The Red and Spinning Barn
Lorrie Moore’s writing is strange and wonderful. It should be among anyone’s top reasons for being alive.
It’s so great, I’m going to quote it at length, just for the pleasure of typing it with my own fingers… I’m going to provide little or no context for the quotes, because each is like a tiny, complete masterpiece, a little jewel.
Here’s an example:
Have you ever watched how sparrows can kill the offspring of others? Baby wrens, for instance? I’ve been watching out the windows. Did you know that sparrows can swoop into the wrens’ house and pluck out the fledglings from their nest and hurl them to the ground with a force you would not think possible for a sparrow? Even a homicidal sparrow?
And here’s another:
...She seldom saw him anymore when he got up in the morning and left for his office. And when he came home from work, he would disappear down the basement stairs. Nightly, in the anxious conjugal dusk that was now their only life together, after the kids went to bed, the house would fill up with fumes. When she called down to him about this he never answered. He seemed to have turned into some sort of space alien. Of course later she would understand that all this meant he was involved with another woman, but at the time, protecting her own vanity and sanity, she was working with two hypotheses only: brain tumor or space alien.
“Marriage is one long conversation,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was forty-four, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really get to be.
And here’s a verse from a song that one of Moore’s characters writes. The character is an unsuccessful lyricist, in love with a chef:
Here I am your unshaved fennel
Here I am your unshaved cheese
All I want to know? is when I’ll—
feel your blade against my knees
All right. Now that I’ve got all that out of my system, I can tell you a bit about Moore.
Back in college, I borrowed an anthology of stories from my library. The editor was John Updike, and what he claimed to have done was to have selected the greatest American stories of the 20th century. In his introduction, he praised one writer, Lorrie Moore, for her “gallows humor”. This striking phrase led me to Moore’s heavily anthologized early masterpiece, “You’re Ugly, Too”, a story about a young woman with cancer who goes on a trip to see her younger sister. There isn’t a silver lining in the story. Meaningful bonding does not occur. A bittersweet hymn to life’s redemptive beauty is not to be found in the works of Lorrie Moore.
Instead, in the story, the woman feels vaguely annoyed by her younger sister, reflects on her own bizarre dating history, and eventually (half-jokingly) tries to push a flirtatious young man off of a high-rise balcony.
The title of the story comes from a well-known joke. Once, there was a woman who disliked the diagnosis she had received from her doctor. She asked, “Can I get a second opinion?” And the doctor said, “Sure. You’re ugly, too.”
Later in her career, Moore produced a story that rocked the world. Okay, maybe it did not rock the world. At the very least, it dazzled the dozens of men and women who, at that time, had subscriptions to The New Yorker. The story was called “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, and it was inspired, in part, by Moore’s adopted infant’s battle with a life-threatening illness.
A mother discovers a small, disturbing deposit in her baby’s diaper, a mound “like a mouse’s heart”. (Surely, that’s one of the most chilling similes in our nation’s literary history.) Soon, it becomes clear that the baby may not live. The mother flays herself. If only she hadn’t, when tired, served the baby a bowl of Cheerios on the kitchen floor! If only she hadn’t joked, “Happy? No. We just want him to be rich.” If only she hadn’t blathered on and on to strangers about how in love she was with her child! For these minor sins, she believes, she must now pay with the life of her baby.
The mother bargains with God. (She has never been one for following rules, so she skips right past the other alleged stages of grief and goes right for bargaining.)
The mother sits in hospital waiting rooms and collects stories from strangers whose problems are even greater than her own. Everywhere: sick and dying children. Everywhere: semi-competent doctors and nurses, with problematic bedside manners.
Eventually, she reaches her limit of tolerance. A stranger has presumed to remark to her on “the collateral beauty” in the pediatric oncology wing. The mother thinks, Good God, collateral beauty? There is no beauty in a hospital wing where small children repeatedly die.
The story ends with a slap in the face. The narrator, urged to write down her calamitous hospital experience, so that she might earn some extra cash, drops her piles of paper on a desk. “There are the notes,” she says. “Now where is the money?”
If Moore’s career had ended right after “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, her place among America’s greatest writers would have already been assured. Instead, she has continued to break new ground. She recently produced a weird and thrilling novel, A Gate at the Stairs, and now she’s back with a new story collection, Bark.
This is a slim collection, with just eight stories that Moore has published over the past several years. (She often talks about how slowly she works. She has been a busy, academia-based, single mom for quite a while. Her son did in fact survive his early illness, and now he’s 19 and living in Wisconsin. Moore’s former husband is a divorce lawyer. In interviews, she has intimated that the former husband is “a professional asshole”.)
Moore resists the current trend of publishing a story collection with a central theme or gimmick. (Think of Andrea Barrett’s Archangel, or of Joan Silber’s “Ring of Stories”.) Moore’s stories are simply the products of random bolts of inspiration over the past decade, give or take a few years.
Two of the more notable works in this volume are responses to classic pieces of literature. Moore’s “Wings” updates Henry James’s Wings of the Dove, and her devastating story “Referential” is clearly connected to Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols”. (It’s surprising to me that this kind of experiment doesn’t occur more often. The writer Amy Hempel has said that her stories almost always emerge as responses to other writers’ work. Why don’t more literary artists follow the leads of Hempel and Moore?)
Others among Moore’s new stories are in the classic “Lorrie Moore style”—stories in which average men and women contend with disastrous love affairs. One, “Debarking”, involves a divorced man who finds himself entwined with a possibly crazy woman. Another, the astonishing “Thank You for Having Me”, tells the tale of an aging mom who attends her Brazilian employee’s wedding.
“Thank You for Having Me” is among my favorite of Moore’s works. Very little seems to happen. The narrator mourns the death of Michael Jackson and thinks, “At least Whitney Houston is still alive!” (Do you see what Updike meant when he used the phrase “gallows humor”?) Later, the narrator discloses that she has a strategy for silencing her bitchy adolescent daughter’s angry tirades. The narrator simply begins to undress. The sight of flabby, wrinkled, un-youthful skin eventually stuns the adolescent daughter into momentary muteness. “Only nakedness was silencing,” thinks the narrator, “but at least something was.”
The story goes on like this for a while, seeming to follow no fixed path, just like life. At the very end, the narrator finds herself dancing with the creepy, old ex-father-in-the-law of the Brazilian bride. A barn is nearby; the narrator and her dance partner are outdoors, in the country. “I needed my breath for dancing,” Moore writes, “so I tried not to laugh. Instead I fixed my face into a grin, and, ah, for a second the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn.”
The weakest two stories in the collection wrestle at length with current events. In one, a man finds himself loathing a woman who happens to have survived severe burns in the 2001 attack on the Pentagon. In the other, a woman talks for a while with a man who is tangentially involved with the catastrophe at Abu Ghraib. It’s not that I find these stories boring; it’s simply that they don’t take my breath away. For Moore, a failure to be breath-taking is a somewhat rare occurrence.
This brings me to my final Moore-related rant. One of Moore’s most consistent champions has been the terrifying book critic Michiko Kakutani, of The New York Times. Kakutani has harsh words for many, many great works of literature, including Philip Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and Alice Munro’s Dear Life.
Now, it seems that Kakutani may have fully lost her mind. Though, in the past, Kakutani has rightly praised Moore’s abundant gifts, she has recently launched a rather puzzling attack on Bark. (The attack is called “‘Bark,’ Lorrie Moore’s Meditations on Time”, and it was published on 19 February 2014. You should read it, if only to remind yourself that Kakutani is sometimes wrong.)
Anyway, there are at least two blatant errors in the Kakutani article. One is that Kakutani attributes a character’s reaction to the bombing of Baghdad to “a terminal case of self-absorption”. The character has pulled off the road to observe his dropped jaw, simply because he is unsure his jaw has ever literally dropped before. This seems to me to be a healthy and reasonable reaction to the news of the US attack on Baghdad. In fact, the opposite reaction—a failure to drop one’s jaw—actually seems to me to be far more clearly indicative of a state that could be called “self-absorbed”.
The other Kakutani error that galls me is this: She complains that one of Moore’s heterosexual male narrators has an overly lyrical observation about a woman’s garden. Has Kakutani not heard of the device called free indirect discourse? It seemed to me, in the moment she described, Moore’s own consciousness was melding with her character’s—so that Moore stepped in and provided words that helped to illuminate her semi-articulate protagonist’s state of mind. People have been using free indirect discourse for many decades. When Nabokov describes a nutcracker as a “leggy thing”, he is using the word “leggy” even while inhabiting the thoughts of a less-than-lyrical man. (This observation about Nabokov comes from James Wood’s book, How Fiction Works (Farrar, Straus, 2008)).
So: Snap out of it, Kakutani. You owe Moore an apology.
And, to the rest of America: Run out and get your copies of Bark today.