Voices in the Heartland

Lorrie Moore’s novels are remarkable for the number of linguistic detours they embark on. Off in the distance, a plot is likely hatching. But its unfolding will patiently have to wait until the characters—nearly all of whom have a penchant for wordplay—have explored the far-flung implications of the language that entertains and envelops them.

The wordplay typically appears early. On the second page of her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, a husband and wife share an amiable confusion over gâteau and gato; fallen arches turns into fallen archness; and arrondissement becomes aggrandizement. In Anagrams—her first novel and my favorite—the first few pages offer us O what a beautiful mourning and milk ducts/Milk Duds/ducks. In the opening of her new, third novel, A Gate at the Stairs, we encounter the phrase to gild the lily-livered, a pun on hanky panky, and a Chinese restaurant owner hospitably calling out, “Take your tie! No lush!”

To call this sort of linguistic play “punning” is perhaps a bit limiting. Probably it would be more accurate to say that Moore’s fiction proceeds by “near misses”: misapprehensions, mishearings, misspeakings, misidentifications, misunderstandings. An innocent utterance floats out into the atmosphere, which turns out to be a hazardous and transformative medium, everywhere subject to misinterpretation, either deliberate or inadvertent:

Christmas music from the radio downstairs, playing through all twelve days of it, wafted up: “Rejoice, rejoice,” sounded like “Read Joyce, read Joyce”—and so I did, getting a head start on my Brit Lit.

Or:

Oh, say…” She stopped not for consideration but for nerve, it seemed, and dragging out the words like that made them sound like the beginning of the national anthem.

Or:

Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told. Would that be good or bad? And what about the discontents?

Or:

My Intro to Sufism was taught by a self-described “Ottomanist,” which made me think of someone lying back with his feet up on a padded footstool, with a remote, in autumn.

Or:

I like a wine that’s oaky.”

Oaky and…just a little dokey,” I said.

Dialogue in Moore’s novels recalls the exchange in P.G. Wodehouse where one man on a train asks if this stop is Wembley, the second replies that, no, it’s Thursday, and the first answers, I am too—let’s go for a drink.

It’s rare in contemporary American fiction to meet a writer so preoccupied with this sort of linguistic dissonance. (Poets are another matter. Many poetic edifices—one thinks especially of John Berryman’s brilliant Dream Songs—have been erected on the assumption that our world is half-heard, half-misconstrued.) In Moore’s novels, as well as her three collections of short stories, characters rarely hear each other clearly. Certainly, the gulf that divides men and women is vast enough to produce all sorts of distortionary echoes.

As I carried Moore’s new novel around, I kept misremembering its title …

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