A CHARACTER tells of a woman who receives a poor prognosis. She insists on a second opinion. “You're ugly, too," her doctor opines. Another character's lesion is pre-cancerous: “‘Precancer? […] Isn't that … like life?'" Her doctor takes her by the arm: “It is like life, but it's not necessarily life."
With aphorisms, quips and wordplay, Lorrie Moore's characters are doomed to futilely deflect harmful information and emotional undercurrents. Despite their feeble jokes, one still wants to inhabit the shared consciousness of these strange bird-like creatures, many of whom have been exiled from New York to provincial cities in the Midwest. The concerns and voice of Sidra, a B-grade actor in Willing (from Birds of America), are also those of Agnes, Abby, Cal, Olena, Therese, Gerard, Benna, Berie, and so on. In a nutshell:
Her life had taken on the shape of a terrible mistake. She hadn't been given the proper tools to make a real life with, she decided, that was it. She'd been given a can of gravy and a hairbrush and told, “There you go." She'd stood for years, blinking and befuddled, brushing the can with a brush.
Moore became renowned in her late twenties for bittersweet, charming and witty stories written for a Master of Fine Arts at Cornell. The stories have subsequently become fixtures in writing programme curricula. For her debut collection, Self-Help (1985), she predominantly used the second person, a playful take on the self-help genre. This form creates intimacy between writer and reader and distance between the writer and her material.
The follow-up collection, Like Life (1990), and the novels Anagrams (1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) trace the life trajectories of Moore’s coevals, and characters' concerns shift as they age with her. Her tone strikes a delicate balance between humour and poignancy and evokes a sense of companionship. Twenty-eight years after I started reading Moore with ardour and pleasure at the age of 19, a phrase, cadence or the atmosphere of this early work still often seeps in.
In Birds of America (1998), her most ambitious, wide-ranging and successful collection, she is quick to remind us that Audubon had shot the birds he painted for his eponymous encyclopaedia. The poignant highlight from Birds and Moore's most canonised story, People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk, deals with a cancer scare involving a toddler. The Husband encourages the Mother to take notes for a piece that will pay for the Baby's treatment. She resists, since she is a writer of “the careful ironies of daydream […] the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built. But this? Our baby with cancer? I'm sorry. My stop was two stops back."
The New Yorker carried this story in advance and its layout and author photo heightened the impression that the material was autobiographical. The presentation, without Moore's approval, challenged the boundary between fact and fiction even further and turned up the heat of a text that concludes with a raging: “There are the notes. Now where is the money?"
Moore's literary output in the 21st century has been sparse but is more voluminous than the national average, as Marilynne Robinson quips about her own literary legacy. Before the recent I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, she published a novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009), and a collection, Bark (2014). Her stories and essays were collected in 2008 and 2018, respectively.
To deflate an attempt to trace a linear line that may evoke biographical and “artistic growth pronouncements" (of which I'm guilty here — sorry, Lorrie), the stories in The Collected Stories are not arranged chronologically but alphabetically by title. Reading her oeuvre as an abecedary would lead to a reading experience vastly different from mine.
In Moore's work of the current century, anger about Iraq and Abu Ghraib seeps into the middle-class Midwest milieu and her tone is much sharper. The aphorisms and jokes often falter and seem isolated from characters' emotional states.
Even though I don’t read Moore for plot, narrative twists that jump the shark or are paint-by-numbers are irksome. An image from the later work is telling: Zora, a deranged paediatrician in Debarking (from Bark), who rages at not being allowed to assault her patients, tries to qualify her nervous breakdown with air quotes but her fingers “inadvertently sprang up and her hands clawed the air".
Yes, Moore's work of this century has disappointed me and outsripped earlier joys. But is my disappointment also due to not keeping up with how she wants to be read? Was I too partial to her schtick? I suspect she no longer wants to charm readers or provide a sense of companionship. She now has different intentions with her art.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is presented as a novel, is only 200 pages, contains something old and something new, and is schizophrenic in tone with three alternating incongruent storylines. The book opens with a riff on the 19th-century epistolary novel and a counterfactual incident from the aftermath of the American Civil War. The call of a nightjar in the first paragraph and a fugitive no-goodnik’s joke (“Why Miss Libby, an Elizabeth should learn Elizabethan") reveal Moore's hand in the mimicry.
Suddenly, it's 2016. American public life is unravelling but a Trump victory is still inconceivable. In the book's most straightforward part, reminiscent of early Moore, Finn, a teacher from the Midwest, visits his brother Max in a hospice in New York where “[t]he black schizophrenics huddled under cardboard on sidewalks against the facades of skyscrapers. Pieces of paper rolled into jars with scrawled writing facing outward: I am not homeless. This is my home."
Then Finn receives the news that his ex, Lily, a therapy clown, has died by drowning herself in a shower. He finds her “death adjacent" in a cemetery, with a grapefruit, wearing her floppy shoes (a previous suicide attempt involved their shoelaces). A slapstick and sorrowful road trip of sex, conversation, leave-taking, personal grooming and bodily decay ensues, taking up most of the narrative time. Moore describes Lily's physical decomposition with exuberance: “She was now sheer as the rice wrap on a spring roll, the bean sprouts and chopped purple cabbage visible inside her."
Symbols, motifs and metaphors (the cosmos, birds, Shakespeare, homelessness) work hard — perhaps to create a semblance of cohesion between storylines. Sometimes one wishes that Max had also given the writer one of his T-shirts with his funeral wish, “There should be no Unwanted Symbolism".
But that is perhaps the point. I Am Homeless rages against elegy and loss. It is not so much about sadness and loss but rather inhabits the chaos, disintegration and bewilderment of loss. Sorry, Lorrie — I think I understand now. Or maybe not.
Wie, wat, waar en hoeveel? I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is deur Lorrie Moore is deur Faber & Faber uitgegee en kos R469 by Exclusive Books.
♦ VWB ♦
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