Once upon a time, as Lorrie Moore begins, ‘there was a not terribly prolific American short-story writer who, caught ten years between books with things she called Life and others called Excuses, was asked to write an introduction to her own Collected Stories.’ Moore has not published a book since Birds of America in 1998; among much else, Birds of America contains a biting, unresolved debate about the point of writing fiction. And now, here she is, prefacing her own stories. ‘How to do this without sounding pompous or self-pitying or dying and doomed? . . . Could she imply illness and get sympathy? A mysterious malignancy on, say, the writing arm?’
Moore was born in 1957 and has been unusually successful, commercially and critically, since she was quite young: she won a Seventeen competition while a teenager, and published her first book, the widely admired Self-Help – made up of stories written for her MFA dissertation – in 1985. Since then, she has published two more short-story collections, Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998), and two novels, Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), plus a storybook for children. Most of her work centres on women in small-scale, domestic settings: Self-Help starts out in the Manhattan everybody dreams about, but later stories unfold in the sort of unglamorous, family-friendly Midwestern suburbs she would have got to know after taking up a post at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1984. Moore is reticent in interviews and does not write much non-fiction, and has published only 50 pages of fiction over the past decade. The reticence lends her work definition and discipline. Every line feels crafted, cared about, subjected to crash-testing, really meant.
Moore is famous for the super-real vivacity of her ‘zingers’, brief, sharp, stand-up comedy encapsulations of what her characters, her story, the world as she sees it, are about. ‘Everyone tried hard to be funny,’ the heroine of ‘Agnes of Iowa’ tells her husband, trying to explain why, after seven years away from it, she still misses New York: ‘It was like brains having sex. It was like every brain was a sex maniac.’ ‘The Great White Whine’, Eleanor muses in ‘Strings Too Short to Use’. ‘Whiney white people getting together over white wine and whining.’ ‘Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here,’ Zoë says in ‘You’re Ugly, Too’, one of several 1990s pieces to feature a metropolitan East Coast intellectual, adrift in a grassy sea of Midwesterners, ‘spacey with oestrogen from large quantities of meat and cheese’. ‘Love had its neat trick of making you mourn it so much, it reappeared. Popped right up from the casket,’ thinks a woman exhausted by her husband’s betrayals, the recurrence of her cancer, an unnecessary move to a rotten and needy house. ‘Her rage flapped awkwardly away like a duck’: thus a woman who has accidentally killed a baby, desperately seeking a receptacle in which to dump the pain.
Such ‘zingers’ zing only because they are earthed in terrible sadness, and this is pretty much the Lorrie Moore USP: she writes about death, divorce, disappointment in a way that is tender and authentic, yet also witty and shiny and clean and modern, a Broadway lyric up in lights – ‘Oh, the rich torment that was life,’ as the protagonist of ‘Real Estate’ exclaims. ‘How else to explain such a feeling? She could almost burst – could one burst with joylessness?’ To ‘burst with joylessness’: this is the paradox that animates Moore’s writing, as it animates so much 20th-century Americana, especially that made by and/or for women: you might call it, after D.W. Harding and H.D. Thoreau, a regulated desperation, and trace it as it crackles through screwball and sitcom and Sylvia Plath. How unacceptably appalling it is, to be alive and suffering and mortal; but we are energetic and resourceful creatures, so let us be as seductive and self-marketing about it as we can. The ‘girlish voice’ of one Lorrie Moore character, ‘out of sheer terror, perhaps, has lately adorned itself with dreamy and snippy mannerisms’. Another puts Emily Dickinson words to showtunes when she finds herself under stress.
The unacceptable appallingness of femininity, trapped in a body doomed to curdle and go haywire; the peculiarly American aesthetic of smoothing it over, waxing its eyebrows, doing it as jokes: in retrospect, Self-Help looks pretty much like the ur-text of what would later become known as Chicklit, those pink-liveried multi-platformed entertainments in which young middle-class women seek love and fortune in the big, big city – the dreamworld of Melissa Bank (a Moore follower if ever there was one) and Sex and the City and Bridget Jones. Except that Self-Help also now reads like a self-consciously historical document, a John Dos Passos-like collage. As well as simply telling stories about young women working and dreaming in 1980s Manhattan etc etc, Moore’s form and language pastiche the very material of which such dreams are made: stories address the reader (‘How to Be an Other Woman’, ‘How to Talk to Your Mother: Notes’, ‘How to Become a Writer’) in the second-person rhetorical imperative, like advice manuals, like ads, like Jay McInerney’s Bratpack-defining Bright Lights, Big City, published in 1984. The stories are modest, gentle, intimate, yet also emblazoned all over Times Square.
In the 1990 story ‘Like Life’, Moore writes about a struggling New York artist, anguished and inept in his efforts to sell himself: ‘his heart, she knew, was full of that ghetto desire to leap from poor to rich with a single, simple act, that yearning that exhausted the poor – something the city required.’ The city can destroy an artist by flattening him, pure and simple; others it destroys into commercial success, lighting them with its own electrified glory, mechanising their particularity into hip or slick or heartwarming or chic or melancholy, or popular or literary or whatever else. Even at her New Yorkiest, Moore has refused this process, her art firmly in the suburbs even as her body strolls downtown. In ‘How to Be an Other Woman’, the most apparently chicklitty story from Self-Help, the ‘expensive beige raincoats’, the cigarettes and gimlets and trysts in Barnes and Noble turn out to be McGuffins, really, placed to lead us into the real pathos of the story: that the Other Woman is called Charlene and is a graduate secretary, ‘like having a degree in failure’, and wears a Phi Beta Kappa key round her neck in the hope a boss will notice and put her on the fast track; that her mother weeps when she finds out what her girl is up to (‘She thinks you’re wonderful. She’s truly your greatest fan. She is ageing and menopausal. She stubbornly thinks you’re an assistant department head’); that the married man, a systems analyst who longs to be an actor, is in a yet more pitiful situation, that he is a serial adulterer who will probably go on to do the whole beige-raincoat thing again.
From the 1990s on, Moore’s compositions rely less and less on gimmicky framing devices, more and more on craft alone, tenses, modes, planes, media folded in on one another with great delicacy, like origami (not a thought Moore has endorsed, but the image that comes to my mind when I think why Birds of America might have that name). In ‘Beautiful Grade’, for example, from that collection, Bill has taken his inappropriately young girlfriend to a friend’s dinner party. There are salmon steaks, baked potatoes, salads with ‘knobs of cheese’; there are jokes about textuality and Flannery O’Connor, and an emergent tragicomedy about Bill’s relationship with the ex-student, ‘unattractive and self-conscious making but not illegal’. Except that weirdly, stealthily, the story becomes also a disquisition on Serbs and Bosnians and Germans and the atomic bomb – ‘What did it mean to cry like that – at dinner? He had never known a war in that way or ever, really. He had never even known a dinner in that way’ – then just as inexplicably slips to a boyhood memory of an imaginary demon, ‘a world that had already, and with such indifferent skill, forsaken all its charms’. In ‘You’re Ugly, Too’, a man has a rant about Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa: ‘all those painted, drowning bodies splayed in every direction, and there’s this motion in that painting that starts at the bottom left, swirling and building, building, and building . . . A painting like that . . . It just makes you shit.’ This man, this odd, vibrant, utterly present soul, is known only as ‘the second guy’ – i.e., number two in a tiny anecdote of three. He gets 17 lines in a story of 21 pages, nested inside Zoë’s phone call with her sister, inside the history of Zoë’s relationship with her sister, inside the yet greater story of Zoë’s whole life, and love life, which tapers in at the last to relate one incident in particular, about someone completely different in a completely novel time and place.
Sometimes, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t quite work. When you read a lot of stories together, you notice the odd fudge or arrestment, a strained literary quality that seems to appear when Moore hasn’t quite been able to think up her own solution to a problem of form. It doesn’t happen a lot, but when it does it tends to be at endings or beginnings: ‘It was a fall, Jane knew, when little things were being taken away . . . It was a season for losing anything small, living trinkets you’d thought were yours – a bracelet of mother-of-pearl, a lover’s gift, unhinged and slipping off into the night like something yearning and tired. The rain stopped dry . . .’ There’s an occasional slip into Joan Didion glam-anomie: ‘She began to linger in juice bars,’ as you do, perhaps, if you’re an ageing movie starlet as imagined by an American woman writer; ‘she drank juice and, outside, smoked a cigarette now and then.’ A couple of closing moves seem straight from the narratology textbooks: the Stephen Hero office clock epiphany, the Lady with Lapdog but-we’re-only-just-beginning ending. A stalled playwright, recently shafted by a Hollywood agent, drops in despair into a Times Square peepshow; he weeps, hopelessly, for his ex-girlfriend, for God, for life; he drops in his money and the dancer, ‘sleepy and indifferent’, appears:
But as he watched she seemed to lift her eyes, to spot him, to head towards his window, slow and smiling, until she was pressing her breast against his pane, his alone. He moaned, placed his mouth against the cold single rose of her nipple, against the hard smeared glass, though given time, in this, this wonderful town, he felt, it might warm beneath his labours, truly, like something real.
Also, when you read stories fast and back to back, you notice repeated images – ‘maroon’ for blood pops up in two consecutive stories, as do Hummel figures, of all things; ‘oniony sweat’ is (understandably) a fixation; a ‘blonde with barettes’ has a walk-on part, like Hitchcock, in at least three tales. Not that this is a problem – more like a privileged peep into an artist’s mind. I was not comfortable, however, with the number of stories in which someone has cancer – woman plans suicide after being diagnosed with (‘Go Like This’); teenage daughter fails to understand seriousness of mother’s (‘What Is Seized’); woman senses recurrence of (‘Real Estate’); woman is pleased to get, her lump ‘not simply a focal point for my self-pity’ but also ‘a battery propelling me, strengthening me – my very own appointment with death’ (‘Strings Too Short to Use’); woman’s mother presumably dies of (‘How to Talk to Your Mother: Notes’); is imagined as ‘science fiction’, ‘a clump of wild nothing and its mad, ambitious desire to be something’ (‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’). It’s not that Moore is not fittingly harsh and graceful in what she can imagine of terminal illness: ‘Real Estate’ in particular does not flinch from the ghastly struggle that dying can be, even when it’s obvious that ‘the body – Jesus, how the body!’ has had it long ago, as the exhausted protagonist thinks, feeling her intestines ‘no longer curled neat and orderly . . . but heaped carelessly upon one another like a box of vacuum-cleaner parts’. She feels, too, her alienation from the people around her, ‘niftily in their bodies . . . . The feeling well were running the show; which was why the world was such a savage place.’
So what exactly is this? Is it a statistical thing? Six cancer stories out of a possible 33: how does that compare with the population at large? Is death by cancer really that prevalent among white middle-class women of a certain age? Does it matter if it isn’t? Are artists allowed to skew their samples? Isn’t it a bit slack, or cute, or self-pitying, or morbid, to write so much about terminal illness? Isn’t it naff or maybe precious to write about a tumour in a figurative way? Would it be worse or better if we knew for certain that Moore has or has had cancer herself? Worse, or better, or no different, if we knew that someone close to her had had? But this, surely, is not Moore’s problem so much as a problem of life and representation. Make silly jokes about cancer and you may or may not get it at some point; describe it in a bald minimal way, a flouncy 1980s way or the would-be hard-biological way currently fashionable, as misfortune or genes or metaphor or punishment, and the result will be just the same. Write about it constantly, don’t ever make any reference to it at all anywhere in your work or even your conversation, or even your most secret thoughts, and still you may get it, although on the other hand it’s also possible that you won’t.
This black hole of unknowing, of chance and accident and the making of something decorative out of something dreadful, is the territory of Moore’s most famous and powerful story, ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk’, published in Birds of America in 1998 (canonical babble is what you call the sounds a baby makes before learning to speak; Peed Onk is hospital-speak for the Paediatric Oncology department). In this story, a small child, known only as ‘the Baby’, is diagnosed with a malignant tumour on his kidney; his parents, meanwhile, known only as ‘the Mother’ and ‘the Husband’ (not ‘the Father’, note) struggle not to vaporise with the horror of it – the surgery, the chemo, the Hickman line, all this urgent life-saving activity, experienced by the parents as the most hideous assaults. ‘The Baby won’t suffer as much as you,’ says ‘the Surgeon’, and the Mother, inside, not to mention beside, herself, objects, her ‘girlish voice, out of sheer terror, perhaps’ gone ‘dreamy and snippy’:
Who can say what babies do with their agony and shock? Not they themselves . . . They put it all no place anyone can really see. They are like a different race, a different species: they seem not to experience pain the way we do. Yeah, that’s it: their nervous systems are not as fully formed, and they just don’t experience pain the way we do. A tune to keep one humming through the war.
The story moves fast, too fast, really, to capture what needs to be captured – like life, as Moore would say. The usual Moore tenderness, the usual Moore wit, whizzy in overdrive, make this an exhilarating piece of writing, not in the slightest bit incoherent, yet obviously out there, thrillingly deranged: ‘How can it be described? How can any of it be described? . . . 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!’ Events take over; all the parents can do is try to follow. The narrative beats its head against brick wall after brick wall after brick wall. Narrative causality is ‘a piece of laughable metaphysical colonialism perpetrated upon the wild country of time’. Babycare manuals are a dereliction: ‘Where . . . does it say “chemotherapy” or “Hickman catheter” or “renal sarcoma”? . . . You know what these books are obsessed with? Holding a fucking spoon.’ ‘Basic concepts’ have become the face of death, the enemy, ‘such as the one that says events move in one direction only and do not jump up, turn around, and take themselves back’.
And yet the story is also about the point and morality (or otherwise) of writing. The Husband wants the Mother, who is a writer of fiction, to take notes so she can write about the experience: ‘You know, in a way, this is the kind of thing you’ve always written about.’ ‘You are really something, you know that?’ the Mother snaps. ‘This is life. This isn’t a “kind of thing”.’ ‘Then write nonfiction. Do a piece of journalism. Get two dollars a word.’ ‘Honey, I only do what I can. 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 . . . This is a nightmare of narrative slop.’ ‘We’re going to need the money.’ ‘The whole memoir thing annoys me . . . To say nothing of the moral boundaries of pecuniary recompense in a situation such as this.’ ‘What if the other kidney goes? What if he needs a transplant? Where are the moral boundaries there? What are we going to do, have bake sales?’
‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ made a huge impact when it was first published in the New Yorker in 1997, partly because the magazine’s editors wrote oddly tendentious furniture for it, strongly implying that the story was a piece of journalism: ‘Have writers of memoirs taken over a field that once belonged to novelists? The question is at the heart of a story of a mother and child,’ read the strapline, with a photograph of the author, captioned by a quotation from her story, as though it had been spoken in real life. The year after, in an interview with Salon, Moore acknowledged an ‘autobiographical element’, but denied that the story was memoir. ‘It was fiction . . . Things did not happen exactly that way; I reimagined everything. And that’s what fiction does. Fiction can come from real-life events and still be fiction.’ Beyond this, Moore does not appear to have said anything in public about the relationship of the story to any real-life events behind it.
‘There is the desire of readers for Something that Really Happened,’ Moore told the Believer in 2005. ‘If a narrative uses language in a magical and enlivening way, we will listen to the story. But if the language doesn’t cast a spell, we will listen to it only if it is telling us something that actually happened.’ Reading ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ is a staggering experience, but the fact remains that more money and attention might be wrung from such a subject when presented as memoir: a front in the New York Times, say, big, sad picture, prominent nose-to-mouth lines, preferably holding the (bald? cannulated? completely recovered?) small child. The indications, within the story, that memoir was possible, was contemplated and was refused, give an already powerful piece of writing an almost unbearable performative force. As does the rightly celebrated kicker of an ending:
There are the notes.
Now where is the money?
Imagine if that ‘there’ had been the more inward-referring ‘these’; then change it back to ‘there’ again, and hear the furious, desperate slap of the heap of papers hitting the desk.
The first three pieces in the Collected Stories – each originally published in the New Yorker – represent the entirety of Moore’s output over the past ten years. ‘She would explain the reverse chronology of the volume – how? By saying the newer stories feel truer to her current interests and the older ones seem written by someone else?’ There’s a divorce story, a cancer story and a middle-aged dating story – nothing much new there, then, except that the newer stories are subtler, excitingly more open-feeling and yet more thuddingly, irreversibly final than the work that went before.
‘Paper Losses’ is the story Moore chooses to open the book and, certainly, it has a flashy beginning: ‘Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organising, making no-nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.’ It’s fun to think about this once ‘lusty’ couple now ‘complicitous and synergistic’ in their hate for one another, ‘a dance team of bad feeling’, but this is revealed as one of those metaphors in which the glittering vehicle has been allowed to hog the road. The ending, however, is a brilliant wrench, as a panicked, nervy style indirect libre suddenly gapes and yawns:
‘I think I need a drink,’ she said. The kids were swimming.
‘Don’t expect me to buy you a drink,’ he said.
Had she even asked him to? Did she now call him the bitterest name she could think of? Did she stand and turn and slap him across the face in front of several passers-by? Who told you that?
‘Debarking’ – non-animal-lovers may want to check that they really know what this word means – is a tale of post-divorce dating among middle-aged intellectuals (‘Divorce is a trauma, believe me, I know. It’s death within life! Its pain is a national secret!’), in which every miserable moment is morosely savoured: the young daughter ‘rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off’; the smug goyish dinner party at which the Jewish Ira feels obliged to ‘scream at the pork’. The story appears to be set over Easter 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, and Moore seems eager to find a way of linking the two excruciations: her hero joins a Honk for Peace, ‘for all its stupidity and solipsism and self-consciously scenic civic grief . . . something like a gorgeous moment’; and dates a weirdly unpleasant woman who never pays for anything, makes nasty, moronic jokes, and carves naked statues of her teenage son, holes drilled in the penises with a brace and bit – an example, he thinks, of ‘all the deeply wrong erotic attachments that were made in wartime, all the crazy romances cooked up quickly by the species to offset death’. Moore I think wants this Middle East-Midwest stuff to be both ironic and sweepingly global, but it comes across as a little lame – ‘Somebody slap that guy,’ as a man in a blue shirt puts it at the end.
‘The Juniper Tree’ takes odder risks with a smaller scale of politics and works brilliantly well. It’s about a group of women, middle-aged, arty and/or academic, in a Midwestern college town: ‘joyful orphans . . . zooming along doing what we wanted’, yet at the same time they are the walking wounded of the sexual revolution, each of them somehow maimed. Robin Ross, a folklorist and playwright, has just died, the evening before, from cancer; and yet she rises, one last time, in order to judge the narrator, who for one reason and another didn’t quite get round to visiting – ‘Always a little out of the loop, eh?’ as Robin stiffly says. Pat, the memory-impaired painter, has brought along an unframed canvas; Isabel, the amputee dancer, dedicates a poem and performance piece. ‘Every woman I knew here drank – nightly. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for the stray voltages of mother-love in the very places they would never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another.’ The story ends with Robin Ross, back in the days before her illness, stuffing an entire lemon meringue pie all over her own face: ‘I’ve always wanted to do that,’ she says. ‘Brava,’ the narrator applauds, which just about says it all.
I remember reading Self-Help around the time it first came out and both admiring and disliking it: the admiration for obvious reasons, the dislike for its showiness, its participation in what we back then called, with a sniff, ‘the classic New Yorker short story’. What the young me found particularly suspect, I think, was what I then considered, with the aesthetic Calvinism of the 1980s, a frivolous neuroticism to the stories, that way privileged adolescents can have of twittering melodramatically about how terrible their lives are, how serious their drug problems, how cursed and doomed their stock, when really they are – and kind of know they are – just going through a bad patch. That sniff, then, was a sniff of misplaced envy, as much as anything else.
It’s taken me a while, but I think I now see how much my old view was made of fetishes, how little the padding of privilege ever saves anyone, in the end: which presumably is one reason Moore has always been so interested in cancer, and which is perhaps one reason I have difficulties with all the cancer stuff. Remember going around in one’s teens and early twenties, being absolutely convinced that this time one actually had it, while all the time secretly knowing, somehow, that most likely one did not: that impossible gap between cancer as warning, symptom, tragedy, whatever, to be guarded against, worried about, black-comically joked about, and the plain dull omnisuctorial horizon – to continue to hide, I’m afraid, in metaphor – of the actual event. Moore appears to worry about the morality of ‘pecuniary recompense’ if she wrote about something terrible that really had happened to her. What about the morality of writing about terrible things that haven’t? Because they really do happen to other people, every single day.
And yet, sooner or later, doesn’t the angry duck just have to stop flapping and lay its poor wings down? A terrible, beautiful moment from ‘What Is Seized’ – one of the best stories in Self-Help, one of the half-dozen best in this book – suggests that Moore was ahead of me on this insight, too:
‘You reach a point,’ [my mother] wrote me once, ‘where you cannot cry anymore, and you look around you at people you know, at people your own age, and they’re not crying either. Something has been taken. And they are emptier. And they are grateful.’
What did Moore think she meant by this when she first wrote it, when she must have been 25 or 26? What does it mean to her now she is 50-plus? Is it easier or harder than expected? Or is the actuality of the thing so prophetically dreaded something completely different again?