All told in her characteristic knowing, wry voice, these stories confirm Moore as one of the most significant and best-loved writers of the form at work today
|FABER & FABER|
the guardian Fri 08 May 2009
You will, of course, be familiar with Lorrie Moore; not only does she sell quite a few books, but she had a story printed in this very paper on the Saturday before the last US election: "Foes", which opens this reverse chronological order collection.
This was the first Barack Obama story that I can remember seeing. In it, a sarcastic professor sits next to a woman described as an "evil lobbyist" at a fundraising dinner. ("'Your man, Barama, my friend, would not even be in the running if he wasn't black.' Now all appetite left him entirely ... 'You know, I never thought about it before but you're right! Being black really is the fastest, easiest way to get to the White House ... Unless you're going by cab, and then, well, it can slow you down a little.'")
There was an unusual audacity - unusual to the point of uncanniness - in the closing of that story: the professor, exhausted by the numerous faux pas he has made during the dinner, is reassured by his wife that "Brocko" will win. "Promise?" "Promise." At which point I felt like writing to Moore: "Really? Promise? Are you not jinxing this?"
Well, I thought, if he gets in, and believe me, at the time I was not exactly supremely confident, Moore is certainly raising the stakes more than is usual for a writer. She was willing to let history have a say in how her story would be read in the future.
And Moore is special in the more conventional sense: she not only sells healthily, she does so on the back of exceptionally attentive writing. In "Real Estate", a woman overhears her husband sobbing "for almost an hour" in the bathroom after his affair with someone else has ended. "Her heart filled up with pity and a deep, sisterly love. At all the funerals for love, love had its neat trick of making you mourn it so much, it reappeared." Did you notice the precision of that "almost"?
Reading a lot of Moore stories in one go can give you a thorough immersion in the shocks that flesh and heart are heir to. There is a good chance that any one of her stories will contain divorce, cancer, a grindingly dull life in the Midwest, a dead child somewhere in the past, or combinations thereof. These are all common enough fears, though no less disabling for all that; you feel that Moore is working at only one end of the radio spectrum, yet somehow she manages to pick out an enormous number of stations with the tiniest twist of the dial.
It is astonishing that, although she has, in this sense, so little range, she never gives the impression that she is repeating herself. And when she does go a bit off-piste, you want to get her back on track; you want her to write about divorce the way you want Wodehouse to write about Jeeves. When she writes in the first person, you feel she's doing it more for her benefit than for ours, pour changer; her third person is already quite close enough, first-person is too close. It's like having your face held under water.
But the remarkable thing about Moore is how her even, deadpan (but not flat or affectless) style can have you virtually in tears of empathy for the disaster of these lives, and then with no warning hit you in the face with a joke so funny you really do laugh out loud, even in public places. (And then you look around, and wonder whether everyone else is living in a Lorrie Moore story, as indeed you are yourself.) And then there's her confident economy: "At dinner, she sat next to a medievalist who had just finished his sixth book on the Canterbury Tales. 'Sixth,' repeated Adrienne. 'There's a lot there,' he said defensively." A lesser writer would have had Adrienne say "sixth" with a question mark, or, God help us, an exclamation mark, or italics, in case we'd missed something. In short, she does not treat us like idiots.
Not every image or aperçu quite comes off, but the percentage of those that do is in the very high 90s; over the course of 665 pages this is remarkable. So this is an essential book. And for only a tenner? Buy it now.
the observer Sat 25 April 2009
In an age when most wannabe authors aspire to write fat, prize-winning novels with Richard & Judy stickers on the cover, a short-story writer is not an especially fashionable thing to be. In fact, the mere mention of a short story is enough to put most people off.
Which is why reading Lorrie Moore's collection is such an unadulterated delight. She writes with such panache, such extraordinary perception and wit, that not a single sentence is wasted. Her stories are not short so much as complete, each one a glistening, perfectly cut jewel with multiple facets reflecting the complex truths of daily existence.
Moore's first collection of stories, Self Help (1985), was published when she was just 28 and yet displays a ferocious insight into the human condition. Describing an argument between parents in "What Is Seized", Moore writes that the father's face is "laced tight as a shoe". In "How To Be an Other Woman", she compares the feeling of loneliness after a married lover leaves in the morning to being "gray, like an abandoned locker room towel".
Her stories get dryer, more blackly humorous as she gets older. The later collections concentrate more on the absurd lacunae between the person one grows up wanting to be and the person one inevitably becomes. In "Vissi d'Arte" (Like Life, 1990), playwright Harry comes face to face with the diminishing returns of his potential.
In "Willing" (Birds of America, 1998), an ageing film actress is confronted by the dehydration of her beauty and tormented by the carelessness with which she once took it for granted: "A bone in her opened up, gleaming and pale, and she held it to the light and spoke from it."
Moore's writing leaves you alternately laughing and wincing in recognition. It is all here, laid out in shimmering prose: the compromises we make with ourselves, the love affairs we want to be more than they are and the unconvincing levity with which we seek so desperately to mask the darkness within.