Missing Lorrie Moore’s Writing: One of the Best
April 2nd, 2012 | Blog, Musings/Reminiscences, Novel Authors, Novel Reviews, Process | 6 Comments
If you’re following this blog with any regularity, I’m sure you’re relieved that I’m off my JCO’s A Widow’s Story bender. I’m “recovering.” Like they say, one day at a time…
I just had a fun weekend in Madison, which I had never been to. It is a cool, hip, funky, populist town where everyone looks cool, hip and funky. On Williamson Street where we were staying, I saw a guy sweeping his sidewalk whose hair was pretty much like a large, flattened broom head sticking straight up on top of his skull, held upright by some spackling substance. Very cool, hip and funky. Every restaurant listed which local farms its food was from, and every cafe had kombucha on the menu. Though I am certainly cool, hip and funky, the only reason I even know what kombucha is is because two women in my yoga class, an acupuncturist and homeopathic doctor, make it. I’ve never tasted it. For those of you not cool, hip, and funky enough to know, kombucha is an effervescent fermented tea that’s supposed to be good for you.
Being in Madison made me remember Lorrie Moore’s novel, The Gate at the Stairs, which I didn’t find particularly successful as a novel. I love her wonderful short stories but Gate seemed disjointed, as if she had cobbled together too many things that she couldn’t meld. Her form might be the short story and not the novel, was what I thought. The story itself, the plot, didn’t grab me. And there was a scene towards the end in which Tassie Keltjim, the young university student who narrates the novel, climbs into a coffin with a dead person that caused me to go, Oh Come on!
But Madison made me think about Moore, who has taught at the U. of Wisconsin there for many years. Gate is set in a Madison-like mid-western university town call Troy, “the ‘Athens of the Midwest,’” a hilarious oxymoron in my opinion, pure Lorrie Moore. When we strolled the campus I kept hoping I’d see her. Not that I know her, but I thought I’d recognize her from photos or a from a couple of her readings. It’s funny how that novel, which I hadn’t read since it came out in 2009, kept coming to mind, superimposing itself on my experience of Madison. When we ate at a nice restaurant there, I heard a faint echo, as if dinner were being narrated by Moore.
One of the characters in The Gate at the Stairs, Sarah, owns just such a restaurant as we dined in. Tassie, who will become the baby-sitter for Sarah and her husband’s adopted baby, comments on Sarah’s restaurant:
“Le Petit Moulin. I knew of it a little. It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entrée freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies…I knew Le Petit Moulin served things that sounded like instruments—timbales, quenelles—God only knew what they were…The lowest price for dinner was twenty-two dollars, the highest, forty-five. Forty-five! You could get an oil-and-water bra for that price!”
I had no idea what an oil and water bra was, so I Googled it. They are bras filled with oil and water, believe it or not. Now I want one.
Tassie grew up in the country nearby, and seeing the landscape around Madison and some of the fresh-faced Wisconsin students on campus brought to mind this passage from the novel:
“I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, ‘the Athens of the Midwest,’ as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Columbian tribe I’d read about in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories—no experience—of the outside world. Once brought out into light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery—twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave—of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.”
Though I was not a farm kid, it reminded me of my own initiation into university life at UNC in Chapel Hill.
Tassie’s father, who wouldn’t have been able to afford to eat at Le Petit Moulin, raised potatoes on their farm: Kennebecs, Norlands, Pontiacs, Yukon golds, Kalmath pearls, purple Peruvians and Rose Finns. As Tassie describes him he wasn’t a respected farmer back home:
“He was a hobbyist, a truck farmer, with no real acreage, just some ducks (who every fall raped one another in a brutal fashion we never got used to), a dog, a tractor, a website (a website, for Christ’s sake!) and two decorative, brockle-headed cows of dubious dairiness. (They were named Bess and Guess, or Milk and Manure, according to my dad…I had once milked Bess, carefully cutting my fingernails beforehand, so as not to hurt her; the intimate feel of her lavender-veined and hairy breasts had almost made me puke…”
Sometimes reading Lorrie Moore I want to laugh out loud. I can well imagine her snorting with glee as she wrote some of this stuff. As if she can barely contain herself. But it’s a sophisticated, smart funny that not many writers can pull off, a sparky, complex humor central to her distinctive voice. Here she is in a Paris Review interview where the interviewer asked her about humor in her 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.”
Seeing a new Lorrie Moore story used to be a great occasion. I still have the pages I tore out of the January 27, 1997 issue of The New Yorker of her brilliant story “People Like That Are the Only People Here.”
(You can read the whole story at http://bioethics.georgetown.edu/pcbe/bookshelf/reader/chapter8.html, if you scan down a bit, or you can Google it in The New Yorker, but you may have to pay to get into the archive. It’s from her collection Birds in America).
Some short stories are unforgettable, embedded in your memory forever. That was true for me of “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” I sat down and read it again after Madison. It was still painful, funny, brittle, sweet, dark, tender, angry–electrified by her amazing voice that does so many things at once, such as joke and howl. The story was based on an autobiographical experience of Moore’s, though she insists in a Guardian interview in 2008 that “it traduces her skill as a writer to interpret it as any less fictional than all the other things about which she writes.”
The bare bones plot is that a mother, called The Mother in the story, discovers a blood clot in her baby boy’s diaper, and is plunged into a nightmare of the baby having cancer and having to have a kidney removed. Much of the story takes place in a children’s hospital:
“In the end you suffer alone. But at the beginning you suffer with a whole lot of others. When your child has cancer you are instantly whisked away to another planet: one of bald-headed little boys. Pediatric Oncology. Peed-Onk.”
When the oncologist suggests the baby will need a little light chemo, the Mother says to her husband, “A little light chemo. Don’t you like that one?…Eine Kleine dactinomycin. I’d like to see Mozart write that one up for a big wad o’cash.”
The Mother’s husband has asked her to take notes on the experience, since she’s a writer, and “We’re going to need the money.” The Mother 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 do. 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…”
One of the things I like best about the story is that in addition to being heart-wrenching and jokey, it’s metafiction, with Moore playing the idea of writing about something against the actual life experience itself:
“How can it be described? How can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveller’s mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it, one cannot both see and say, not really. One can go, and upon returning make a lot of hand motions and indications with the arms. The mouth itself, working at the speed of light, at the eye’s instructions, is necessarily struck still; so fast, so much to report, it hangs open and dumb as a gutted bell. All that unsayable life! That’s where the narrator comes in. The narrator comes with her kisses and mimicry and tidying up. The narrator comes and makes a slow, fake song of the mouth’s eager devastation.”
Revisiting Lorrie Moore made me realize how much I’ve missed her writing. When she’s good, she’s really really good. One might even say one of the best.
There are two good interviews with Moore in the Guardian, in 2008 and 2010:
Here are some of her thoughts on process and what she describes as her slow writing life from a Paris Review Interview in 2001:
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 pasting of notes, stopping, starting, staring, intermittent flurries (as the weather people 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.”
Of course it isn’t easy for guys holding down jobs and/or families either. I tip my hat to all writers out there trying, myself included. Everyone has a life, and often writing has to take place in the interstices of that life.
You can read the complete interview at http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/510/the-art-of-fiction-no-167-lorrie-moore.
But better yet, read some of her short stories in Like Life, Self-Help, and Birds of America.
Tags: Lorrie Moore