The Element of Surprise

Collected Stories

by Lorrie Moore, with an introduction by Lauren Groff
Everyman’s Library, 748 pp., $27.00
Lorrie Moore
Lorrie Moore; illustration by Hope Gangloff

In a 2001 interview in The Paris Review, Lorrie Moore mused that the story is perhaps a “more magical” form than the novel. “A novel is a job,” she said, “but a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.” Moore’s point of view is the writer’s, but it’s true for the reader, too. Her hefty Collected Stories is a very long weekend indeed, a month of Sundays, mad and lovely.

Maybe too much is made of Moore the comedienne. She does love a one-liner—“Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally”—but I think an overemphasis on her wit reveals our (low) expectations that short fiction be solemn and nutritious. The story quoted above, “Real Estate,” has plenty of laughter, including an actual soliloquy in the form of laughs, the syllable “Ha!” repeated a little too often—first it’s sardonic, then absurd. When The New Yorker published it, in 1998, the magazine rendered these as a single paragraph, fifty-nine exclamations, first mirthless, then manic. In this volume, the “Ha!” goes on much longer—982 times. We all know what happens when you laugh too hard: you cry.

Moore published her first collection of stories, Self-Help, in 1985, when she was twenty-eight, but the Collected Stories are presented in alphabetical order. Her explanation:

Attempting to glimpse the growth of an author through chronological arrangement is, in my opinion, often a fool’s errand and even if possible and successful is somewhat embarrassing to the young author who remains alive within the older one.

If not disingenuous, this still feels like a feint; I don’t know if I can trace the artist’s development, but I know how to begin at the beginning.

“Go Like This,” dated 1980, probably counts as Moore’s juvenilia—she finished her MFA in 1982, at Cornell. You still encounter this kind of genteel realism in MFA workshops: a main character who is herself a writer (here, of children’s books), comfortably ensconced in the domestic (husband, daughter, interesting friends), save one big problem (cancer). This somber setup betrays Moore’s youth; in time she would hone a trick for writing about mortality—demoting it from subject to subtext.

Rarer in the graduate seminar, though, is her self-possession. Self-help? She hardly seems to need it. Moore at twenty-three is already adept with the tools that would define her work: the sneaky sentence, the idiosyncratic detail, the pun or one-liner. Maybe what it amounts to is voice:

When I told Elliott of my suicide we were in the kitchen bitching at each other about the grease in the oven. Funny, I had planned on telling him a little differently than No one has fucking cleaned this shithole in weeks Elliott I have something to tell you. It wasn’t exactly Edna Millay.

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