Lorrie Moore’s ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too’’ is a witty and sometimes hilarious account of an unmarried woman who, like so many of Moore’s fictional creations, is unable to connect with men—or with anybody else, for that matter. With Moore’s signature barrage of one-liners, jokes, and what critic John W. Aldridge, in his critique of Moore in Talents and Technicians: Literary Chic and the New Assembly-Line Fiction, calls ‘‘other ludicrous dislocations of language,’’ it is easy to understand the acclaim that Moore and this story have received.
However entertaining her style may be, reading Moore can ultimately be a frustrating experience. While she has an obvious knack for creating memorably eccentric and disassociated characters (especially women characters), and while she displays a pyrotechnic touch of language that makes those women smolder with a clarity and intensity rarely seen in contemporary fiction, Moore generally keeps her readers in the dark as to the causes of their predicaments. It is never quite clear if Moore’s women are genetically predisposed to live a life of isolation and loneliness or whether there are larger cultural or social forces at play. Do her women merely have bad luck with men, or are they rebelling, subconsciously or not, against society’s expectations of how they should behave in sexual relationships? More often than not, it is as if Moore keeps her characters hermetically sealed from their surroundings, allowing them to be influenced only by their own internal clocks and thoughts. And even at that, her readers can never be certain if there are more serious bio-chemical or psychological issues beyond mere ‘‘eccentricity’’ that are driving these women to the precipice of spinsterhood.
Zoë Hendricks, the leading woman in ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ is a typical Moore creation: a remarkably eccentric but possibly clinically depressed woman who, for whatever reasons the reader can never know, lives a life utterly alone, with only her wit and her jokes to accompany her.
That Zoë Hendricks is an extraordinary, though not necessarily likeable, character is inarguable. An east coast transplant teaching American history in a Midwest college, Hendricks seldom lets an opportunity for a snide remark or joke elude her. When a student asks her about her perfume, she retorts that it’s ‘‘Room freshener’’; when another student tells Hendricks that she wants her history major to be meaningful, Hendricks snaps, ‘‘Well, there’s your problem.’’ She relates seemingly irreverent stories at the most inappropriate occasions that conclude in suicide or violent death, and she tells drawn-out lies to her dates for no apparent reason. With impeccable timing, she often reduces her audience to various states of incredulity, disgust, and disdain. Her final act of pushing Earl against the balcony railing, her final ‘‘joke’’ in ‘‘You’re Ugly, Too,’’ is little more than a physical manifestation of what she had been doing to him the entire evening through dialogue: pushing him, pushing him, and pushing him some more until he metaphorically and literally has no place left to go.
When Hendricks first began teaching in Paris, she thought she was using ‘‘irony, something gently layered and sophisticated’’ in her joking. But ironically, her students, whom she believes ‘‘know very little about anything,’’ understand the difference between irony and sarcasm and accuse her of the latter, and Hendricks is eventually forced to concede their point and admit to her sister, ‘‘Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here.’’
Hendricks does not derive pleasure from her behavior; her incessant joking is what Aldridge calls ‘‘a kind of sublimated scream . . . anxiety displaced into jokes that Moore and her characters incessantly make but at which no one is laughing.’’ And what is Hendricks anxious about? For starters, she is extremely lonely. She lives by...
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