like an infant bird. But perhaps it would be soothing, this marriage. Perhaps it would be like a nice warm bath. A nice warm bath in a tub flying off a roof.” Moore lulls us with comforting images—baby birds, soothing baths—and then, with a mere “afterthought,” upsets the paragraph's entire meaning, in a sense sending us flying off the roof as well.
She pulls a similar stunt in “Charades” (Birds of America). Here a woman, Therese, thinks about her husband: “He is ardent and capable and claims almost every night in his husbandly way to find Therese the sexiest woman he's ever known. Therese likes that. She is also having an affair with a young assistant DA in the prosecutor's office.” Moore bumps the information about the affair right up against the account of the husband's stellar qualities, and we smile. Why? Because we are surprised, yes, but also because we immediately wonder why we were surprised. As always, reality, perhaps unpalatable but honest, follows the laughter like a poke.
In Moore's work, complex insights often arise from her characters' ability to combine obtuseness in serious matters with perspicacity about the apparently irrelevant. For example, in “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” (Birds of America), the mother of a dying baby tells us the doctor “crosses his blue-cottoned legs. He is wearing clogs.” Clogs are funny, even in this painful and frighteningly realistic piece. They are slightly shocking (“To take the surprises out,” says an unconsoling “god” in the story, “is to take the life out of life”), a fashion statement distracting and disturbing in contrast with the family's plight. A linguist like Moore undoubtedly intends the pun—“clog” as shoe, “clog” as a verb indicating traumatic, inexpressible emotion. In addition, because life burgeons with the irrelevant—life has no plot—Moore heightens the story's verisimilitude by including the odd, apparently unrelated detail.
In her dialogue, such “irrelevancies,” both changes and elaborations of subject, produce laughs as well as the indirection common in real-life conversation. In “Which Is More Than I Can Say about Some People” (Birds of America), for example, the narrator, Abby, fails to respond directly to her mother's explanation (such as it is) for her lack of maternal attention. “But then there was you,” the mother says. “You I liked. You I could leave alone.” Abby's hasty reply? “I bought you a smock.”
Mothers and daughters with even the most comfortable of relationships would have to smile at this exchange. The humor—and poignance—arises from Abby's blatant evasion of the subject (also smock just plain sounds funny). Had this story been written from a more typical, twelve-stepper perspective, Abby might have responded to her mother's comment with an expected (and hence boring) confrontation: “Oh, thanks a lot. You were my mother, I needed you. …” But the character concisely says that and more by not saying it. The subject of her mother's indifference hurts too much for Abby to address it at all.
Elsewhere in “Which Is More Than I Can Say,” Abby says of her sister, “Theda had Down's syndrome, and the family adored her.” Of course, Down's syndrome and adoration are not incompatible. But with a simple conjunction this narrator suggests the family loves Theda because she is mentally retarded—because they cannot cope with the complexity of a “normal” adult child. By constructing the sentence as a kind of non sequitur, the writer hints at unpleasant ironies without reducing her narrator to the ugliness of a more direct statement.
Much of Moore's humor arises from such attention to and delight in words. She approaches English like an intelligent foreigner, taking idioms and figurative language literally in order to rejuvenate them, forcing us to reexamine the cliché. “She didn't want to get even,” we learn of the narrator of “Two Boys” (Like Life). “She wanted to be even already.” In “Water” (Anagrams) a character asks his professor if she likes the life she's leading. “Benna considers this. Leading a life always makes her think of something trailing behind her in a harness, bit, and reins.”
When Moore's characters grapple with language they expose the disconnection between human beings and the pitfalls inherent in even the “safest” of lives. As the narrator of “The Nun of That” (Anagrams) notes, “Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls.”
Exuberance, though, inevitably provokes some irritation. The main (albeit minor) complaint one hears about Birds of America is that the unabashed quips and puns become a bit much. Perhaps there's validity to this criticism, but I resist regarding such “excess” as problematic.
Obviously, Moore is irrepressible. Hence the many Tom Swifties in Birds of America's “Community Life” (“There's never been an accident, she said recklessly”), the 982 consecutive “Ha's” in “Real Estate” (Birds of America), the puns abundant throughout Moore's work (“All the world's a stage we're going through,” “The Nun of That”). Regardless of her theme's profundity, she is at play when she writes, an approach that, if it risks inspiring winces, is bolder and more writerly, I believe, than acceding to the linguistic inhibitions so often (if inadvertently) encouraged by creative writing workshops.
We must keep in mind, too, that the groaners issue from the mouths of characters whose weakest attempts at humor arise from desperation. Laughter, they seem to sense, breaks through isolation, if only momentarily. Aristotle, as Barry Sanders points out, referred to humankind as animal ridens, the “creature who laughs.” Even when it doesn't gladden the heart, by its nature laughter makes us feel alive, human, connected.
Moore comes closest to testifying to laughter's communal role in a passage from “People Like That.” Here the narrator explains why, even faced with her baby's demise, she cherishes her wisecracking companions:
[T]hey are the only people who not only will laugh at her stupid jokes but offer up stupid ones of their own. What do you get when you cross Tiny Tim with a pit bull? A child's illness is a strain on the mind. They know how to laugh in a fluty, desperate way—unlike the people who are more her husband's friends and who seem just to deepen their sorrowful gazes, nodding their heads with Sympathy. How exiling and estranging are everybody's Sympathetic Expressions! When anyone laughs, she thinks, Okay! Hooray: a buddy.
With her comedic perspective, Lorrie Moore reinvigorates subjects like mortality and motherlove and romance. She honors with her honesty our common struggles, refuses to ban “the mundane” from the purview of literature—undermines, indeed, the very banality of banality. Her fictional worlds, like life, never permit our complacency. We are suckered in, we are taken aback. In the broadest sense of the word, we are amused.
Hooray, we think. A buddy.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8415
SOURCE: Moore, Lorrie, and Elizabeth Gaffney. “Lorrie Moore: The Art of Fiction 167.” Paris Review 43, no. 158 (spring-summer 2001): 57-84.
[In the following interview, Moore discusses her formative experiences and literary influences, her approach to writing, the characters and themes in her writing, and the conflicting demands of writing, parenting, and working.]
When The Paris Review approached Lorrie Moore about doing a Writers-at-Work interview, she responded with a warning: “My life is impossible to make interesting—others have tried before,” and a lament: “Alas, I am virtually incoherent speaking in person.” She then proposed that we simply begin with a written interview rather than “making our way politely toward one.” We compromised on an initial interview session to be followed by extensive questions and answers exchanged via U.S. mail and fax (but not E-mail, which she abjures). Of course, Moore turned out to be exquisitely coherent in person. Our meeting took place on an afternoon in the spring of 2000 at a bar in Gramercy Park, and substantial parts of the conversation eventually did make their way into this interview, in some form. True to her word, however, Moore rejected much of the original transcript, saying she didn't agree with it and couldn't hear herself in its sentences. Indeed, when some of the original questions were later reiterated, her responses were subtler, more nuanced, funnier and occasionally just entirely different. Where there had been a joking demurral, a thoughtful reflection appeared; where she had waxed on, she substituted a quip; she also deemed irrelevant various digressions, including one on her interest in the JonBenet Ramsey child-beauty-queen murder case (it has all the stuff of the great American novel, she said). What became clear over the year that we corresponded—usually just one or two questions or answers per letter, sometimes on a daily or weekly basis, sometimes monthly—is that Moore guards her words carefully, whatever form she works in and regardless of whether her tone is serious or light. “Nothing's a joke with me,” as one of her characters says. “It just all comes out like one.”
Moore's literary career began at the precocious age of nineteen, when she won Seventeen's fiction award; she was an English major at St. Lawrence University in upstate New York at the time. After graduating, she moved to New York City, where she was a paralegal, and then enrolled in the MFA program in writing at Cornell University. In 1985, her first collection of short stories, Self-Help, was published to considerable critical acclaim. The following year brought her inclusion in the influential anthology 20 Under 30, as well as her first novel, Anagrams, which challenged some more timid reviewers with its experimental form. A children's book, The Forgotten Helper, was published in 1987 (and rereleased in 2000). In 1989, “You're Ugly, Too” became the first of Moore's many stories to appear in The New Yorker (notwithstanding the fact that the quirks of its prose broke a number of the magazine's infamous rules of style and diction). In 1990, that story was published, with seven others, in Like Life, a collection that demonstrated Moore's remarkable ability to juggle everyday outrage and high tragedy with a hand so deft that her most poignant passages are often also the most hilarious or sardonic. With her second book of stories, Moore's reputation as a story writer was cemented, but it was her third, Birds of America, that firmly Superglued her to the pantheon of contemporary American writers. For the first time, the praise of critics and her cult status among literary readers was matched by a several-week run on the New York Times best-seller list. But Moore does not define herself as primarily a short-story writer: halfway into writing the stories in Birds of America—an eight-year endeavor—there came a second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? and she is presently at work on her third. Since the mid-eighties, she has taught English and creative writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, where she holds the Delmore Schwartz Professorship in the Humanities.
[Gaffney]: What in your childhood do you believe contributed to your becoming a writer?
[Moore]: There was the usual dreaminess, I suppose. Also a shyness that caused me—and others—to notice that I could express myself better by writing than by speaking. This is typical of many writers, I think. What is a drawback in childhood is an asset to a literary life. Not being fluent on one's feet sends one to the page, and a habit is born. In addition to the predictable love of books, I was also quite captivated by the theater when I was a child—as much as I could be, given where I was growing up, a tiny town in the Adirondack foothills. My parents were members of an amateur operetta club, which put on musicals as well as straight plays, and from a very early age I was brought to watch the rehearsals on Sunday afternoons (the actual evening productions were past my bedtime). And when I think about it now, those Sunday afternoons of watching grown-ups put on plays—watching them fall in and out of character, or burst into song or laughter—were probably the most enchanted and culturally formative moments of my childhood. (I attempted to use a bit of this in one of the stories in Self-Help.) I would sit there, fantastically engaged—gripped, really—while someone who was ordinarily the postman, say, or the office manager at GE, came out and danced something wild from Pajama Game. And watching it all—from the time I was about three or four—I became if not stagestruck, then theaterstruck, or artstruck. Somethingstruck. For my parents it may all have been a cheap form of baby-sitting, I don't know, but it was enthralling for me. Looking back I now suspect that bit of early theatergoing is still at the heart of what I think is interesting and powerful narratively. I suspect that love of theater—and that condition, however thrilling, of forever being in the audience—is part of the pulse of everything I've written.
Did you ever act yourself?
God, no. My very un-Cocteau-like ballet class was once called upon to be a little garden of roses in a community college production of Beauty and the Beast. Aside from that, for dressing up and pretending to be something else, there was only Halloween. And church.
That story in Self-Help, “What Is Seized,” explores a very dark kind of split between art and life. The main character learns from her dying mother that her funny, charming, amateur-actor father was actually a cold, even cruel, husband. “Bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors,” you write. Do you share that view?
It's probably less a view than a mood. It's difficult, anyway, to share entirely the view of a fictional character. An author's life is different, complex and ongoing, while a character's remains frozen in one little story. I can certainly understand that view—of bitterness and art—even if it is a little crudely put (I was twenty-four when I wrote it, and the character is even younger, I think) but it is not wholly true outside of the story. Its truth is only within the story. It is true for the character saying it. Certainly bitter emotions can fuel art—all kinds of emotions do. But one is probably best left assembling a narrative in a state of dispassion; the passion is, paradoxically, better communicated that way.
Could you say a little more about the relationship of your fictional characters to you, their author? The usual prurient question, about how autobiographical an author's fiction is, is especially tempting in your case. A lot of your lead characters have names that mirror yours metrically—Berie Carr, for example. And then there's the way The New Yorker presented “People Like That Are the Only People Here”—with a photograph of you, almost as if it were nonfiction.
Why is the usual prurient question especially tempting in my case? Is it really? But yes, that photograph. It made me very unhappy. I was told the magazine wanted only “an author photograph” and was assured it would not be using any shot as an “illustration” of the story, though of course a magazine is often assembled in a rush, and by an assortment of people, and at the end a photographic “illustration” is apparently exactly what was desired and attempted. I won't say anything more about that particular event, though God knows it gratifies something in me to complain about it in print.
As for the relationship of my fictional characters to me, their author, I suppose it would depend on which characters you mean. Each has a slightly different relationship, I believe—I hope. I assume you mostly mean the protagonists, who sometimes have the burden of having a couple of things in common with me and sometimes don't. I'm never writing autobiography—I would be bored, the reader would be bored, the writing would be nowhere. One has to imagine, one has to create (exaggerate, lie, fabricate from whole cloth and patch together from remnants), or the thing will not come alive as art. Of course, what one is interested in writing about often comes from what one has remarked in one's immediate world, or what one has experienced oneself, or perhaps what one's friends have experienced. But one takes these observations, feelings, memories, anecdotes—whatever—and goes on an imaginative journey with them. What one hopes to do in that journey is to imagine deeply and well and thereby somehow both gather and mine the best stuff of the world. A story is a kind of biopsy of human life. A story is both local, specific, small and deep, in a kind of penetrating, layered and revealing way. Perhaps it's even diagnostic, though now I've got to lose this completely repellent medical imagery. And as for metric similarities!? Okay: there's only Berie Carr, I think, whose metric similarities I noticed but didn't plan. But there's no one else, is there? I'm feeling falsely accused, but perhaps I've forgotten. I do have one Elizabeth, you know. I've also got a Bill, a Harry, a Mack, an Adrienne, a Zoë, an Odette (!) (what was I thinking? of Swan Lake or just Swann? neither, I think), a Gerard, a Benna, a Mary, a Riva and for some unknown reason a couple of Marjories. There. Have I become sufficiently defensive?
Why do you think people are so curious about this kind of thing? Is it a preference for gossip over literature?
If one loves stories, then one would naturally love the story of the story. Or the story behind the story, pick your preposition. It does seem to me to be a kind of animal impulse almost, a mammalian curiosity. For a reader to wonder about the autobiography in a fiction may be completely unavoidable and in fact may speak to the success of a particular narrative, though it may also speak to its failure. Certainly literature has been written about and taught in this manner for a long time; it's not new. It is sometimes, however, like so many things that are natural, unfortunate.
Speaking of Gerard and Benna and the ideas of fabricating and working variations on stories, would you describe how you conceived your first novel, Anagrams? It's not a novel in the usual sense, either structurally or narratively. Take Benna: essential features of her character, such as her profession and the existence of her daughter, differ in each of the chapters. Was that book originally written as separate stories?
Anagrams is a novel that takes as its form a short novel and four stories. The stories are variations on the central narrative line—rearrangements that visited me while I was writing the main story. Since the novel was about (among other things) the powers and imperfections of the imagination, I decided to include these stories as part of the structure of the overall novel. Although it was necessary to impose a sequence upon them, ideally they should be thought of as little satellites orbiting the longer “Nun of That” section. (Perhaps the book has things in common with certain kinds of cyberfiction in that regard, although I wrote it entirely on a typewriter, one with a manual return, if I may boast.) At the time, I thought of this novel as a kind of sculpture, like a Calder mobile, with the main narrative sprouting these little reworkings. The reworkings came to me because of my habits as a story writer, obviously. Reworking people and recostuming them, et cetera, is what a writer does, and so even though I was hard at work on my first novel, one part of my brain still wanted to make stories and was using the material from my novel to do that. It was weird and parasitic of those stories, but I allowed them in and included everything in the book. I believed the novel to be a messy expression of that mysterious banality “the creative process”—not unlike life, I suppose. (Certainly, we've now seen that the human genome resembles a rather long, messy, ad hoc novel—a kind of monster anagram.) And so Anagrams became an exercise in bringing something into being, even bringing something impossibly into being. It was a kind of cubism, really: laying out mutually exclusive angles and possibilities, refusing to choose, refusing to allow one perspective to obscure another. Ironically, of course, it ends up revealing what few possibilities and arrangements a single life may ever have, even allowing for the reckless ride of the imagination (a life of fantasy, of pseudo-nourishment, which may be consolation or tragedy, depending on your point of view). At any rate, I expected my editor would veto the experimental form of this book, but happily she didn't and it went out the way I'd written it and got a lot of bad reviews and did terribly, and we were all brave and philosophical about it, although my editor did suggest that if I were feeling strapped for cash perhaps I should consider entering my cat in the Purina Cat Chow contest. Shortly thereafter, for money reasons indeed, I left New York for good.
What kind of cat was it?
What kind of cat was it? Well, he was a farm cat from Ithaca, New York. Very beautiful, very intelligent, a certain je ne sais quoi, but in a national competition, believe me, he didn't have a prayer.
About the bad reviews of Anagrams, do you feel vindicated by the fact that it—and all your books—are still in print and widely read?
Many not very good books are still in print, and many wonderful ones aren't. Perhaps the terms here need defining. Vindicated, for instance, suggests a soldierly stance, or at least a lawyerly one, foreign to my nature. And widely read? I don't know about that.
Who is your editor and how did you first start to work with her?
She is Victoria Wilson at Knopf. The manuscript was sent to her by my agent and she bought it. Every book since then has proceeded that same way.
You make getting published sound easy. Was it really? How did you find your agent? How did you first get published in magazines? Were mentors from Cornell or elsewhere helpful?
I had no idea I had made it sound easy, or sound like anything. I really don't know much about it. It's not really a writer's business, and so I, like most writers, have been necessarily helpless before the whole thing. There is luck and stubbornness to help ward off despair, I suppose. As for the fate of my various manuscripts, I assume I have mostly been lucky (although there's never a point in your life where rejections don't occasionally find their way to your mailbox). I was lucky to have Joe Bellamy as one of my first writing teachers and Alison Lurie as my thesis advisor at Cornell. I was lucky to be taken on by her young agent, Melanie Jackson. I was lucky to have my first book of stories land in the lap of Vicky Wilson. (Before that on my own I had faithfully sent out stories to small magazines I admired. My dream was to someday be published in Antaeus on that thick creamy paper of theirs—no such luck there, however.) So much about having a manuscript accepted is just out of your hands: the blood sugar level of a reader, the slant of light across a page, some personal event in an editor's life that connects them profoundly with something you've written on page three. Who knows? There's nothing you can do but write the best book you can.
Could you say a bit about how you begin? Do you start with a character, an image, a sentence, an idea, something else?
All of those things. I have always begun with a small pile of notes of some sort, usually regarding some specific set of circumstances that for whatever reasons (demented, arbitrary, therapeutic) interests me at that moment in my life. Settings have always come second—not exactly an afterthought but not a burning inspiration either. Yet they are a crucial part of any fiction, so I do my best to pay attention to them and often find the landscape or milieu of a particular tale the most engaging part to write. In stories especially I allow emotional and musical matters to carry the thing along: I believe in inspiration, which in creative writing discussions often gets short shrifted vis-à-vis ideas of hard, daily effort. But something uninspired will never recover from that original condition, no matter how much labor one pours into it. In general, if a person were to watch me work—which I am grateful no one ever has—I suspect it might look like a lot of cutting and pastings of notes, stopping, starting, staring, intermittent flurries (as the weatherpeople say), sudden visitations (by invisible forces), the contemplation of the spines of various dictionaries and reference books stacked behind the computer and much reheating of cold coffee (a metaphor and not a metaphor). But what it feels like is running as far as I can with a voice, a tuneful patch of a long, nagging idea. It is a daily struggle that doesn't even always occur daily. From the time I first started writing, the trick for me has always been to construct a life in which writing could occur. I have never been blocked, never lost faith (or never lost it for longer than necessary, shall we say) never not had ideas and scraps sitting around in notebooks or on Post-its adhered to the desk edge, but I have always been slow and have never had a protracted run of free time. I have always had to hold down a paying job of some sort, and now I'm the mother of a small child as well, and the ability to make a literary life while teaching and parenting (to say nothing of housework) is sometimes beyond me. I don't feel completely outwitted by it but it is increasingly a struggle. If I had a staff of even one person, or could tolerate a small amphetamine habit, or entertain the possibility of weekly blood transfusions, or had been married to Vera Nabokov or had a housespouse of even minimal abilities, a literary life would be easier to bring about. (In my mind I see all your male readers rolling their eyes. But your female ones—what is that: are they nodding in agreement? Are their fists in the air?) It's hardly news that it is difficult to keep the intellectual and artistic hum of your brain going when one is mired in housewifery. This is, I realize, an old complaint from women, but for working women everywhere it continues to have great currency.
When exactly do you fit in writing in the end, between the teaching, the parenting, and the dishes?
Thank you for asking. Well, the dishes are the least of it (I realize you are being synecdochical, but for your more literal readers, I should say I have terrible, ill-tended dishes). In my life right now, I'm afraid, a routine is scarcely possible. It's all very catch as catch can (can that possibly be a phrase? it suddenly seems completely alien); my writing life is mostly a lot of grabbing desperately here and there. It's not an impossible one, it just requires a kind of coldhearted determination which I don't always have. But sometimes I do, and things trickle along. I take many notes, as I said, and I try to see that as writing, too, which of course it is. It's not an especially grueling part, but it's an essential one. A note registers a moment of special distillation, or insight, or oversight or merely a mundane observation. You discover the quality of your notes much later, but it is important to write them down as they come to you.
Do you begin in longhand? What about typewriting versus word processing?
Gee, people are still asking these questions about longhand versus typing versus computer. That's good, I guess. To the extent that I begin with notes, I still begin everything by hand (the notes are short, but the hand is long). I move fairly quickly to the computer now, and store notes there. As for typewriters, I haven't used one in years, although I wrote my first three books that way. Very time-consuming. I used to believe that everything should be written out first before being subjected to a keyboard of any sort. One needed to feel the words coming down out of your arm, out your fingers and onto the paper. Then, I felt, one should do it all again percussively, to the clackety-clack sound of a typewriter. But as for revising, well, computers really are God's gift to writers. It took me a long time to accept even the possibility of that.
You mentioned that someone spying on you might see you doing a lot of cutting and pasting. Do you still do that with scissors and tape? Could you describe how a particular story or novel was rearranged by this process?
Cutting and pasting have become computer terms now, of course: no other utensils necessary. I still rely on Post-its, which for some reason I'm sheepish about admitting: they just don't seem proper somehow, but you can move them around and stick them anywhere, which is a beautiful thing. Before I had a computer, I cut and taped like mad. I loved all that toxic Wite-Out. I loved those long white strips you would put on to erase lines. All my manuscripts got quite three dimensional this way, and usually there was difficulty getting them to go through Xerox machines. I worked incessantly in this dreary manner—there's no story to tell about any one particular piece. I was just how I always worked.
I've been looking at Birds of America, your most recent book, and Self-Help, your first, side by side. How would you say your voice and work have changed? Is it just a matter of practice or have your concerns evolved?
A writer who thought a lot or articulately about the evolution of his or her own voice and work would be a little doomed, I think. For purposes of artistic sanity one should probably not be standing outside one's own oeuvre looking in like that—or at least not very often. All of which is to say I couldn't exactly tell you how my work has evolved (has it? she asks, fishing), not really, not strictly speaking. These days, I'm afraid, my brain goes cold when that early work is too near. But I can say this: I guess I don't think of work as evolving. I think of writers as sitting down and starting from scratch every time—at least that is how it is for me. I don't think of one book as having any relationship to the others. The books are not canvasses upon which I attempt to develop my voice, grow my themes or evolve my concerns. They are not early or later drafts of one another. They are not in conversation with one another. They have no awareness of the others' existence. They are merely narrative objects that I've worked hard on in order that they be the best (most interesting, most true, most beautiful, et cetera) I was then capable of. In retrospect, I could describe each book, but such a description would not constitute a description of an evolution, or a picture of a process, or the naming of a journey, not really. Writing is too disorderly for that—or at least mine is. I don't mean to hide behind the mysteriousness of the creative act—although it certainly is mysterious, more afterwards than at the time—but I don't think of the books as a deliberate attempt (by me) to form a body of work that can then be stepped back from and discussed (at least by me). That would be far too overdetermined. I can try to say some things about them as discrete entities, however, if you would like. Self-Help was very interested in feminine emergencies and how the voice and point of view—both the mock imperative of the second person, and the idiosyncratic voice of the first—might be used to tell particular stories. It attempted to satirize formally the idea of advice, and a culture of advice, at the same time borrowing from a poetic tradition an intimate second person address. Anagrams was a structural experiment that in a theme-and-variations way attempted to explore both the play and the loneliness at the heart of the creative act. With Like Life and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I was much more interested in specific settings—times and places that shaped characters' lives. With Birds of America, I'm not sure: as with most collections, it is a temporal document; it rounds up the dozen stories I wrote in the 1990s—and in those pages is registered a variety of concerns and subjects, I think, but certainly children—especially the loss of children, or children in danger—figure predominantly there.
There are a lot of critters in that collection, too: bats and raccoons in walls and chimneys, the birds that have their cameos in (I think) every story. Can you talk about what they're doing?
Stephen Sondheim recently said somewhere that excessive bird imagery is the sign of a second-rate poet. He was referring, I think, to Oscar Hammerstein. But “to sing through the night like a lark who is learning to pray” is one of those busy, nonsensical lines I grew up on and loved. I guess as a girl I could really imagine a lark praying, and therefore I could imagine a dense or pagan lark who might not yet know how to pray and would then actually have to be taught, and all those struggled-toward prayers coming out as a kind of personal singing. I did not plan the bird imagery of Birds of America, however. I discovered it there, and then chose the title because of the explicit reference to Audubon in the last story I completed. Although birds figure literally and metaphorically in the book, I was also interested in Audubon's killing of the birds he painted—interested in that as a symbol of the creative process. I was especially interested in the idea of killing a lark who is learning to pray. As for the other creatures, I don't know. I live in Wisconsin and animals abound here. Perhaps they mortify me a little.
You've told me that Alice Munro is a favorite writer, and partly for that reason I've recently been reading The Love of a Good Woman. What's your relationship to her? Has her work been an influence?
Well, I have no relationship to her. I've never met her. And as for her work, I came to it too late probably for it even to have been an influence, which fills me with despair. I am merely a big fan. She is a great artist, alive and among us, and still writing as well as she did at the start—if not better, which is really saying something, since if you look again at Lives of Girls and Women, her first book, you will see it is a masterpiece, not like any other first book I can think of offhand. (You will also find in it many of the elements of Love of a Good Woman and other later fiction—the obsession with drowning, the allure and menace of men, the erotic moment as narrative pivot and the glimpses of wickedness that only the young are able to act upon to save themselves; the middle-aged must attempt to endure, make do, compromised and complicitous, with what they know.) Her later fiction is quite bold structurally—its handling of time is fearless and satisfying and not to be imitated. She seems over and over again to be writing a kind of ghost story. She is also witty and cruel (that is, unblinking) and painterly. Although she writes of the provinces, she is the least provincial writer I can think of. I'm not sure that this is always understood about her.
Since you say that Munro has been misunderstood as a provincial writer, I wonder if there are ways in which you think that you've been misunderstood?
Oh, I feel misunderstood all the time, including right now. I meant to say it sometimes seems that it is not always understood how unprovincial a writer Munro is. (I don't believe any serious reader would call her provincial, but I also don't think it is often emphasized how she is the opposite.) You see how quibbling and niggling feeling misunderstood can be? As for other ways I've not always been understood—by, say, my husband or Publishers Weekly—let me bore you later. Not to beg the question too desperately, but looking at my life I can see there are the standard childhood years of feeling a little unseen, which is misunderstanding of a fundamental sort, and which typifies the female experience and is actually good for writing (as well as espionage) but bad for life. Most things good for writing are bad for life. “May your life be not very good material” is a blessing I offer students and small babies. Another writer friend of mine is fond of leaning over bassinettes and offering, “May you never be reviewed by Michiko Kakutani.”
If not Munro, what writers have influenced your work?
Aren't writers often the last to know—know truly—the literary influences on their work? All they really know is what they've read. Everything one reads is nourishment of some sort—good food or junk food—and one assumes it all goes in and has its way with your brain cells. I imagine that the things one read and loved while young have had the most subconscious influence, which in my case were biographies and mysteries of a generic sort plus a lot of A. A. Milne. There was also Sherlock Holmes, The Wizard of Oz, and a little book called Nine Days to Christmas, which still makes me cry. In college some of the writers whose prose style most amazed me included Margaret Atwood, Donald Barthelme, Thomas Pynchon, Gilbert Sorrentino and John Gardner in his Queen Louisa stories. My favorite poems were George Meredith's “Modern Love” and Hart Crane's “Chaplinesque.” I loved Plath and Sexton and all of Shakespeare's tragedies (though not his comedies, which baffled me). Some of my favorite novels were Charlotte Brontë's Villette, Thomas Hardy's The Return of the Native, and Henry James's Washington Square. If there is influence there, in that eclectic list, I salute it. When I first got out of college, I had a job digesting legal depositions—taking long pages of windy testimony and reducing them to what was optimistically called their “essence” (now done entirely by computers)—and this activity no doubt disabled my tolerance for the extraneous word, which I have since been working to build back up, along with my tolerance for lawyers. The greatest influences on one's (my) work may not be literary at all. The more profound influences may be childhood piano lessons, rock concerts, strong coffee, smart friends and one's own responses to life's “challenges,” as they are astonishingly called.
What about grad school? Is it possible that being a paralegal is better training for a writer than an MFA program?
Anything, I'm sure, is possible. I've actually known many writers who were paralegals. Probably it is simply because working as a paralegal pays Manhattan rents just a tiny bit better than entry-level publishing jobs—although maybe it doesn't pay them at all anymore. This was in the 1970s. I'm not sure I believe in “training” to be a writer that is external like that anyway. I don't think writers “train” the way athletes do. It is not performative and helped by little exercises; one's mind is probably not beneficially roughened or honed by deadening work. Writing is more a habit, but a soulful one like smoking, which compulsively connects the head to the hand: from there one tries to make art of it. How does one pick up such a habit? By hanging around the kids with the cigarettes, of course. And a love of books and music: every writer must have that.
What was Cornell like when you were there?
Cornell was the smallest graduate writing program in the country, so one worked a little bit with everyone. I worked most closely with Alison Lurie (who, among her many other gifts, has an acute feel for narrative form). But I also worked with Lamar Herrin, Dan McCall and Bob Morgan (then a mere brilliant poet, now an Oprah writer). The wonderful James McConkey, whose work was appearing in The New Yorker a lot at that time, was also there. The glamorous Harold Brodkey visited. As for fellow students in the program, they included Alice Fulton, Paul Russell, Lisa Ress. When I went back to teach in the spring of 1990 the students there included Melissa Bank, Stewart O'Nan, Melanie Thernstrom, Manette Ansay, oh, and others. I'm leaving people out, I'm sure. Junot Diaz came to Cornell later, I think. At any rate, of course my own experience at Cornell was very important. It was a great gift in almost every way—a profound situation, like some simple but exciting café, more than a conventional education. Without it I'm sure I would not have become a writer. Some writers I read for the very first time when I was there include Calvino, Puig, Boccaccio, Foucault. Many others, I'm sure, but those names come first to mind. Cornell, of course, is full of lore about E. B. White, Vonnegut and Pynchon, who were all students there at different times, and Nabokov, who was a professor for a decade or so. (Toni Morrison was once there too, but briefly, I guess.) Because Nabokov moved every year within Ithaca, the chances of living in a house that he had lived in were not miniscule. These kinds of magical shadows across a community were fun and good for the campus literary life there. At least I think they were.
You've written about New York a lot. When did you live here?
Oh, I've lived in New York at various times. My parents moved to New York when I was nineteen, then I moved there on my own in the late 1970s, after college. I moved back again part-time in 1985, after my first year in Wisconsin, and divided my year between Hell's Kitchen and Madison, where I would teach every fall semester. Madison has really been very tolerant of me. Fundamentally, however, I was always only a tourist in New York. I was agitatedly broke, young and in thrall to the place, like so many people who grew up elsewhere.
So even in the beginning of your teaching career, you were only in Wisconsin half the year?
Well, not the first two semesters, but certainly by the third. From the beginning I was a teeny tiny bit ambivalent about the Midwest. But eventually I consolidated my life in Madison—job, husband, house and that can you were asking about earlier. The cat, of course, was much happier in Wisconsin.
You pun a lot, and your characters tell a lot of bad jokes, but the real humor in your stories comes from somewhere else, it seems. How does this work?
Humor comes from the surprise release of some buried tension. It may be buried in the story by the author, or buried in the world of the story—a shallow grave will suffice—or the reader may bring his or her own sedimented feelings to bear upon the reading. Often it is several things simultaneously. Some expectation, however, must be disrupted. Wordplay itself is not usually funny, only clever, unless it is attached to some other psychological force in the narrative. (I am often interested in mishearings—part of the comedy of misunderstanding—which employs an accidentally generated wordplay. These mishearings I often collect from real life.) Most of the humor I'm interested in has to do with awkwardness: the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times—times of collision, emergency, surrealism, aftermath, disorientation. Bad jokes may be an expression of that awkwardness, without being inherently funny themselves. Of course, in including humor in narrative a writer isn't doing anything especially artificial. Humor is just part of the texture of human conversation and life. Storymaking aside, in real life people are always funny. Or, people are always funny eventually. It would be dishonest to pretend not to notice.
But do you think that there are many writers at work today who deal with humor as seriously as you do?
Well, yes, I do, of course: there are dozens of very funny writers writing, although many writers I know are even funnier in person than they are on the page. But then that may be true of people generally, that they are funnier than characters in books. Wait a minute: do you mean funny ha-ha? There. That's a nervous joke. Humor is really part of the fabric of human discourse—it may be deflective or knee-jerk, intimate or distance-making, organizing or derailing, and may arise from hostility, generosity, boredom, anxiety, existential fatigue or good drugs.
Was it at Cornell that you started the stories for Self-Help?
It was around 1980. I started those stories just before I arrived at Cornell, while I was still in New York. I came to Ithaca with at least one of those stories in hand.
Which story was it?
“Go Like This,” I believe.
Where did it come from? Did you know someone who'd had terminal cancer, or what was the trigger?
“Go Like This” was inspired by a documentary I saw about the artist Jo Roman. I was very interested in the kind of fatal and fatalistic ambivalence she seemed to project about her own suicide. From there I wrote my own tale.
With Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? you shifted for the first time to having a child as a protagonist, or at least you shifted your focus to childhood. How did you decide on that story? What about the title, was it an afterthought, too, like Birds of America?
I was interested in female adolescence as a comical and embarrassing time as well as a powerful, passionate, formative and very free time. That particular period in a girl's life is unprecedented and unrepeated. Thank goodness, most would say. But personally I sometimes wonder. At any rate, I wanted to tell the story of the kind of proto-romance that best girlfriends often have with each other at that age. And I wanted to set it as a memory, keep it within a frame of adult life, in order to give it context and perspective. The title came from a painting by a painter and friend here in Madison, Nancy Mladenoff. I came upon the painting after I had started the novel, and it seemed at the time a wonderful, feminist witticism, and illustrative of something I was also trying to get at with my book, and so the whole painting, title and all, fell into my novel. There is a time early on in the writing of a book when the book is wide open and such things can fall in. Later the book closes up and nothing outside gets in at all. (In real life I bought the painting and hung it in my house; in the book it is the title of a painting that one of the characters paints, and my publisher actually reprinted it as a frontispiece in the book.)
You wrote Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? in the middle of the period when you were working on the stories for Birds of America. How does writing stories compare to writing novels?
Well, it is possible to believe that the busier and more disorganized a writer's life, the easier it is to write a novel as opposed to a short story. To write a short story, you have to be able to stay up all night. To read it all in one sitting and at some point see the whole thing through in a rush is part of the process. There's urgency and wholeness in stories. Not necessarily in novels, which may proceed at a more leisurely or erratic pace. A novelist—like the reader of novels—can check in and out of the novel at short intervals. One can write it in pieces, just as it can be read in pieces. A novel's often a big, sprawling, shapeless thing—even when it's short. A story is different. One gives birth to a short story—to haul out those tired procreative metaphors. But with a novel, you raise the child—to continue ridiculously in the same metaphorical realm. Like many novelists, I can now work by putting in a couple hours every morning; but short stories require those twelve-hour stretches.
So at some point in the writing of every short story, you work your way through from beginning to end in a single sitting? Even the very long ones?
Yes. I have to see the shape of the entire story, and I have to see it pretty early on, which means that I always put at least one twelve-hour stint in. As a mother of a young child, however—all metaphor aside—it's difficult to write that way. This is where dangerous fantasies of joint custody enter the picture.
So you're a novelist for the time being, and not a story writer.
In theory, I'm always available for stories, if they come to me. But right now I'm at work on a novel: there's a plot, and a kind of subplot, an idea or two and a little group of characters—rather than a collection of details, a swell of feeling and a desire to set down an experience, which often is what is involved for me in story writing.
You're making it sound like the short story is a more artistic form.
Perhaps, in many ways, it's a more magical form. Who knows sometimes where stories come from? They are perhaps more attached to the author's emotional life and come more out of inspiration than slogging. You shouldn't write without inspiration—at least not very often. As I've already said, in discussing writing one shouldn't set the idea of inspiration aside and speak only of hard work. Of course writing is hard work—or a very privileged kind of hard work. A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. A novel is a job. (Story writers working on a novel are typically in pain through the entire thing.) But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.
Certainly the marketplace values novels more highly. They sell more copies and writers are better paid for them.
I guess. There's a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span. But we know that's not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story. (Though they may have a narcotizing paperback novel in their purse. This is not their fault.) Shockingly, people often don't have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can't read stories that way.
How long does it take you to write a story?
Well, I used to be able to write three or four stories a year. And there were other stories those first couple of years that I set aside. That would never happen now. I would never write a story and abandon it.
What happened to the stories you set aside? Did you ever go back to them?
I had decided they weren't any good, and I didn't include them in my MFA thesis or the collection, but I didn't do anything dramatic like burn them. Recently I started thinking about a couple of them and wondering whether I might be able to see something salvageable in them now. I went up to my attic and dug through a lot of old papers, but I think they're just gone. It's a luxury to be able to abandon a story. Ideally, I suppose, that's how a writer should work, but I can't do it anymore. I can't afford the loss.
Does that make it harder to get started now? Is there more at stake, knowing you're dedicated to making an idea pan out?
No, not really. In graduate school, I was generating enough stories in a short time so that there was always a new one I felt more strongly about, pushing the weaker ones aside. Obviously, I don't have that kind of traffic jam going on now. But I'm still devoted to the form—I'm just writing at a slower pace. A slower pace, I suppose, helps prevent certain kinds of mistakes. You are less likely to take off full speed in a foolhardy direction.
I heard you read from the novel-in-progress last year in New York. It seemed to have some things in common with Frog Hospital, in terms of the rural setting, the adolescent-girl main character and the tone. Can you speak about it at all?
I can't. Do you mind?
Could I ask you to say if it's set in upstate New York or in Wisconsin?
Not New York. But I never say the word Wisconsin. I've always avoided it. I've gotten letters from people in Iowa and Minnesota saying, “Would you quit saying Minnesota and Iowa? We know you're talking about Wisconsin.” So actually I do name other midwestern states, just never Wisconsin. I don't really know why. Perhaps I imagine that particular specificity will constrict my imagination. I will say, however, and do in the novel, “down along the Illinois border.”
But you can't set a story in New York City without making that fact apparent, can you? There are certain features and neighborhoods, like Hell's Kitchen, that are unique to this place.
Well, in Batman they don't have to say New York. It's Gotham. So it is possible to write about New York without saying the name. I once set a story that was clearly a New York story in Cleveland, and now it just seems so stupid and arbitrary to have insisted that it wasn't New York.
Did you ever live in Cleveland?
No, but I had an aunt and uncle in Cleveland and a friend who lived there, so I had enough details to use. I think I just decided I had too many stories that were set in New York—I wanted to get out of the city.
Could you talk about the moment you decided to become a writer, if there was one that you can put your finger on? Or was it always obvious?
It's never always obvious.
Some writers seem to think it was inevitable—they were writing poems when they were five and never stopped.
Does that mean it's obvious? I'd like to see some of those poems.
So you don't feel you were destined to it, that you had no other choice but to be a writer?
Well, that's all very romantic, and I can be as romantic as the next person. (I swear.) But the more crucial point is the moment you give yourself permission to do it, which is a decision that is both romantic and bloody-minded: it involves desire and foolish hope, but also a deep involvement with one's art, some sort of useful self-confidence, and some kind of economic plan. One's life, especially one's artistic life, is an interplay of many things, and the timing of encouragement—from teachers or parents—is also one of the most important elements. Although both my parents are creative people in their way, I was not especially encouraged by them, which might have been good. I certainly don't blame them. I think they believed you threw things at your children—lessons, books, music—and then let the children sort it out, that if you were too present or too committed to a child's accomplishment in any area, the child would run away. This, of course, is not really true. Or rather it's not extremely true. But I received most of my initial encouragement in college, from professors, and by then I was ready to absorb it. I didn't have the financial freedom to be a writer, and have always struggled with that, but I also knew I didn't want to find myself sixty-five years old and ruing the moment in my youth when I became prematurely practical. I wasn't at all sure whether I would be able to survive as a writer for the rest of my life. But I decided to keep going for as long as I could, and let someone else lock me up for incurable insanity.