It took a couple of friends to bring Ms. Moore to my attention, and I’m extremely glad they did. Recognizing her name in the fiction stacks at Pegasus in downtown Berkeley, I began to thumb through the first short story in Self Help, called “How to Be an Other Woman,” and was instantly awed and amazed—the entire story was written in the second person! And the second person command form, no less! As in a series of narrative instructions. “Self help,” it seems, is a designation semi-literal.
Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie. First, stand in front of Florsheim’s Fifty-seventh Street window, press your face close to the glass, watch the fake velvet Hummels inside revolving around the wing tips; some white shoes, like your father wears, are propped up with garlands on a small mound of chemical snow. All the stores have closed. You can see your breath on the glass. Draw a peace sign. You are waiting for a bus…
“What weather,” you hear him sigh, faintly British or uppercrust Delaware.
Glance up. Say: “It is fit for neither beast nor vegetable.”
It sounds dumb. It makes no sense.
But it is how you meet. (3-4)
Many of the stories take on this second-person perspective, but it’s not merely novelty. Somehow, the subject “you,” though ostensibly coming from someone else’s experience, draws the reader deeper into the story—its repeated insistence in all its forms (“you,” “your,” “yours”) burying in your subconscious and multiplying the impact. Throughout the collection, Moore makes small, quietly devastating observations about modern women’s daily lives, and whether it was the format or the content or the perspective or a combination, I can personally attest that at least a few stories hit very close to home for me, more than almost any work I can remember reading in recent years. My most lasting impression was lying in bed late at night (when I read), just being, well, quietly devastated at 1 AM. And then, my mind busy with parsing out the emotion of what I just read, trying to go to sleep.
I suppose this is part of the power of contemporary, realistic fiction. I’m so used to working my way through the mid-century classics, with occasional visits to the nineteenth century, that striking upon a more modern outlook—even one from back in 1985 (only a couple references to obsolete things like TV Guides draw attention to this fact)—is like reopening my eyes to the power of fiction to powerfully affect you. It’s not that I don’t relate to the characters in earlier works. In particular, though shrouded in strange customs and language, I empathize strongly with many of Jane Austen’s heroines, Elizabeth, Eleanor, Marianne.
But perhaps that’s just it. Without the shroud of strange customs and language, the decades of historical difference—instead, with a completely familiar idiom in a completely familiar universe with completely and specifically familiar problems—it’s all so immediately, entirely relatable. There’s nothing standing between you and absolute identification with the protagonist, provided of course the writing does its job.
And Lorrie Moore is a particularly gifted writer. Dysfunctional relationships in all of their mundane and undramatic glory are her specialty, mostly romantic relationships and parent-child relationships.
In “Go Like This,” a woman who rationally plans to commit suicide before her cancer takes over continues to face communication issues with her husband, who never quite looks sad and who she worries will take up with a female friend once she’s gone. In “How,” a woman agonizes over how to leave a man who loves her too much, who insists on reading the same books that she does. In “What Is Seized,” a woman observes the tragedy of her parents’ marriage, with the opening line, “My mother married a cold man.” As her mother approaches death, she muses:
“You reach a point 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.” (44)
The stories are beautiful but not overwrought, emotional but not weepy. The author strikes that ideal balance between keeping the reader at a distance and going for the easy shots (like, I don’t know… dead puppies, 9/11 specials, Steven Spielberg trailers). It’s nothing so dramatic. No, her stories brilliantly hang in the balance, divulging just enough detail, provoking just enough empathy, to, just, you know, quietly devastate you. I’m writing a Lorrie Moore letter of recommendation, and I give her my highest.