Confessions of Another Common Reader

Lorrie Moore: Opposites

May28

Great event at the shop last night. Lorrie Moore read the opening story from her Collected Stories – not as dramatic as Anne Enright, but still lovely to listen to. Great story about Daniel Handler winning an Ebay auction in aid of the First Amendment Project to have a character in her next published work named after him – The New Yorker agreed to it and a seedy Caribbean masseur named Dan Handler duly appeared.

May has been particularly insane, and my pre-event re-reading only managed to take in Self-Help and Birds of America. Like David Lodge, it’s really interesting to see how what I take away from it and what really grabs me has changed over the intervening ten years. Trying to understand what it is that is so special about how she writes, I come to the conclusion that it’s her contradictions.

Having read Birds of America pre-children, the paediatric oncology story chilled rather than engaged me on first reading; 3 babies later, I found it completely heartbreaking, intense, immediate. The naming of the characters (Mother, Husband, Baby) has a peculiar effect, both distancing and grappling closer the reader at one and the same time. The way it recalls the language of children’s stories makes it especially nightmarish: there’s a particular book by Helen Cooper, The Baby Who Wouldn’t Go to Bed, in which the Mother and the Baby are the main characters. I’m sure Moore didn’t have this particular story in mind, but it’s a common device in picture books, and the ghost of those stories hangs over the events of this piece.

In response to an audience question, she spoke at the event about the opposition of comedy and tragedy in her work; in her view, her characters’ discovery of humour in bleak situations captures a common impulse to recovery – “not immediately”, but later; a need to laugh about tragedy in order to begin to heal.

Although sometimes criticised as aphoristic and overly jokey because of her love of wordplay, Moore uses cliché very deliberately in characterisation. Again challenged about her character’s “ready wit”, she argued that humour was a kind of tragedy for these characters. They take refuge in their snappy comebacks and puns, and there is something sad and concealing in the ways in which they deflect attention away from the real issues in the way they use language.

But when she’s not deploying cliché as an aid to characterisation, Moore’s work is astounding in its apparently effortless ability to find new ways of communicating old feelings. She spoke a little about how she feels the short story format in particular lends itself to this kind of writing: discovering something in a very intense manner, staying with its characters for a defined period of time in order to shine a particular kind of spotlight on them. (Although it really made me want to send her a copy of Jon McGregor’s If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things – a novel with not a word wasted that still met all her criteria for a short story). Her metaphors are breathtakingly inventive yet never read as if they have been painfully constructed or sculpted, avoiding the frenzied overwriting that can be exhausting in other very imagistic novels. She conveys the deep essence of experience without needing to lay out the rather more well-worn pebbles that I always seem to pick up.

The first question she was asked (after I’d asked about Dan Handler!) was about where her imagination came from. Everyone has it, was the reply; it’s just that writers set it down and get all the credit. Carry a notebook. Notice things. Take notes.

So I’m trying…. it’s painful, but it’s a start.

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