Moore Lorrie

Lorrie Moore: Bark

I 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 collection, her first in 16 years, though it’s pretty skimpy at eight stories in 160 pages. More than that, four of these stories were in her 2008 Collected Stories (you can read one of them here), so what Moore’s fans will get is four new stories in 80 pages. Only one of these four is entirely new, as three previously appeared in magazines: Harper’s, The Paris Review and The New Yorker.

Lorrie Moore: Bark

Bark is an interesting reading experience straight after Mavis Gallant. I wrote that some of Gallant’s stories made my eyes glaze over: this never happens in Bark. Moore works very hard to give the reader a really good time. Her stories are stuffed with smart observations, clever ways of seeing and zingy jokes – and that is the only difficulty I have with them. They are so stuffed with novelty and display, that moments which might resonate beautifully within plainer prose, tend to get lost in the noise. In the first story, ‘Debarking’, a reference to the central character receiving “a divorce petition mailed from a motel” is nicely understated and suggestive, but struggles to make itself heard amid less subtle stuff, like a gag a few lines earlier about middle-aged dating being “a planet of the apings!” The story tells us about Ira, trying to get back in the game after his divorce. He is trying also to balance the fact that the two most important females in his life now are a woman, Zora, he barely knows but hopes to get to know better, and his daughter Bekka, of whom he has shared custody, with all the mess that that entails. With Zora, he is unsure whether he really thinks things about her or just wants to (“She had written her phone number and signed off with a swashbuckling Z – as in Zorro. That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew”). With Bekka we get observations that, if they come from life, would probably have been best left as Facebook status updates. “[Bekka] had once, in a bathtime reverie, named her five favourite people, four of whom were dogs. The fifth was her own blue bike.” (That’s cute, I suppose. I guess. Who knows.) ‘Debarking’ captures well the grimness of desperation dating, and the way participants detect the worst in one another without thinking of how they might themselves be coming across. This is exemplified in a genuinely funny and surprising phone call between Ira and Zora, which seems to justify his thinking earlier:

Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people. Dating proved it!

Ira’s uncertainties reminded me of Abe Simpson courting Bea Simmons (“Well, I was wondering if you and I you know, might go to the same place at the same time and… Jeez! You’d think this would get easier with time!”). Moore has a knack of filling her characters with these very recognisable weaknesses. In the story ‘The Juniper Tree’, a woman is happy to be persuaded by her own excuses for not visiting her terminally ill friend. When a mutual friend rings to say that she has died, our narrator breaks down. “‘I feel terrible,’ I cried, as if this were what mattered.” The story goes in interesting directions after that – of the cannot-be-disclosed-here variety – and provides a surprising depiction of guilt and grief.

The subject matter of Moore’s stories tends to be from a range of big things: illness, break-ups, death. The third story in Bark, ‘Paper Losses’, takes us back to divorce, with our lead, Kit, finding in the courtroom that “the county owned her marriage and that the county was now taking it back like a chicken franchise she had made a muck of.” That’s a nice simile, but Moore extends it over the following lines until it has, to coin a phrase, irretrievably broken down. She knows how to detonate a phrase though: Kit, on holiday, gets up early to watch turtles hatching on the beach but the guide keeps them there all morning to enable as many tourists as possible to see them. “He took them over to the water’s edge and let them go, hours too late, to make their own way into the sea. And one by one a frigate bird swooped in, plucked them from the silver waves, and ate them for breakfast.” Elsewhere, the effect is more slick than rich, and Moore sometimes reminds me of an American sitcom where the the humour comes not from the setting and the people but from characters saying witty things to one another. On the same page as the passage above, Kit’s friend says, “Soon you, like me, in your next life, like me, will want them old and rich, on their deathbed, really, and with no sudden rallyings in the hospice.”

This frantic waving from author to reader starts to seem gauche. Perhaps Moore could turn it down, but would these stories exist in toned-down prose? The slightly hysterical style is intrinsic to the mindset of the characters, which is itself a cause for concern. Many authors could be accused of sameness – seventy years ago, did jumped-up bloggers complain that Greene wrote too much about Catholicism? – but with Moore, not only do subjects recur, but characters sound too similar also. They all seem to respond to stress with wisecracks, and the effect is to make all the stories seem to take place in a parallel world where people are chipper and desperate at the same time, and exchange pithy dialogue with their partners. Over the length of a book, this becomes such a self-contained world – Lorrieland – that it jars and barks the shins when real world elements creep in, as they frequently do: 9/11, Abu Ghraib, Obama’s election, “the new economic downturn”. (Scanning the original publication dates for the stories that include these elements provides reassurance that they were headline news at the time of writing.) Those previously-listed subjects of the stories – illness, divorce, death – end up seeming like shop-bought ballast to counter the hectic drollery. (When I mentioned Moore’s compulsive joking on Twitter, someone responded, “I sort of love her, but worry that she thinks puns reveal hidden truths.”) The worst offender in this respect is the final story, ‘Thank You For Having Me’, which is the only previously unpublished piece in the book. The penultimate story, ‘Subject to Search’, regains its feet after some terrible jokes (a sign-language mishap is referred to as “a Freudian slip of the dumb”) by showing, horribly, a life where the only way of achieving a happy ending is to cut back into the past. (“He clasped her hand: electricity burst into it then vanished as he let go.”)

What this leads to is the best story in the book: ‘Referential’ doesn’t try to be funny, or not for long, anyway. It is about a mother and her “deranged son”, and her visits to him in a hospital or institution. When Moore writes about how “there was still sweetness in his eyes, the sweetness he was born with”, and then that “once her son had only wanted a distracting pain, but then soon he had wanted to tear a hole in himself and flee through it,” I think of my own sons, still mostly sweetness, and find it terrifying. This unleavened bitterness is bracing after all the stings and rimshots in the other stories. I realise I am making it sound as though I don’t like Moore’s work at all. I do: she is never boring and always entertaining. But the wit which for others intensifies the pleasure in her stories, for me dilutes their force.

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

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.