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.
Liz, the story’s narrator, intends to kill herself rather than wage a losing battle against cancer. Moore is drawn to the less obvious pathos—the narrator feigning sleep while her husband masturbates—but the whole endeavor teeters near the mawkish. The writer is trying to imagine maternity when her frame of reference is still childhood, trying to summon the end of a life while still at the start of her own.
Here and in the rest of her work, Moore isn’t simply performing black humor, underlining what is horrific about the world. Nor is she trying to disorient, elicit a befuddled chuckle as Barthelme might. It is a laugh in good faith, an attempt to wrest some joy from an unfunny universe. That’s part of why reading Moore is a pleasure—there’s never a worry that the reader might be the butt of the joke. And in this early story she is already gutsy enough to dispatch her protagonist. Liz ingests enough Seconal to kill herself, and then the disciplined sentences yield to stream of consciousness: “God, there’s no music, no trumpet here, it is fast, and there’s no sound at all, just this white heat of July going on and on, going on like this.”
The technical feat of Moore’s earliest stories is language: the efficacy of tart observation as exposition, dialogue that reads as people wish they spoke, the unpredictable deployment of the second person. This last, a strategy used in several of the early stories in Self-Help, might read as an apostrophe to a specific character—a receptionist sleeping with a married man, a girl watching television with her mother, an aspiring writer. But the reader understands it as intimacy (the writer talking to herself) or incrimination (the writer talking to us). The effect is so casual you scarcely notice that it is an act of authorial control, albeit one different from the cool distillation of contemporaneous stories by Amy Hempel or Jayne Anne Phillips.
The second person is coupled with a formal experiment in “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),” organized in discrete paragraphs so that a gesture toward theme (these are only notes) supplants plot. That voice again:
Do not resent her. Think about the situation, for instance, when you take the last trash bag from its box: you must throw out the box by putting it in that very trash bag. What was once contained, now must contain.
This isn’t a scene, yet it is somehow so easy to see, with the second person abetting that switcheroo of character and reader.
This business of trash bags is philosophy, and a little silly. Moore might give her characters wonderful things to say (“An opera should be like contraception: about sex, not children”) but knows our inner monologues to be small, illogical, human. We’re all panicking, and trying to think straight. This is so distinct from the polished near-poetry of Hempel or Phillips, or the disciplined constructions of Joyce Carol Oates or Alice Munro, who defined the medium in that moment of the early 1980s. The wry jokiness in Self-Help heralded a more complicated treatment of the domestic, a rendering of womanhood as thorny and even unpleasant, but I imagine that at the time the book also felt like a provocation. As Moore herself helpfully describes her cancer-ridden protagonist, “Something uncouth: a fart in the elevator.”
The reader is implicated by that welcoming if still discomfiting second person. The stories collected in Self-Help almost require the reader’s participation. A true prodigy, though, Moore understood that “you,” however well it served her, might easily sound foreboding, or strained, or false. She left it behind, but it’s a measure of her great influence that it was taken up by students. For years, apprentice writers tinkered with that “you”—pity those workshop teachers—supplanted only when George Saunders published Pastoralia and ambitious undergraduates started mucking about with magic. Self-Help is now older than Moore was when it was published; its stories continue to feel surprising.
That second-person cast off, Moore continued to explore. Her interest remained domesticity’s disappointments. In “Places to Look for Your Mind,” collected in Like Life (1990), Moore again inhabits the perspective of parent instead of child: a New Jersey couple play host to an acquaintance of their college-age daughter, and his stay makes them think of their own estranged son. (“The police said drugs.”) But the thirty-year-old Moore misunderstands what it will be to be fifty-one. Instead of the tragicomedy of midlife crisis, she bestows on her main character, Millie, utter despair: she’s adrift, without meaningful work, consumed by the crisis of the environment but unable to do more than diligently sort her recycling. The whole feels like melodrama, the story a rehearsal for better stories yet to come. Still, Moore lands a punch in its last moment, husband telling wife, “You are my only friend.” In her best stories, it’s hard to tell if the ending is happy or sad.
The collection’s title story is also, at bottom, a domestic one, though it pushes outside realism into dystopia: “That year was the first that it became illegal—for those who lived in apartments or houses—not to have a television.” I don’t think the speculative mode suits her, or perhaps it’s that she doesn’t need it. All fiction is invention, and Moore’s stories can have their outlandish moments, but she mostly errs on the side of verisimilitude—the better to show people as they really are. Her stories are animated by external pressures—illness, heartbreak, parenthood, but also political feeling, whether Millie’s concern for the planet or other characters’ worries about the Balkan War or, later, the George W. Bush presidency—but the idea is to give us the world via the individual response to it. (I don’t know whether I’ll be able to handle her stories of the Trump era, but I still hope they’re in the offing.)
Like Life’s “The Jewish Hunter” shows what Moore is able to accomplish within the confines of realism. Odette is a visiting poet (one of many itinerant artists in Moore’s oeuvre) in a small town. A friend sets her up with a local: “His voice was slow with prairie, thick with Great Lakes.” They bond over late-night viewings of a Holocaust documentary. He tells her, eventually, that that’s how he lost his own parents. If Moore cannot quite transform history into narrative device, the result is still moving. Odette decides to return to New York City, but is she talking about romance or life itself?
How could one live in it all? One had to build shelters. One had to make pockets and live inside them. She should live where there were trees. She should live where there were birds. No bird, no tree had ever made her unhappy.
A sense of political consciousness—a relationship to all of history—is an important aspect of Moore’s work, sometimes even hidden inside a gag. “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” a story collected in Birds of America (1998), features a woman distraught at the death of her cat. That said:
Her grief was for something larger, more appropriate—it was the impending death of her parents; it was the son she and Jack had never had (though wasn’t three-year-old Sofie cute as a zipper?); it was this whole Bosnia, Cambodia, Somalia, Dinkins, Giuliani, NAFTA thing.
The domestic is so often misunderstood as small, probably because its most noteworthy practitioners are women. But its realm is no different from that of the novel we call “social”: the small animates what is so big as to otherwise feel abstract. Here, Moore acknowledges and then dismisses the muddle of contemporary reality to tell a story about a woman and her pet:
A good cat had died—you had to begin there, not let your blood freeze over. If your heart turned away at this, it would turn away at something greater, then more and more until your heart stayed averted, immobile, your imagination redistributed away from the world and back only toward the bad maps of yourself, the sour pools of your own pulse, your own tiny, mean, and pointless wants.
But the cat is not the point. I hate cats, but I get it.
Moore’s four collections of stories have been interspersed with novels: Anagrams (1986), Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), and A Gate at the Stairs (2009). Is it cheating that her Collected Stories contains snippets from the novels?
Realist in its tone, Anagrams is nevertheless a slippery book. The protagonist is a singer; no, she’s an aerobics teacher; no, she’s an academic—the author keeps undoing her own work, reminding us that it’s all a fiction. It’s prismatic by design, so doesn’t cohere as we might expect a novel to. It’s a clever workaround for the first-time novelist: the structure relies on Moore’s demonstrated ability to write a killer story, then stitches a few of those together. The novel’s very point is that fiction is so often better than life.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? could more accurately be called a novella, an abbreviated tale of remembered girlhood friendship nestled inside the story of a fraying marriage. It’s all done with brio, from the first sentence—“In Paris we eat brains every night.” The narrator’s recollection of a friend of her youth, a girl from the other side of the tracks, is not unfamiliar, but the language is virtuosic, Moore at her best. The excerpt in this volume doesn’t hold together as a story (it needn’t, as it isn’t), nor does it disappoint: “The bad news of the world, like most bad news, has no place to go. You tack it to the bulletin-board part of your heart. You say, Look. You say, See. That is all.”
The excerpt from A Gate at the Stairs, appearing under the title “Childcare,” is less successful than the tastes of the other novels, perhaps because it is Moore’s most conventionally novelistic novel—three-hundred-plus pages of unsentimental education, a college student’s misadventures in George Bush’s America. It is a dark book reflecting what many believed to be a uniquely bitter time in this country’s politics (how young we were!). The narrator, Tassie, is an undergraduate who takes a job as a nanny for a couple who don’t yet have a child. They’re in the process of adopting, though we later learn that they once had a son, who died in a horrific accident.
This plays out against the international drama of September 11 and the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. The sentences are musical as always, but there’s an anger that’s truly unsettling. In the opening, excerpted here, Tassie’s employer tells her, “You may be too young to know this yet, but eventually you will look around and notice: Nazis always have the last laugh.” The book is unrelentingly grim, disappointed in politics but also in people. If it now seems prophetic, that doesn’t make it any easier to read. Still, almost anything that Moore might have done after Birds of America, her masterpiece (really an accretion of masterpieces), would be a let-down.
In her Paris Review interview, she says that the novel allows her to work in a more sustainable fashion, whereas the story has demands:
You have to be able to stay up all night. To read it all in one sitting and at some point see the whole thing through in a rush is part of the process. There’s urgency and wholeness in stories.
Moore is speaking as a craftsman, but that difference registers for the reader, too. The novels—even the slender Frog Hospital—grow unsteady, while the stories are sound. Hence a Collected Stories; this is Moore’s métier.
When The New Yorker published “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in 1997, it illustrated the story with a photograph of the author. This seemed to abet some collapse in the distance between fiction and fact. Maybe it was just the magazine acknowledging the significance of the work. Given the story’s particulars and its urgent tone, readers would probably have made that leap anyway. It is, the author has elsewhere confirmed, autobiographical—the story of a pediatric cancer diagnosis, informed by an experience Moore and her family endured.
There’s a tell in how Moore reduces characters to role (“the Mother,” “the Husband,” “the Baby,” “the Surgeon”); these simple nouns, like the second person in those early stories, offer the author a place to hide. The story opens with the discovery of a blood clot in the child’s diaper, his mother reasoning that he’s found menstrual discharge in the garbage and put it in his diaper. “Babies: they’re crazy! What can you do?”
The Mother is a writer by trade, so she cannot help but see this moment as a problem of language: “Baby and Chemo, she thinks; they should never even appear in the same sentence together, let alone the same life.” This being a story set in America, the parents worry, naturally, about money. The Husband urges his wife to “take notes,” not for the sake of art, but because they’ll have bills to pay. She demurs:
Sweetie, darling. I’m not that good. I can’t do this. I can do—what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet…. Our baby with cancer? I’m sorry. My stop was two stations back.
This story contains action, plot, dialogue, character, and scene, but you notice only voice, and it’s almost literal, a hot breath in the ear. The child is diagnosed and admitted for surgery. His parents come to know some of the other families of sick children. “All these nice people with their brave stories,” the Husband tells the Mother as they leave the hospital, their son somehow spared. “Don’t you feel consoled, knowing we’re all in the same boat, that we’re all in this together?”
Moore knows the scenario could be sentimental; she would never give in to that. “But who on earth would want to be in this boat? the Mother thinks. This boat is a nightmare boat.” Maybe the story has an analogy in the way chefs gauge one another’s ability by their preparations of a humble omelet. “People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a perfect expression of Moore’s longstanding preoccupations—mortality, family, art—and it seems so simple, so straightforward. But the writer is still pushing herself, stepping outside the story’s conventions to slip into first person in the final two lines, a pirouette worthy of Nabokov: “There are the notes. Now where is the money?”
“People” was collected in Birds of America a year later; it was, in retrospect, a fertile moment for the American short story. In 2000 the Pulitzer went to Jhumpa Lahiri, for Interpreter of Maladies. (Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories was a finalist.) Lahiri’s capable tales of Indian immigrants in America don’t really presage the more complex work she’d go on to, but the Pulitzer is not given for potential. Maybe the literary short story in this country has always been about middle-class discontent. Lahiri’s achievement was in her strategy (the middle-class discontent of brown people); Moore’s is in her sensibility.
The latter is more remarkable, or more enduring. Much of what Birds of America holds—death, divorce, dismay—is familiar, but two decades on, the stories continue to surprise: odd and electric, simply because of how they’re told. A Collected Stories might seem valedictory, but I hope it is not. I think it nearer a correction of the record, more lasting than the Pulitzer.
The characters in Birds of America include a faded actress living in a cheap motel, a couple struggling stoically through infertility, and a woman who drops a friend’s baby, killing it. You’d hardly guess, from this synopsis, the book’s fundamental optimism. “Terrific Mother” tells the story of the woman who dropped the baby. She goes abroad with a husband she barely knows, in search of deliverance:
She turned, and for a moment it seemed they were all there in Martin’s eyes, all the absolving dead in residence in his face, the angel of the dead baby shining like a blazing creature, and she went to him, to protect and encircle him, seeking the heart’s best trick, oh, terrific heart. “Please, forgive me,” she said.
And he whispered, “Of course. It is the only thing. Of course.”
In the decade that elapsed between Birds of America and A Gate at the Stairs, that premillennial optimism—we thought Al Gore would be president!—hardens. Grace no longer seems enough, or worth waiting for, or, indeed, the “only thing”: “I was once in a restaurant and saw Karl Rove sitting across the room,” the novel’s narrator tells us. “For five minutes I thought: I could take this steak knife and walk over there and change history. Right now.”
In Bark, Moore’s 2014 collection, the laughs are considerably less funny. In “Foes,” a man encounters a woman suspicious of Obama: “Your man Barama, my friend, would not even be in the running if he wasn’t black.” In “The Juniper Tree,” three women drop in on the ghost of a friend who has just died: “It’s been a terrible month. First the election, and now this.” In “Debarking,” a man is undone by the end of his marriage: “Divorce is a trauma, believe me, I know. Its pain is a national secret! But that’s not it. I can’t let go of love. I can’t live without love in my life.”
“Paper Losses,” one of Moore’s finest recent works, follows a couple, Kit and Rafe, through their divorce: “The summons took her by surprise. It came in the mail, addressed to her, and there it was, stapled to divorce papers. She’d been properly served. The bitch had been papered.” That “bitch” is harder than anything in the earlier stories. The writer sees the world differently now, and maybe with the wisdom of age, it’s more difficult to sustain optimism.
Impending divorce or no, the family goes for a Caribbean getaway, the inverse of a honeymoon. The final morning of the trip, they troop to the shore to watch a resort employee release some turtle hatchlings:
He took them over to the water’s edge and let them go, hours too late, to make their own way into the sea. And one by one a frigate bird swooped in, plucked them from the silver waves, and ate them for breakfast.
Moore never promised that art might console us; quite the opposite. In her greatest story, “Dance in America” (1993), a dance teacher is visiting an old friend, Cal, his wife, Simone, and their son, Eugene, who has cystic fibrosis. Cal tells her, “It’s wonderful to fund the arts. It’s wonderful; you’re wonderful. The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”
At the story’s conclusion the four characters dance, the profoundly ill child trying not to cough:
I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
“Dance in America” is brief; you’ve probably received e-mails that are longer. But why ask for more? It’s as capacious as a novel. This story reminds us that art is not enough, but it is all we have.