A Sad and Gory Land

Claudia Johnson

  • Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
    Faber, 148 pp, £14.99, November 1994, ISBN 0 571 17310 1

American culture has a special attachment to boys’ coming-of-age stories, and from Tom Sawyer to Summer of ’42 readily invests them with mythic import. But girls’ coming-of-age stories, as distinct from tales about courtship and marriage, find no indulgent public. How could they? Crediting stories about the pain and exhilaration of girls’ fellowship, sexual discovery or disenchantment comes close to endorsing the agenda of consciousness-raising, and that, we know, is not likely to happen. Accordingly, stories about their rough passage into adulthood stay singular, and may be forgiven, but rarely remembered or loved.

Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, her best work to date, is an intelligent coming-of-age story whose power stems partly from its indifference to the expectation that teenage girls be either deferent or boy-crazy. Beginning in Paris, where the grownup narrator is travelling, it interweaves reflections on her deteriorating marriage with vivid evocations of her early adolescence. Berie Carr is smart, awkward, and passionately attached to her friend, Sils Chaussée, whose self-assurance and sexually mature body inspire Berie with an ardour that makes subsequent attachments seem feeble. Growing up in Horsehearts, New York, a fictional town so remote as to make Albany seem ‘glamorous, forbidding’, the two girls romp outdoors; they try on clothes; they sing folksongs; they quote from Desiderata; and, being not only bright but cool, they smoke, drink and get into trouble. During the summer of 1972, they take jobs at Storyland, a fairy-tale theme park where Sils works as Cinderella and Berie as a cashier. Crisis comes via Sils’s biker boyfriend, Mike Suprenante, for when Sils/Cinderella becomes pregnant and needs money far an abortion, Berie rescues her, cleverly filching hundreds of dollars from Storyland. When she is finally caught her punishment proves both wrenching and freeing: being sent away to prep school severs her from Sils, as designed, but it also gives her a ticket out of the ‘sad, stuck, undelivering world’ of upstate New York.

In her transgressiveness and in her loyalty to a girlfriend. Berie is similar to the heroines of Joyce Carol Oates’s Foxfire and Jayne Anne Phillips’s formidably severe Shelter, recent novels that also take on the drama of provincial girlhood during the Sixties and Seventies. Different as these two novels are from each other, however, they strive for a magnitude that Frog Hospital eschews for small potatoes. Frog Hospital gives us not a heroine forced into the shattering grandeur of violence, but one who has only to say ‘fuck’ to feel daring, in contrast to neighbours who venture a mere ‘Jeesum Crow’ or ‘sheesh’. This tells us something about the banality of Horsehearts, to be sure; but it says even more about the way Moore writes. Berie Carr encounters her world through idiom and wordplay – wordplay conceived not as torrents of Joycean virtuosity, but as punlets of quite deliberate inaudacity. ‘I believed Sandra Dee was not only an actress but one of the French days of the week,’, she avers when recalling her habit of mishearing French for English; or later, ‘I preferred Tuesdays. A day of twos.’ Almost all of Moore’s previous narrators are wisecrackers too. When the feckless lover of ‘How to be an Other Woman’ (from the short-story collection Self Help) reports that he woke up from a bad dream with a jerk, the heroine rejoins: ‘Yeah, I hate waking up with jerks.’ Moore’s stories are at their most distinctive when people obligingly set up each other’s jokes, as in the following telephone conversation from the same story: ‘Hi, this is Attila ...’ ‘Oh, Hi, Hun.’ An immensely self-conscious writer, Moore some times parodies her tendency to contrive situations to accommodate punchlines, as when the would-be author in ‘How to Become a Writer’ considers writing a story about the ‘fisheat-fish world of life insurance in Rochester, New York. The first line will be “Call me fishmeal.” ’

Such sallies are calculated to disarm by their very corniness. Frog Hospital is superior to Moore’s earlier work because it provides punniness with a rather touching motivation and so brings it under the control of narrative structure. Describing her quips as ‘the sort of boring cleverness I was prone to, a skinny, undeveloped girl good in school’, Berie is a wise acre, a personality not usually assigned to a woman. Sassy heroines are common enough: their banter incites flirtation, and they don’t rock the gender boat. But intimidated by the sexual mysteries into which Sils is initiated without misgivings, Berie jokes around to keep her feelings as well as the rest of the world at bay, for nothing blocks pain and dialogue better than one-liners. And so Berie defends herself against the embarrassment of being flat-chested with a dizzying barrage of breast jokes, ‘jokes relying on such analogies as fried eggs, bug bites, bee stings, animals or tin cans run over by a car’. Needless to say, the eventual development of breasts prompts a similar battery of gags about ‘blimps, hooters, bazooms’. Berie describes herself later in high school as ‘exotic among the preppies’; hanging out ‘with wisecracking boys’; but insofar as a wisecracking girl is not typically feminine, breasted or not she is a sort of wisecracking boy too, an exotic, a freak, a wiseguy.

For all its gags, the predominant mood of Moore’s fiction is serious. Moore and Berie Carr alike were 15 in 1972. Watergate was breaking, and the flip pessimism of Moore’s fiction in general and Berie’s story in particular partakes of this larger national drama of disillusionment. Even as her fiction debunks the high-falutin with winks and one-liners, Moore’s writing is still ambitious, though obliquely. Much in the manner of good puns or anagrams that lurch into unexpected meanings, her stories are scattered with loss and dislocation. In addition to re-creating the texture of teenage consciousness as mediated by singers like Janis Joplin and TV shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Frog Hospital enlists high culture very conspicuously. At the outset, in Paris, where the grown-up Berie is estranged from a husband who wisecracks as much as she does, Berie chews on cervelles, instead of madeleines, to induce ‘something Proustian’. But it is American literary tradition that Moore is mostly interested in: Twain’s sympathy for ‘adventure and escape ... a boy’s desire to run away’; Dickinson’s frogs and bogs; Thoreau’s pond.

Some of Moore’s best writing comes when evoking the tawdry commercialism of Storyland, where parents bring their children to meet characters from nursery rhyme and fairy tale impersonated by sardonic local teenagers on summer jobs. There, visitors encounter Bo Peep, played by Berie’s chum Randi, who wanders through the park enquiring after her lost sheep; they stroll down memory lane, an un-Proustian path decorated with mannequins wearing moth-eaten bustles and top hats; and of course they stare at Sils/Cinderella, in her papier-mâché coach. Hilariously exploding its pretensions to be, as the jingle has it, ‘not a sad and gory land / But a place where a lot / of your dreams come true’, these tough girls break the rules by wandering away from assigned roles and hokey sets, as when Cinderella, Bo Peep and Berie sneak off for a smoke in the alley between Hickory Dickory Dock and Peter Pumpkin Eater’s Pumpkin. Neither children nor adults, they are about to learn that story-land is a sad and gory land, and they deride the credulity of children who think otherwise. To the little girl who keeps stroking her glitter and asking for the prince, Sils replies: ‘You little twerp ... There is no prince.’

There is no prince. Sils’s scepticism envelops her story, the novel and most of Moore’s other work as well. The dream that a woman’s life will be awakened and redeemed by a man’s love rings as hollow as Storyland itself. The novel’s title bears a complex relation to this. The frog hospital refers to Sils’s and Berie’s attempts to nurse frogs which have been shot by neighbourhood boys with BB guns. But the question ‘Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?’ refers to a painting Sils makes of ‘two little girls dressed up as saints or nurses or boys or princesses – what were they? Cinderellas. They were whispering. And in the foreground, next to rocks and lily pads, sat two wounded frogs, one in a splint, one with a bandage tied around its eye: they looked like frogs who’d been kissed and kissed roughly, yet stayed frogs.’ Frogs are pressed into different service here, first as victims of male aggression, and next as stand-ins for males, helplessly unregenerate creatures resistant to the idealisation women would work on them.

Moore’s fiction generally flows from the second reading, carried away as it is by the love story. Like Storyland itself, this story lacks magic. But the characters continue to want it even as they acknowledge its silliness. In ‘To fill’ the heroine ponders the graffiti written on a bathroom wall: to feminists who write that a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle, one woman scrawls: ‘I don’t care if I’m a fish, I still want a bicycle.’ Much of Moore’s earlier writing is given over to the complaint of women whose desire for men has lost conviction, although, like her characters, she finds this disaffection itself a bit boring.

Frog Hospital turns away from the fish-wants-bicycle paradigm of heterosexual complaint. Its model instead is the joke Berie hears as an adult, about the frog who hails a middleaged woman: ‘Kiss me! Kiss me! and I’ll turn into a handsome prince.’ When the woman does nothing, the frog asks, ‘Don’t you want a handsome prince?’ and the woman replies: ‘At this point in my life I’m actually more interested in a talking frog.’ Here women give up the enterprise depicted in Sils’s painting. As before, disappointment in men occasions the consolatory fellowship of women, but here that fellowship has a lusciousness that breaks away from men altogether. Travelling through Paris, the grown-up Berie goes to a patisserie and has a divorce, savouring her double-entendre as she feasts on the creamy pastry with a girlfriend who reminds her of Sils.

As Berie says at the outset, Sils is ‘who all this is really about’. On late walks alone, amid ‘the cold mulchy smells, the treetops suddenly waving in the wind’, the grown-up Berie has ‘felt an old wildness again. Revenant and drunken.’ Such sensations contrast with the numbing infelicity of her marriage, and Sils is at the bottom of them. ‘I was invaded by Sils, who lives now in my vanished girlhood, a place to return to at night, in a fat sleep, during which she is there, standing long-armed and balanced on stones in the swamp stream.’ This is the diction not of wisecrackecry, but of lushness and longing. Frog Hospital is at such moments a homoerotic novel, though not a homosexual one. Lesbian panic does explicitly erupt in the novel, as when Mike accuses Berie of having ‘lezzie’ fantasies about Sils, or when as an adult her stepsister remarks that the girls’ friendship had been ‘the talk of the town’. Berie’s attachment is certainly ecstatic and bodily. She tries – and fails – to stop looking at Sils’s breasts as they rise and fall in her Cinderella bodice; she attends to the smell, texture and sheen of Sils’s hair: and unlike the dense Mike, she observes the spaciness that betokens Sils’s pregnancy. Yet for all this, Sils’s is the body Berie vicariously wants to be rather than the body she wants to possess. In dramatising the ardour brainy girls can feel for bigbreasted but otherwise unremarkable friends (Sils seems hardly cognisant, let alone worthy, of Berie’s devotion), Moore has written a profoundly sad story about growing up in a world where the Cinderella narrative, and its variants, are the only ones open to young girls.

Attachments to women may have richness and juice, but they have no counter-narrative: playing Sils’s fairy godmother, Berie cannot save Sils, a sort of frog-as-victim shot through with a BB/bébé, even if she can fund her abortion. More tragically, Berie’s stepsister LaRoue is doomed by the only story in town to be a wicked stepsister, and so has no share of the young Berie’s love. Adult female friendships are no better. Berie enjoys divorces with the Sils look-alike in Paris, but she doesn’t confide that her husband has pushed her downstairs, or attempt any intimacy.

Moore is an artist of missed chances and mistaken choices. Her characters are always smarting with loss. But in Frog Hospital, she holds out for girlhood, and without any of the self-mockery that marks – and sometimes mars – her earlier efforts. At the outset, Berie mentions her desire to speak with multiple voices, a desire that suits an author given to puns, allegory and nostalgia. But if she begins by evoking a chorus of Buddhist monks singing with split voices, she concludes with a paradisal evocation of her high-school girls’ choir singing in unison:

Strung along the same wire of song, we lost ourselves; out of separate rose and lavender mouths we formed a single living thing, like a hyacinth ... All of us could hear it, standing in the midst of it, no boys, no parents in the room, no one else to tell us, though we never managed to sound that beautiful again. In all my life as a woman – which began soon after and not unrichly – I have never known such a moment.

‘Fallen archness’ (to use the happy pun struck by Berie’s husband) has been the predominant mood of Moore’s fiction, and after a few stories it wears thin. In Frog Hospital she shows herself ready to leave this self undercutting behind. Her prose follows the girls in their ascent, redeeming her allusions to American transcendentalists as more than throwaways, and keeping the splendour of girlhood solidarity as a mythic Thoreauvian pond.