In a blog post on April 2nd of this year, I lamented not having seen any new writing by Lorrie Moore lately.  So I was excited to see that the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker had a short story by her.  It’s called “Referential” and I read it with great interest and admiration.  I wanted to blog about it, because I was so taken with the writing, such as this rather arresting sentence:

“Unlike other women her age (who tended to try too hard, with lurid lingerie and flashing jewelry), she now felt that that sort of effort was ludicrous, and she went out into the world like an Amish woman, or perhaps, even worse, when the unfortunate light of spring hit her face, an Amish man.”

When I first read this sentence, the part about the Amish man made me feel a little like laughing or at least snorting, but something didn’t feel right.   I continued to ponder what it was about it that made me uncomfortable (maybe I fear looking like an Amish man). I decided that what bothered me was that in a terribly sad story, Moore couldn’t resist a little mordant wit.  Nothing wrong with that—in fact, it’s one of her trade-marks—but here it felt to me as if being clever came at the expense of her character and the story.

Still, Moore is a terrific writer.  The paragraph continues: “If she was going to be old, let her be a full-fledged citizen of the old country!  ‘To me, you always look so beautiful,’ Pete no longer said.”  Talk about economy, talk about pithiness!  That last sentence contains a world.  That’s most of the story right there, in a nutshell.

“Referential” is about an unmarried couple who are at the end of their relationship and the woman’s teenage son, who is mentally ill and institutionalized.  The unnamed woman wants to bring her son home, and hopes that Pete, her quasi-husband, will stick around and help her with the caretaking.  Pete has been a part of their lives for ten years, and the son looks on him as a stepfather.  “The love they had for Pete was long and winding, with hidden turns but no real halts.”  But Pete wants out, and by the story’s end he is gone and the woman is left alone.  It’s terribly bleak and dark.

I decided to read the interview where Moore speaks about “Referential” on thisweekinfiction

I was about to lose my innocence!

It turns out that “Referential” is a “homage” to a famous story by Vladmir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs,” originally published in The New Yorker in 1948.

Vladmir Nabokov

Vladimir Nabokov

Does everyone but me know this story?  The interviewer calls Moore’s story  a “kind of tribute,”  noting that both stories involve a schizophrenic son in a psychiatric hospital.  She asked Moore what other elements the two stories share. Moore answered:

“There are the jams, the photographs, the playing cards, the desire of the child to leave the world, the phone ringing at the end, the sleep problems of the man. There is also the referential mania of the child, which is contagious to the mother and which the story then embraces as well. The Nabokov story is a perfect one, and my hovering over it is intended as homage and is not meant to be in any way disguised or dishonoring.”

That’s a lot of borrowing!  And it’s not the half of it.

I then read Nabokov’s story, which you can also read at:

Here’s how Nabokov’s story begins:

“For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.”

Here’s Moore’s opening paragraph:

“For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son.  There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon, and so most items had to be left at the front desk and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities.  Pete had brought a basket of jams, but they were in glass jars and so not permitted.  ‘I forgot about that,’ he said.  The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.  Just as well they’ll be confiscated, she thought.  They would find something else to bring.”

I found this fascinating.  It reminded me of modeling exercises I give students, in which they’re to write something of their own following as closely as possible the sentence structure, style, voice, tone, etc., from a published paragraph, trying to stand in the published writer’s shoes so that they can see (and feel through their typing fingers) how the sentences are constructed, what they do, how much they contain in terms of information, situation, and characterization.  You can learn a lot from modeling, but I consider it an exercise.

Look, for example, at how much is accomplished in just the first sentence of the above paragraph.  I have mentioned before how sentences, especially in a short story, need to do more than one thing.  You can see it in action here.  We get history or backstory—they’ve done this three times.  The unnamed “they” implies a couple or relationship, a shared intimacy of sorts in that “they” have talked about a birthday present for “her deranged son.”  Not his, that is, but hers; still, they are in this together, or at least have been.  “Suitable” is loaded, especially when followed by “deranged,” a hard, bitter word.  Further in the paragraph, the word choice of “wounding possibilities” is lyrically evocative, and we see characterization taking shape in that Pete is careless in his choice of gifts, forgetting the crucial fact that glass could constitute a weapon.  A lot is accomplished in that opening paragraph.

But I want to get back to the fascinating parallel between the two stories. Moore chooses a different focus, but she does structure her story closely on Nabokov’s.  In each story the couple pays a visit to the institutionalized son on his birthday (or tries to, in Nabokov’s case; the parents are turned away because their son has tried again to commit suicide that day).  Each boy has “referential mania,” in which the patient imagines “that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence.”  Both couples return home, and in each story a parent—in Moore’s the mother, in Nabokov’s the father—wants desperately to bring the son home.  In each case, there is a repeating wrong number phone call at the end of the story.  The major difference, which shifts the emphasis quite a bit, is that in the Nabokov story, the couple is old, married, and habituated, whereas in Moore’s, the main focus of the story is on the dissolution of the mother’s and Pete’s relationship.  Moore’s story is really about the end of the couple, whereas Nabokov keeps the focus on the shared parental pain.  Moore’s protagonist is in pain, all right, over the on-going, hopeless case of her mentally ill son.  But it’s the loss of Pete, whom she has loved and whom she needs, that is the main story line.

I felt uncomfortable at some of the borrowing that Moore did.  For example, here is Nabokov on the boy’s suicide attempt: “The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness.”  Now Moore: “The last time her son had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, morbidly ingenious.”  Isn’t that plagiarism?  Would students get away with that?

It’s not that I’m not aware that people take off on other people’s art all the time. But isn’t it usually a work so famous (Romeo and Juliet vs. West Side Story) that no one could miss the reference, or isn’t there some acknowledgment of the source?  It’s interesting that Moore herself mentioned that she didn’t intend for her effort to be “disguised,” which I take to mean the source unacknowledged or hidden.  But there’s no acknowledgement, by her or The New Yorker, except in this online interview.  To me it’s a curious choice by the writer and the publisher to let the model go unmentioned.

Reading Nabokov’s story after Moore’s did change my experience of “Referential” considerably. It lowered my admiration of it.  This too was curious to me.  I had thought originally that regardless of what had prompted her story, she was writing from some deeply imagined or lived experience of loss and pain.  I suppose that can still be true, but now it seems less true somehow. It feels as if she was piggybacking on Nabokov’s deep feelings, or maybe just experimenting with imitating the great Nabokov story, flexing her own considerable writer’s muscles.

There’s a section in each story in which both mothers pore over their photo albums of the past, seeing their sons develop through the years into madness.  Each is followed by a poignant, bitter meditation in which the women describe how they view life:

First, Nabokov:

“All this, and much more, she had accepted, for, after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another, not even joys in her case, mere possibilities of improvement. She thought of the recurrent waves of pain that for some reason or other she and her husband had had to endure; of the invisible giants hurting her boy in some unimaginable fashion; of the incalculable amount of tenderness contained in the world; of the fate of this tenderness, which is either crushed or wasted, or transformed into madness; of neglected children humming to themselves in unswept corners; of beautiful weeds that cannot hide from the farmer.”

How unexpected and moving that last image, of weeds, beautiful weeds, mowed down despite their beauty.

Here’s Moore:

“All this had to be accepted.  Living did not mean one joy piled upon another.  It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected twist in the game.  One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land the same way, regardless.  Tenderness did not enter into it, except in a damaged way.”

Now Moore’s story seems more of an exercise to me, despite her remarkable writing.

I’m a bit let down.

P.S.  I saw that there were comments following the Moore interview on thisweekinfiction, and when I Googled “Referential” I saw others have blogged on it.   I don’t read blogs, reviews (beyond the first one that alerts me to something I might want to read), or comments before I’ve written on a book or story.  Now I’ll be interested to see how others come down on this matter, and maybe you will be too.