Line for line, Lorrie Moore might be one of the funniest fiction writers on this continent. If you haven't read her, think Nabokov meets Sedaris with a pinch of punchy Marx Brothers. Should that sound terrible to you, forget I said anything and just read her--you'll love it, whatever it's a mix of. But take away the humour--the malleability of language, the awkwardness and ugliness of social conventions, the almost slapsticky inability of most people to fulfill the expectations of love and happiness--and she might seem unreadably dour and dark. The presiding tone of Lorrie Moore can be summed up pretty well with this line from Like Life's "The Jewish Hunter:" "Nothing's a joke with me. It just all comes out like one."
The thing is you can't take away the humour. It's marbled in there with all the dark stuff. The fact that what comes out like a joke isn't a joke never detracts from the fact that it's hilarious. The nearly miraculous trick a Lorrie Moore story plays on the right kind of mind is that the initial funniness will inevitably reveal any level of harshness, but at that point the funny never falters, but mingles with the harshness, to the extent that no matter how dark Moore gets--and maybe her best known story, "People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk," about a mother who "finds a blood clot in the Baby's diaper," is one of the most heartbreaking things you'll ever be unable to stop reading--she is never not funny. Life is terrible, and that's inevitable, and if you can't see the humour in that, you're in very serious trouble.
It's been roughly thirty years since the release of Moore's first collection of stories, Self-Help. Written often in the rhetoric of self-help books--which mostly amounts to the adoption of the Second Person--the advice is hopeless, the situations dire. The weird tight spots a person finds themselves in are partly ungovernable, so the very idea of presenting any sort of pat survival advice is absurd. And this spot, this jam, is often where a Lorrie Moore story takes place.
Here's some advice from "The Kid's Guide to Divorce:" "Put extra salt on the popcorn because your mom'll say that she needs it because the part where Inger Berman almost dies and the camera does tricks to elongate her torso sure gets her every time." And from "How to Be an Other Woman:" "Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie." From "How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes):" "Attend poetry readings alone at the local library. Find you don't really listen well. Stare at your crossed thighs. Think about your mother. Sometimes you confuse her with the first man you ever loved, who ever loved you, who buried his head in the pills of your sweater and said magnificent things like 'Oh god, oh god,' who loved you unconditionally, terrifically, like a mother." Finally (because I just love writing this stuff out) words of wisdom from "How to Become a Writer:" "First, try to be something, anything else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write haiku sequences about thwarted desire. It is a pond, a cherry blossom, a wind brushing against sparrow wing leaving for mountain. Count the syllables. Show it to your mom. She is tough and practical. She has a son in Vietnam and a husband who may be having an affair. She believes in wearing brown because it hides spots. She'll look briefly at your writing, then back up at you with a face blank as a donut. She'll say: 'How about emptying the dishwasher?' Look away. Shove the forks in the drawer. Accidentally break one of the freebie gas station glasses. This is the required pain and suffering. This is only for starters."
Moore's first collection helped, along with writers like Amy Hempel and Joy Williams and Mary Gaitskill, to even out the prominence of masculinity in American literature. Rick Moody offers some context ing his introduction to The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel: "I was in my second year of graduate school when Hempel's first collection hit shelves (and along with Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore, it was one of the books that everyone wanted to read at the time). I was exhibiting symptoms of the boredom and impatience with most of the masculine examples of contemporary fiction. I couldn't sympathize, finally, with Ford and McInerney characters. I had never punched another man, nor shot a bird from the sky, nor had I fact-checked among the coke-snorting glitterati. And these narratives by male writers seemed to require complicity with their larger-than-life protagonists. Then came Hempel collection. As with Lorrie Moore, [her stories] were urbane, witty, somber, dazzling, oblique, and quietly, desperately heroic."
I sympathize with Moody's wan sympathy for male writers of the time. I didn't know that I wasn't relating to the authors I was reading until I found Moore in my early 20s. I don't know anyone as smart, funny, or hapless as a Moore character, nor am I that way myself, but there was something so immediately recognizable about these people, something recognizable about the life they were living and how they were living it. She was able to render "the jam" beautiful, profound, and hilarious. There is not much "plot" in a Moore story, but situations and complications, and how compelling the story is comes from the character's response or interpretation.
In thirty years of writing, Moore hasn't made many great leaps. Self-Help is somewhat reliant on the second person trope, and her sophomore book, the novel-in-stories Anagrams, maybe missed the mark a bit in it's attempt to fully explore the relationship of Gerard and Benna by shifting the details of their lives like anagrams, but ultimately is a strong collection when you unbraid it from it's frame. The 1990s were, for Moore, strong and consistent. Two or three of the best books you will ever read came out of this time: Like Life is Moore mastering the short story; Who Will Run The Frog Hospital is Moore perfectly exploring female friendship at novella-length with a prose and structure; Birds of America feels like a victory lap, where Moore not only proves herself as an importantly unique, tuned writer, but finally hits her stride as a collector of her fiction. Birds of America feels gigantic, feels more like a finely curated anthology, and it's confounding that that much life, that much nuance of experience can come from one person.
Let's return to the aforementioned "People Like That Are The Only People Here," and the Mother who found a blood clot in her Baby's diaper. Again, as much as I want to prove to you how wonderful a writer Moore is, I also just love writing out her writing:
"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 the 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!'). She had, moreover, on three occasions used the formula bottles as flower vases. She twice let the Baby's ears get fudgy with wax. A few afternoons last month, at snacktime, she places a bowl of Cheerios on the floor for him to eat, like a dog. She let him play with the Dustbuster. Just once, before he was born, she said, 'Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.' A joke for God's sake! After he was born, she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over and over again, like a novel by Mrs. Camus. Another joke! These jokes will kill you! She had told too often, and with too much enjoyment, the story of how the Baby had said 'Hi' to his high chair, waved at the lake waves, shouted 'Goody-goody-goody' in what seemed to be a Russian accent, pointed to his eyes and said 'Ice.' And all that nonsensical baby talk: wasn't it a stitch? 'Canonical babbling,' the language experts called it. He recounted whole stories in it--totally made up, she could tell. He embroidered; he fished; he exaggerated. What a card! To friends, she spoke of his eating habits (carrots yes, tuna no). She mentioned, too much, his sidesplitting giggle. Did she have to be so boring? Did she have no consideration for others, for the intellectual demands and courtesies of human society? Would she not even attempt to be more interesting? It was a crime against the human mind not to even try.
"Now her baby, for all these reasons--lack of motherly gratitude, motherly judgement, motherly proportion--will be taken away."
Indeed, these jokes can kill you.
Moore's reputation was cemented with Birds; that thing may be one of the finest books of the century. Of course Moore can't help but go on to write in the shadow of that monument. She may never again write a story as good as "People Like That." But she doesn't have to. Stories that aren't as good as that one--don't forget--are still some of the best pieces of fiction being written right now.
Maybe Bark might seem ropey when compared to the burliness of Birds, and, often concerned with divorce and middle-age, there may be loss of vim and goofiness that sucked in so many early readers. After fifteen years, I think a lot of Moore fans got a bit mopey when they saw only eight stories. But I have two perspectives for you.
For one, if you're a Moore fan, settle down: these eight stories are great, contain the gravitas marbled with levitas, but there're also suggestions of branching (pun maybe intended), such as the "ghost story," "The Juniper Tree." Here we have classic Moore: "Every woman I knew here drank--daily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another. I was the only one of my friends--all of us academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or so we imagined it)--who hadn't had something terrible happen yet." The something terrible that does happen is the loss of a friend, the ghost of whom these friends visit, gin in tow, to say goodbye. There's also the common background--rare for a Moore collections--of both post-9/11 political strife/malaise. National and global agitation does not dominate the lives in Bark, but it is there like a refrigerator's hum. The "real world" is often absent from Moore's work, but here it's beginning to seep in, and it'll be interesting to see how Moore will use it further in the future.
Now, on the other hand, it's important to judge Bark as a new reader's introduction to the work of Lorrie Moore. One of my great sorrows as a reader is that I can never not know about my favourite authors; I can never get back that thrill of discovery. Reading Bark, I kept trying to imagine it was my first time reading Moore, and I found myself underlining lines and dogearring pages with the same fervor as I do with new authors. ("Hope is never false. Or it's always false." "'If dolphins tasted good,' he said, 'we wouldn't even know about their language.' That the intelligence of a thing could undermind your appetite for it. That yumminess obscured the mind of the yummy as well as the mind of the yummer. That deliciousness resulted in decapitation. That you could only understand something if you did not desire it." "You could lose someone a little bit but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.") I really can't believe how good Lorrie Moore is, and I'm jealous of those readers who are on the cusp of being exposed to thirty years of some of the best writing ever by a writer who can, time after time, break your heart, but put it back together slightly better than she found it.
It's no joke. I'm so serious about this.
Andrew Hood is the author of the short story collections Pardon Our Monsters and The Cloaca.