Literature, when I was young, was dead, white, and mostly male. It was unusual for even the nerdiest kids of my generation to know otherwise; in school, we’d been given Steinbeck, Shakespeare, Huxley, Hemingway, Thoreau, Stephen Crane, T.S. Eliot, Edgar Allen Poe, et cetera, with a few dips beyond the pale into Sylvia Plath or the Brontës, who—albeit also dead and white—shocked us all by daring to be female. Those of us who received on our birthdays a dutiful fistful of gift certificates to mall bookstores used them to stock up on the foundational texts, the Whitmans, Flauberts, and Henry Jameses of the world, until we felt more or less comfortable swimming in the shallows of the canon.
My second semester in college, I decided to take an introductory fiction-writing class in what I see now was a furious attempt to set off a bomb in the galleries of literature, where the white marble busts of dead male authors glared down at me from plinths in their endless rows. The day I picked up my course packet from the printers, I began to read it on my walk home, and though the afternoon was windy and cold and slippery with ice, I dawdled, slower and slower, until I had come to a full and frozen stop in the middle of the sidewalk.
At last, I gave up on dinner and studying, went to my room, and did not stop reading until I finished the whole packet in the middle of the night. When I looked up, I found that the doors of my mind had been blown wide open. Suddenly, here was the work of contemporary women: brilliant, inventive, wild, diverse, astonishingly alive. Here was Grace Paley, snappish and political, Toni Cade Bambara, whose stories made me breathless, Louise Erdrich, Mavis Gallant, Alice Munro. Most of all, here was Lorrie Moore.
It is impossible to overstate how deeply it can move you to discover, in a literary world that you love all the way to the bedrock but find mostly barren of any trace of yourself, a voice that could be your own, if only refined into art. Moore’s short stories were a series of small explosions: smart, perceptive, despairing, so modern they thrummed with the urgency of my own young person’s anxieties and obsessions, so mordantly funny that I laughed out of sheer, astonished, often gleeful pain.
My gateway Lorrie Moore was “How to Become a Writer,” from her first collection, Self-Help, which, in an unofficial survey of most of my writer friends was their first hit of her, too. Irony is sometimes difficult for the young and naive, and in the second-person apostrophizing of the story, I found actual directives about how to be a writer that I swallowed whole and believed with my entire being.
When I read, “First, try to be something, anything, else,” I thought, Yes! because I had tried pre-med for precisely one day, until I understood that being a pediatrician meant an endless parade of sick kids; when, later in the story, I read, “The only happiness you have is writing something new, in the middle of the night, armpits damp, heart pounding, something no one has yet seen. You have only those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius,” I thought, All right, if Lorrie Moore says this is what will happen, I’ll try it.
So I did. Soon, those ecstatic hours in the deep of night became my most secret, most beloved, most lasting of joys. Writers are solitary beasts, but not one of us has ever entered a life of writing alone, and most of us can identify the voice that guided us through the blind and treacherous tunnels that we must enter when we go from being a reader to being a writer. Lorrie Moore was this for me.
In an essay in her collection See What Can Be Done, she writes that: “A book by a woman, a book that began up close, on the heart’s porch, was a treat, an exhilaration, and finally, I think, that is why women who became writers did so: to create more books in the world by women, to give themselves something more to read.” In those heady early days of writing fiction, love-drunk with contemporary short stories, I went one step further: I not only wanted to create more books so that I could give myself something to read; I wanted to create more books in the very particular voice of Lorrie Moore. That this was a fool’s errand would become painfully clear in a few years; Lorrie Moore’s voice is, of course, singular and irreproducible.
Those of us who worked hard to understand what a literary voice even is can observe, with awe, how the sharpness, clarity, and wit of Moore’s voice was evident from the very beginning of her writing life. She was nineteen and on a scholarship at St. Lawrence, a small liberal arts college in New York State, when she won Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest. She’d grown up a dreamy, bookish child in Glens Falls, New York, to parents who were involved in amateur theater and who, perhaps in only apparent paradox, read passages from the Bible at dinner every night. After college, she became a paralegal in New York City, wrote one of the stories that would appear in 1985 in Self-Help, and after two years of midtown Manhattan office work, went on to Cornell to earn an MFA. After graduation, she stayed on at Cornell as a lecturer, then she moved to Madison, Wisconsin, to begin a professorship there.
A year after Self-Help, Moore published Anagrams, a novel with a brilliant and experimental structure: it’s a variation on themes, the characters restarting over and over into new, slightly different stories, which work together to prime the reader for emotional devastation in the longest, final version. The collection Like Life, which came out in 1990, contains the widely anthologized story “You’re Ugly, Too,” which was also Moore’s first story of many to appear in The New Yorker. In 1994, she published Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, a slender and nearly perfect book about longing and love in a friendship between teenaged girls in a small town near the border of New York State and Canada. Four years later, in 1998, the story collection Birds of America was published, which finally brought Moore an international reputation for being a literary genius of the highest order.
Birds of America contains many of my favorite Lorrie Moore stories, including the one that I have actual holy feelings about, the harrowing and famous “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk.” This is a story written from the deepest part of the soul; it sings with rage and despair, cuts you with its violent maternal love, and wears its wit like the pitch-black bravado of a man facing a firing squad. Moore’s third novel, A Gate at the Stairs, a rich work about race, class, loss, and the Midwest after September 11, 2001, was published in 2009; it’s a book so dark and deeply felt and harrowing that I still carry it around inside my heart like one of my own personal ghosts. In 2013, Moore left the University of Wisconsin to teach at Vanderbilt in Nashville, where she published her most recent story collection, the bold and wide-ranging Bark.
When critics speak of Lorrie Moore’s voice, they tend to focus on her humor; it is such a dazzling gift that it can blind even a good reader to the endless other modes and varieties of mastery in her work. Moore’s jokes, puns, wordplay, and gimlet eye do build to create a comedic surface tension that’s unequaled in its range and sophistication. Her characters put their humor to a wide variety of uses: to try to smooth over awkwardness, to defang their terror, to stave off despair, to endear themselves to lovers they sense are drawing away, to armor themselves against the aggressions of others, to put up a brave front when it seems that everything around them is caving in, to gesture helplessly at the absurdity of the world.
In the story “Real Estate,” the “Ha!” repeated beyond the point of absurdity with which the character Ruth responds to her husband’s “parade of flings” pushes into a sense of panic, and then almost hysterical pain. It replicates the way that our thoughts of betrayal can metastasize and overwhelm us and breed ever more (often imaginary) betrayals. Each time I read this story, I sit in discomfort with these pages, reading each “Ha!” as another fling that Ruth has tormented herself with, another memory of a night in which her husband had said he’d be working late, another woman friend she now holds in suspicion.
While the effect of the humor is important, a deeper level of complication becomes apparent when one begins to consider the infinitely tangled emotions that give rise to the humor. In the story “Debarking,” when middle-aged divorcé Ira is weirded out by his new girlfriend Zora’s near-sexual dependency on her surly adolescent son and is humiliated over and over again by the boy, he doesn’t ever respond the way he wants to but instead bites back in the comfort of his mind by thinking up new verses to add to the jokey collection he’s writing, a “little volume of doggerel, its tentative title Women from Venus, Men from—well—Penis.” In this case, and in so many more, the humor in Moore’s stories erupts when a clear-sighted character has a devastating observation so urgent that it rises up out of the depths, but—because they are inherently kind and don’t want to cause pain—the observation gets warped or twisted just before it reaches consciousness, so that when it is at last released, it has crumpled under its own weight and has become humor. Jokes, puns, and wit become survival techniques of people who would never be as cruel in life as their internal critics are.
Lorrie Moore once wrote in an essay on the television series True Detective that “simultaneously embracing laughter and the object of that laughter is only irony and Keatsian intelligence, not assassination,” and her specialty is a laugh that’s at the same time a blow to the heart because her sympathy and generosity are always with her characters. She excels in showing the way that people are often at their funniest at moments they’re least intending to be funny, as when, in the story “What You Want To Do Fine,” the character Mack says, in trying to mend his relationship with his wife, Annie, “There’s something that with time grows between people… Something that grows whether you like it or not,” and Annie cries out, “Gunk!… Gunk grows between people!”
We laugh out of surprise and because the word “gunk” is inherently funny, but also because in the word’s harshness and bluntness, Annie’s despair and her frustration with the hapless Mack become palpable. Though she is a minor character, in this single word she blazes off the page and into reality. We have all been Annie at least once in our lives.
But voice is a far broader idea than simply that of wit or humor, and counterbalancing the black magic of Moore’s humor are her equally witchy gifts in music and metaphor. Lorrie Moore was born to a musical family, her in-person speaking voice is a melodious alto, and there is so much music in her stories that nearly every one comes with its own soundtrack of La Bohème and Muzak and Dionne Warwick, “Oklahoma!,” “Sexual Healing,” or “Alfie,” movie themes, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “country songs with the words devil woman,” and so on. What makes her prose so deceptively easy to read, despite its complexity and sophistication, is its attentiveness to underlying prose rhythm and the musical shapes that her words make in the ear.
She writes of this musical underpinning in an early essay, saying that in her childhood, “I was obsessed with songs… and I often think that that is what I tried to find later in literature: the feeling of a song; the friendly, confiding voice of a letter but the cadence and feeling of a song. When a piece of prose hit rhythms older, more familiar and enduring than itself, it seemed then briefly to belong to nature, or at least to the world of music, and that’s when it seemed to me ‘artistic’ and good.” The story “Beautiful Grade” ends with a paragraph so fine that it sings in the reader’s depths like a nightmarish incantation:
… deep in his private January boyhood, he knew, there were colors that were true: the late-afternoon light was bluish and dark, the bruised tundra of the snowbanks scary and silver and cold. Stepping slowly at first, the hulking monster-man, the demon-man, red and giant, with a single wing growing out of its back, would begin to chase Bill. It chased him faster and faster, up and down every tiny hill to home, casting long shadows that would occasionally, briefly, fall upon them both like a net. While the church bells chimed their four o’clock hymn, the monster-man would fly in a loping, wonky way, lunging and leaping and skittering across the ice toward Bill’s heels. Bill rounded a corner. The demon leaped over a bin of road salt. Bill cut across a path. The demon followed. And the terror of it all—as Bill flung himself onto his own front porch and into the unlocked and darkened house, slamming the door, sinking back against it, sliding down onto the doormat, safe at last among the clutter of boots and shoes but still gasping the wide lucky gasps of his great and narrow escape—was thrilling to him in a world that had already, and with such indifferent skill, forsaken all its charms.
This internal music of Moore’s was apparent from her beginning as a writer: the irony in the how-to stories of her first book Self-Help relies deeply upon an underlying driving rhythm like the urgent boom-chicka-boom of the guitar in a country and western song.
Likewise, her astonishing facility with metaphor was early apparent. In “What Is Seized,” a story written when she was twenty-four and also collected in Self-Help, she writes, “Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting their laundry confused.” Abstract ideas are most elegantly transplanted into a reader’s mind when they’re likened to images shared in common; this particular metaphor feels dead-on because it is so precise, surprising, and complex.
“People Like That Are the Only People Here” is a story overbrimming with devastating metaphor, metaphor grasped at as though it were the only thing that could keep the drowning mother afloat. This story contains the most perfect definition of fiction that I’ve ever read, in the three consecutively expanding metaphors that the husband of the writer-narrator uses to try to convince her to write about their baby’s illness for money. Fiction, he says, is “the unlivable life, the strange room tacked onto the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science.” Our sense of being in on the metafictional joke—we are even at this moment reading a short story about a baby’s illness—is compounded and replicated on a smaller scale when we learn that the husband was only quoting his wife back to her. Fiction isn’t life; fiction is only like life. Fiction is life’s metaphor.
In recent years, Moore’s work has seemed to become more overtly political with its references to wars in the Middle East, 9/11, and Abu Ghraib, but critics often overlook how political her fiction always has been. When you live in a patriarchy, it is inherently political to insist that the internal life of women is of great interest and deserving of exploration, that their love lives merit the crisp attention of literary art, that the domestic sphere is a battleground equal in importance to more masculine spaces. Moore’s writing has always been subversive, sometimes so much so that its subversions are invisible to its intended targets.
She is fond of structural subversion, as seen in the stories that rewrite a well-known story of a previous master (“Signs and Symbols” by Nabokov in “Referential,” The Wings of the Dove by Henry James in “Wings”), or that dip into the fantastical (“The Juniper Tree,” “Two Boys,”), or spin variations on themes, as in the stories that make up Anagrams. There are also the destabilizations that so often happen with the humor of women. A joke can decentralize power structures because it is transactional in nature: when a person laughs at a joke, that person has let something in, and the joker has created an opening into which she can slip her subversions without offending the forces-that-be. A funny writer is a writer to whom the reader gives a great deal of power, and gladly.
It was perhaps this wild subversiveness, this confident and almost offhand seizing of power, that I responded to so deeply in Lorrie Moore’s work, why I bought Birds of America the day it was released, why I read my copies of her books to tatters. In the three years after I graduated from college, I ground out my daytime hours as a bartender in Philadelphia and an office toady in California so that I could spend all my energy and thought in my nighttime writing.
At last, after having written three apprentice novels, I’d had enough of floundering alone and applied to MFA programs. The day I got into the one at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, I wept for hours, because that was the program where Lorrie Moore taught.
In the months between my acceptance and the first class in Lorrie’s workshop, I wrote like a woman possessed, mostly because I wanted to honor my debt to her; I wanted to make Lorrie Moore proud. But when Lorrie swept in that first night of class, I barely had the courage to look up; I am shy, but also looking at the person who had written so many stories that I venerated and dissected and put back together was a little like looking at the sun. And maybe, too, I was afraid that perhaps, in herself, Lorrie Moore would not be like her work, that there would be a gap between the mind that created the work and the person who carried that mind around. This fear was laid to rest as soon as she sat down and sighed and looked at us with a wry and trailing “Well…” that seemed to mean that although we didn’t look all that promising, she was willing to be pleasantly surprised.
I was relieved to discover that Lorrie Moore is exactly like her fiction: brilliant, warm, hilarious, clear-sighted, wise. When it was my turn to be workshopped, I felt ill at the thought of handing Lorrie Moore an ersatz and far worse version of her own stories, and swiftly began to write in a different mode that, after some pain, became my own. Yet Lorrie was never unkind, and in class when she did not like something, her opinion came abundantly clear in the length of her hesitation to pronounce upon it aloud.
When she loved a piece of writing, she would begin to speak of it in a low and careful voice, but soon her innate shyness would burn off and she would become carried away, her voice would go faster and become more emphatic, she would point out ever deeper complexities and layers in the work, her eyes would flash in delight; and when at last she finished speaking and fell silent, we would all slowly let out the breath we hadn’t known we’d been holding, sure that this is what a bird feels in the downdraft of a rocket. These bursts of passion in class were as thrilling to me as her stories were on the page.
She was as generous in life as she was in her fiction, too: the best night in graduate school was when she came out to sing with us at karaoke, and it surprised no one at all to discover that Lorrie Moore has a beautiful voice and knows esoteric musical theater numbers to an intimidating degree. She celebrated our triumphs and our theses with champagne and cheese platters; she celebrated our flawed and ridiculous and often unloveable selves.
We have come nearly fifteen years and many thousands of miles away from that first class in Madison where I sat in a prickly anguish of anticipation waiting to meet my hero, but Lorrie’s is still the voice I hear when I’m considering whether a piece is finished or not; her moral rigor when it comes to the right words in the right order has been my steady friend; her healthy skepticism has murmured to me often enough that it has kept me from too much embarrassment.
Yet Lorrie Moore’s voice has always been clearest in her many brilliant works of fiction, which, no matter how often you read them, are an endlessly rich and renewing source of pleasure and inspiration. How lucky we are that we have Lorrie Moore’s voice to reflect this lunatic world back to us and show us how to see it in all its devastating hilarity. How lucky we are to be able to hold such beauty in our hands and let it sing inside us.
This essay is adapted from the author’s introduction to Collected Stories, by Lorrie Moore, published by Everyman’s Library.