January 5, 2012

Lorrie Moore: ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk’

Posted in Moore Lorrie at 8:00 am by John Self

My ongoing issues with availability of time to read and review are so well-rehearsed here that I’ve begun to bore even myself. I mention them once again only to explain why I’ve decided to take a page from Trevor Berrett’s blog and review a short story. I’ve done this once or twice before, but only when the story was published as a standalone volume. There are compelling reasons to do this, I think, other than the necessity of time constraint. Many stories deserve consideration at full length and can serve as a window to an author’s work generally. The corollary is that it’s difficult anyway to review an author’s collected stories effectively. Is it possible even to read them effectively, when the tics of any author will start to seem pathological over (in this case) 650 pages?

All this is relevant because I read ‘People Like That Are The Only People Here’ precisely because of the opposing responses it’s received. When I mooted reading some Lorrie Moore on Twitter, one reliable reader singled out the story as a must-read. This reminded me that another reliable reader, Adam Mars-Jones in his critic’s garb, had highlighted it in his review of Moore’s Collected Stories as “the most mannered and posturing thing in the book.” (He makes it clear that this stands it against some pretty stout competition.) They might both be right. Another tweeter observed that ‘Peed Onk’ (let’s call it that from now on: short, and no mistaking it for anything else) is “as good a case for the prosecution as for the defence. It’s very ripe.”

It sure is. ‘Peed Onk’ – at 34 pages, one of Moore’s longest stories – is about a baby with cancer, or in fact it’s about his mother. It’s also full of jokes and wisecracks – both distinct from comedy. This is where Mars-Jones takes issue with Moore, not just in this story, but generally: her humour is “closer to a compulsion than a talent.” There is some truth in this. Any story about childhood cancer is going to promise hard going, and it’s a promise – or threat – that the reader largely wants to see fulfilled. Terrible things happening should be terrible to read. So when the predominant tone of the narrative is jaunty – the sentences stabbed with exclamation marks – it risks making the reader too comfortable. You could end up with something like Emma Donoghue’s Room, robbed of force by the narrative constraints the author has placed on her story. Here, however, I think Mars-Jones’s concerns are unjustified. The mother is thinking and speaking in this way, surely, as a coping mechanism for the worst horror that can strike a parent. Indeed, if it’s correct that the story reflects events in Moore’s own life, then the jokes, the tone, the story itself may be entirely real instances of the coping mechanism in operation.

This quality is there right from the title (on which generally I agree with Mars-Jones: “Moore never seems to have found a title arch enough to satisfy her, but surely this time she comes close”). Here, ‘Peed Onk’ is what everyone in the hospital calls the unit for Paediatric Oncology. A wise barrier to erect, from two of the worst words in the language to two of the cutesiest: ‘Peed Onk’ sounds like an exclamation from In the Night Garden. The parents here, and the children too, need all the cushioning they can get while they adjust to the new reality. “Everyone admires us for our courage,” says one father. “They have no idea what they’re talking about. Courage requires options.”

The charge of excess whimsy is addressed too by the fact that the tone of the mother’s thoughts is often closer to hysteria than to humour. And even within the jokes, there is darker truth: a parent’s fear of their child falling sick, yes, but also of not being a good enough parent in the first place, of not always putting first the child now at risk of being lost forever.

Perhaps, she thinks, she is being punished: too many baby-sitters too early on. (“Come to Mommy! Come to Mommy-baby-sitter!” she used to say. But it was a joke!) Her life, perhaps, bore too openly the marks and wigs of deepest drag. Her unmotherly thoughts had all been noted: the panicky hope that his nap would last longer than it did; her occasional desire to kiss him passionately on his mouth (to make out with her baby!); her ongoing complaints about the very vocabulary of motherhood, how it degraded the speaker (“Is this a poopie onesie? Yes, it’s a very poopie onesie!”).

This may be where the experience that the reader brings to the story is relevant. I have never knowingly opened a sentence with the words “As a parent”, but I did wonder if my own position – having two young children I could mentally put in the place of Baby in the story – added piquancy to the whole thing. The fact of feeling a more emotional draw from a story because of association with the characters may well be a failure of imagination, but subjectively, at the time, it feels like an expansion of it.

Moore certainly passes up no opportunities to invite the reader’s empathy and association. There is pathos aplenty, right from the moment at the beginning of the story when the mother discovers blood in the baby’s nappy, “like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow.” She asks, “How can it be described? How can any of it be described?” but ineffability is not Moore’s way. And it is effective and efficient, this targeted aim at the heart of the reader. What parent, what human, cannot feel the twinge when the mother whispers into the baby’s ear, “If you go, we are going with you. We are nothing without you.”

Yet it is also this direct appeal which is Moore’s biggest weakness. After ‘Peed Onk’, I read two more stories as recommended to me: ‘Dance in America’ and ‘You’re Ugly, Too.’ These also are very good stories, thoroughly funny and unmistakably sad, and made it certain that I will read more. But like ‘Peed Onk’, they seem to have the author’s thumb on the scales, too obviously directing the reader. There’s evidence of control-freakery, a determination on Moore’s part to steer the reader’s understanding of her characters via pithy insights. In ‘You’re Ugly, Too,’ we’re told on the first page that the main character was “almost pretty, but her face showed the strain and ambition of always having been close but not quite.” This, to my tastes, is too neat: now that the reader has been told this, how can they make up their own mind? And when Moore adds that the character wore novelty earrings “no doubt for the drama her features lacked,” that no doubt makes it clear that the observation must be coming from the writer rather than the character herself. Author, step back, let go! Similarly, the anecdotes and just-so details around the characters come worryingly close to quirkiness.

Yet this is clearly something which others not only value but consider one of Moore’s finest attributes. Critics whose praise features on the cover of The Collected Stories say “Moore’s stories pack more wit and tragicomic power into a single paragraph than most novels manage over fifteen chapters,” and “Every line feels crafted, cared about, subjected to crash-testing, really meant.” To me, these threaten unwelcome claustrophobia. The signposts to the reader – laugh here, cry now – are made all the more glaring when you read three stories and all feature serious illness: childhood cancer, cystic fibrosis, mysterious growths. What easier shortcut to the reader’s sense of significance could there be?  Still, Moore shows that there is pleasure to be had in all this pain: within these parameters, the stories are a delight to read. And here, also, is one area where Moore’s nemesis Mr Mars-Jones can’t crow: most of his fiction has been set around sickness too.

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25 Comments »

  1. I once chugged the entire book in a few sittings (for work, more than pleasure) and felt the glut heavily. Too much cancer. Too much drollery.

    That said, I found Peed Onk very moving. Upsetting, in fact. It also seemed to me the story of hers most free from artifice. As you so perceptively say, the jokes came across as a coping mechanism rather than anything else… And how cruel for someone so obsessed with cancer to have all her nightmares come true like that…

    Anyway, if you didn’t like Peed Onk, I’d warn against reading much further…

  2. John Self said,

    Interestingly, Sam, after I wrote this I read another story recommended to me, ‘The Jewish Hunter’. I found this the most satisfactory of the lot, in that (a) there was no illness, and (b) she knocked off the jauntiness for the second half. So I will read more. But not for a while.

  3. Great review. As I mentioned to John on Twitter, I think Moore’s stories are best consumed in small doses. Individually, they’re strong and evocative — patches of overwriting, but in general, I’m a great admirer of Moore’s tight control. But taken all at once, the narrative similarities in the stories feel a tiny bit tedious — but writers who don’t spend much of their writing lives working over similar themes and preoccupations are rare. Which is why I say up with publishers who release short stories in small doses, down with mega-collections.

  4. I’m down with the down with mega-collections campaign! Less is definitely more. I’m sure I’d think more of Moore (I’ll stop the dreadful puns soon) if I’d read her more slowly.

    (Having said that I’m gradually working through a complete audiobook of Naboakov’s short stories… So long as you ration them out slowly, it goes very well… )

  5. John Self said,

    I agree with you guys. Ideally I’d like each story to be published individually – Penguin came close with some of their Mini Modern Classics last year, but even most of those had more than one story in them (I only bought the ones, like Eudora Welty’s ‘Moon Lake’, which had just one).

    Mavis Gallant, herself the author of a megacollection published by Bloomsbury (and several nicer, smaller volumes of selected stories published by NYRB) said that you should not read more than one story by an author per day. With someone as distinctive as Moore, however, I think even that’s a bit much.

    My problem with such collections generally is that I have this maddening completist impulse which makes me want to read a book in its entirety or not at all. This book, and writing this blog post referring to just a couple of stories, has helped me break that habit.

  6. Jamie said,

    I would certainly try her novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Previous attempts at longer form either didn’t manage to do as much as the short stories did (Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) or basically ended up as a collection of short stories anyway (Anagrams). It’s a damn fine piece of writing that, for me, takes what is great about a Lorrie Moore short story and allows it a lot more room to develop.

    Otherwise I would recommend the newer stories in the collection, particularly Debarking.

    • Mary Gilbert said,

      I’m afraid I would disagree with you here Jamie. I read A Gate at the Stairs and thought the complete opposite. To me after a promising beginning it became a series of vignettes straining to be a novel and not succeeding. Some of the satire on adoption was sharp and funny but overall it sagged. She’s a master of the excruciating situation – although I agree with John that the reader often feels the author’s sharp nudge – and perhaps the short story is the place where these observations are best displayed.

    • I agree with Mary — I found A Gate At The Stairs to be a very disappointing novel that emphasized Moore’s flaws rather than her strengths. Then again, others may find that what I feel are her weaknesses are indeed strengths and have a much higher opinion of the novel.

      Of the Moore stories I have read (and it would be about five in total), I would agree with JS’s assessment that she makes things very plain to the reader, rather than encouraging or even allowing participation. I find that to be a strength in her stories — it distances the reader and makes me more of an observer than a participant. And of course it was that latter role that JS did seem to appreciate in the story under discussion.

      All of which suggests why Moore provokes such a diverse response — while I can appreciate her talent, I think I am more inclined to come down on the negative side when it comes to personal appeal.

  7. One story a day is a good rule. I can see why publishers avoid individual story publication… Very hard to buy one when you can buy 70 for the same price… But there’s something in the idea. (I’m sure you already listen, but just in case, the individual story podcasts from the New Yorker are just about the finest thing the internet has ever done.)

  8. Richard said,

    I’ve read this story twice, several years apart, once before becoming a parent (many years before, in fact), and once after. I found it pitch-perfect and incredibly moving both times.

    One thing I appreciated about it was the mother’s awareness, as a writer, that some things just can’t be written about. He wisecracks are certainly a coping mechanism, but they also seem to me to be distancing effect, keeping her from thinking too much about the unthinkable, and from writing too earnestly about it, making it too maudlin. Now, many readers find it maudlin anyway. And of course many others were simply offended by what they perceived to be a lack of seriousness about a horrible topic. You can’t win. The story is very serious.

    Does she lean on the reader too much, insisting on how her characters should be viewed? Perhaps. But she’s not writing realism, or character pieces. I think in some respects she was writing against the extreme ‘show don’t tell’ + Carver aesthetic in which she emerged. Possibly she goes too far.

    Also, I certainly agree that small doses of Moore is the way to go. Her individual collections are short. Anagrams is very good, if only a pseudo-novel. Frog Hospital is weaker, but not without its moments.

  9. I’m pretty sure the doctors and nurses would spell it Paed Onc. Still, that’s probably being pedantic.

    It’s a false note though, and not the only one. The exclamation marks are just painful. I’m not sure it can be quite put down to how the character is thinking either, who thinks in exclamation marks? Even if one does, better writers manage to communicate tone without loading their shotguns with exclamations and firing them at the page.

    Otherwise it seems obvious, and worse middlebrow (the worst kind of brow of all). Overwritten. Hectoring.

    “no doubt for the drama her features lacked,” Well, no doubt, absolutely. How could there be doubt when the author has just told us that’s the reason? This doesn’t sound like a writer who calls their own authorial authority into question. A better writer could say that without saying it.

    Put another way, I’m not sure I’m wholly sold on this one John.

    Regarding megavolumes, I tend to find them rather offputting. I look at them and know that six months from now I’ll still be reading the bloody thing. It becomes a chore. I’d much rather a slim volume of well chosen stories.

    • Richard said,

      Well, obviously I disagree with this comment completely (megavolume note aside). For just one thing, the exclamation points are perfectly deployed, frankly. But I’m not going to argue the point; it’s not as if I’d be able to convince you.

      • I don’t deny that the exclamation marks are properly used, I just don’t think they should have been used. Certainly not to that extent. Personally though I admit I’d happily excise exclamation marks from the English language!

        That said, there’s no reason we have to agree. Frankly, it’s better a writer attracts strong like and strong dislike than that they attract indifferent agreement.

    • Trevor said,

      Max! What about Gert Hofmann’s Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl — don’t excise exclamation points altogether!

    • Nick said,

      I also prefer writers who manage to make you understand things without stating them so I’ll probably pass on her.
      Especially since I! share! your! dislike! of exclamation! marks!!!!

      I have nothing against megavolumes. I stack them all together and read from them once in a while between, sometimes during, longer works, to change tone. Of course they must be hell for the reviewer.

      Great review John. Short stories indeed deserve to be reviewed independently.

  10. Trevor said,

    I’ve only read a few Lorrie Moore stories, and while I don’t remember the particulars, I remember feeling the way the critics to this story felt.

    Now, as for good writing, John, this is an exceptional review of a short story! I hope you’ll do more every once in a while : ) .

  11. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments everyone. Max, your opposition is so vituperative that I feel rather protective toward this defenceless little story now! And I can think of writers who not only use exclamation marks well, but can do and still be funny – Philip Roth and Cynthia Ozick for example. But then, I think in exclamation marks all the time, usually when the thought is along the lines of “FFS!!

    Re Anagrams, I gathered that it was more a collection of stories than a novel from the fact that a handful of stories in the Collected are taken from it!

    • Richard said,

      re: Anagrams. That’s somewhat surprising. Not that it’s a novel in any usual sense. But the stories do sort of belong together (though, again, not in the usual sense of linked stories, or anything like that). I’m sure that makes no sense.

      (I felt a little protective towards the story, too; I was like “hey!” [with exclamation point!]. People do in fact think thus, especially when hysterical, I’d think.)

  12. An excellent plea in rebuttal Trevor!

    John, if I’m going to criticise I may as well be passionate. As for exclamation marks, I do think they’re easily overused, but of course there’s no rule in writing that can’t be broken to good effect by the right writer.

    It’s probably a result of reading Keilson and Quin though. Just different leagues. Plus I’m tired today. I get grumpy when I’m tired.

  13. @edhoganderby said,

    John, I’m glad you found more to like than Mars-Jones, and I think you’re right about the humour being a sort of desperate evasion, in Peed Onk. I read a lot of her stories as actually being *about* the eventual failure of humour to console. In ‘You’re Ugly, Too’, (the title a punchline), Zoe’s humour alienates students, colleagues and love prospects. Her jokes are self-destructive, futile, and then – at the end – a bit scary. She’s howling in the void! (A perfectly intelligent reaction to death and loneliness).
    Peed Onk always made me uncomfortable (haven’t read it since having kids), but of course it *should* make me uncomfortable. You can see Moore’s/Mother’s anxiety about whether it should be written at all, which she foregrounds. Isn’t the last line something like ‘here’s my notes, where’s my money?’? – A suggestion that the story was so difficult to write that she had to justify it as a means of paying the medical bill.
    I’ve never seen her style as ‘cute’, and know several readers who find her too dark. Humour is powerful, I reckon. I can’t think of anything that’s made me cry without making me laugh first.

  14. Sam said,

    Thanks for writing this review, John. As always, I enjoy reading your work.

    I do have some issues with Moore’s style – that’s my problem I guess! – but I did just want to say that I think she’s a more subtle writer than you perhaps give her credit for being.

    You write:

    “And when Moore adds that the character wore novelty earrings “no doubt for the drama her features lacked,” that no doubt makes it clear that the observation must be coming from the writer rather than the character herself. Author, step back, let go!”

    I remember reading that sentence, yet I came to the opposite conclusion that you seem to have. Isn’t ‘no doubt’ one of those phrases that actually means its opposite: that there is some doubt over why she wears her novelty earrings? And if it was a statement ‘coming from the writer rather than the character herself’ then why would there be any room for doubt?

    I don’t think it’s clear whether or not Moore is telling us something that the character knows about herself; Moore could, for instance, be telling us something that the character intuits about herself but can’t bring herself to admit it. It’s a mystery, and all the better for it, because in that quick sentence Moore seems to be dramatising that there are somethings – like how we feel about ourselves – which language isn’t always quick enough to capture. It was one of the sentences in her stories that I really marvelled at!

    Hope you’re well,
    Sam

  15. I appreciated your meaty review of this Lorrie Moore story, which I’m glad to know is in her COLLECTED STORIES, which I bought almost a year ago now, but have been reading in very small doses, opening the book at random and reading a few pages at a time to savor the language.

    Anyway, your review gave me many things to think about. I began to ask myself, what is it about a Lorrie Moore story that I like so much? What you call “control,” I call “restraint.” I didn’t know that a Moore story could risk “making a reader too comfortable.” I do not fully agree with “Terrible things happening should be terrible to read,” or maybe I just want to know what you mean by “terrible to read.” I’m glad you brought up that “… the jokes, the tone, the story itself may be entirely real instances of the coping mechanism in operation” because I think this type of humor (never mind whether it is “closer to a compulsion than a talent,” I don’t need to know whether More is funny/talented or funny/obssessive or both, funny is just funny)

    I think Moore “tells” a lot, instead of “showing,” which reverses the standard Creative Writing Workshop dictum, “Show, not tell,” that hoary cliché, which Moore’s stories demolish. But the telling is so unreliable, the mood so changeable, that I know it’s just a pose, that what’s important is left out. The words seem direct, but they’re actually not. They are disguises.

    I actually find that reading a Lorrie Moore story is a lot of FUN. I like the contrast between the style and the subject matter.

    May I also bring up the gender thing? I think the “coping mechanism” described in the story you reviewed is something that results from being a woman. Perhaps we’re used to thinking of mothers as “the rock of ages.” Well, in a Moore story, the mother is not a rock, she is never a rock, she is brittle as a cracked eggshell. But she is still trying to hold it all together — by a very free use of the exclamation point!

  16. John Self said,

    Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Ed, your point about the ending is a good one: yes, with the knowledge of the story being grounded in Moore’s own experience, it reads like her stepping out from behind the page and addressing the reader (or publisher) directly.

    Sam, I am going to grasp your interpretation gratefully. I felt that Moore couldn’t really have been so careless as to break the character’s hold on the narrative (at least not until the end, as noted above!), so your reading makes much more sense than mine.

    The comments here have made me realise that I will definitely have to go back to Moore sooner rather than later. Thanks all.

  17. […] wrote about Lorrie Moore a couple of years ago, after having mixed feelings about the few stories of hers that I’d read. Now she has a new […]


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