Turn of the Millennium Short Fiction: Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore

lorrie moore, self-help, fiction, short stories

Purchased at Pegasus Books, Berkeley. Vintage Books 2007.

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.

lorrie moore, self-help, fiction, short stories

Lorrie Moore in a pretty author picture.

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.

Advertisements

3 responses

  1. I’ve been eyeing this book for some time: amazingly, it managed to wrest a positive review from Michiko Kakutani. Thanks to your review, I’ll put it on my reading list.

    I’m struck by your account of the experience of reading this book, and in particular the unmediated way in which you identified with the protagonist:

    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. …

    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.

    Interestingly, Vladimir Nabokov took almost precisely the opposite view of the reader’s function:

    There are, however, at least two varieties of imagination in the reader’s case. So let us see which one of the two is the right one to use in reading a book. First, there is the comparatively lowly kind which turns for support to the simple emotions and is of a definitely personal nature. (There are various subvarieties here, in this first section of emotional reading.) A situation in a book is intensely felt because it reminds us of something that happened to us or to someone we know or knew. Or, again, a reader treasures a book mainly because it evokes a country, a landscape, a mode of living which he nostalgically recalls as part of his own past. Or, and this is the worst thing a reader can do, he identifies himself with a character in the book. This lowly variety is not the kind of imagination I would like readers to use.

    I’m curious to know what you make of Nabokov’s dictum here.

  2. Nice post! I remember you telling me about these stories a while ago, and your review has just compelled me to read them for myself. I’ve often joked about writing or speaking in the second person because of the inherent silliness, but the format of a work of self help would of course be the appropriate way to do it!

    It’s always a special experience when you (the reader) identify with a story in any way. We’ve all read too many novels and short stories where we’ve felt attached to the characters in some way to feel any different about it. Nabokov’s quote sounds very much like I would have expected it to. My experience with Nabokov has been that his work is beautifully written, but has lacked that special something that drew me in and captivated me.

    Nabokov was an amazing writer for sure, but just because he wrote something down once (or maybe it was transcribed?) does not make it the law of literature. If anything, it only offers the best way to experience his own works, and completely falls short of the goals of other brilliant authors.

  3. Obviously I love Nabokov, but I disagree with his rather indelicate assertion that there is only one good way to enjoy literature. (In fact, I’m pretty sure I disagree with a lot of what he says. What kind of life allows you to identify with an idol on every single issue?) To say that I “mainly” treasure Moore’s work because of the identification is to misrepresent what I said. Rather the identification with some of the characters and their problems left an impression on me, in addition to the fact that I found her to be a fantastic writer with great powers of observation.

    Also, to imply that when authors strike a chord in people through some kind of identification with the protagonist– not, say, ’cause the protagonist likes candy or lives in a farm, but because the protagonist is struggling with relationships or family issues or death– it is a “lowly” phenomenon is, to my mind, ridiculous. This is human nature as it pertains to the novel. Art has always been wrapped up with emotion. I sincerely feel sorry for people who haven’t had a similar experience.

    It makes sense that Nabokov would say this, because a lot of his protagonists are fairly unrelatable, Humbert Humbert perhaps most of all, but I appreciate and even love his works because of the beauty of his language and his storytelling. I also love Kurt Vonnegut and JD Salinger when they write sentences that sometimes sound like a 5-year-old came up with. I don’t often read modern fiction, but when I do I’m sometimes struck by the greater accessibility of the experiences. I love a lot of things and am not encumbered by essentialist understandings of what a good reading experience “should” be.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: