Paul Bryant's Reviews > Like Life

Like Life by Lorrie Moore
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Sep 30, 2007

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bookshelves: short-modern-americans

Adam Mars-Jones has this to say about LM:

"The dominant influence on American short fiction when Moore started publishing was the stoic minimalism of Raymond Carver, the recovering binger's pledge of: 'One sentence at a time.' She escaped that influence, and was spared the struggle of throwing it off, but its underlying principle of whittling away excess is something her stories badly need. A Lorrie Moore story can sometimes be like a schoolroom full of precocious kids, every sentence raising both hands and squeaking: 'Me! Me! Choose me!'

There's no escaping the fact that most of the outgrowths on Moore's prose, begging to be sanded down, are wisecracks, puns and jokes. In one story, the title character remembers that when she lived in New York: 'Everyone tried hard to be funny. Everywhere you went - a store, a manicure place - someone was telling a joke. A good one... it was like brains having sex. It was like every brain was a sex maniac.' Moore's humour isn't like that. It's closer to a compulsion than a talent, with the desperation of someone trying to repeat a trick that brought the house down once without her quite knowing why, and it prefers bad jokes to no jokes at all. She describes the heroine of 'Community Life' as being 'in bed, a book propped in her lap - a biography of a French feminist, which she was reading for the hairdo information'. Forget about losing respect for the character - it's hard not to lose respect for the writer.

Jokiness percolates down into the narrative voice ('It came out wrong, like a lizard with a little hat on'), but also bursts out whenever people open their mouths. Moore makes a number of attempts to account for this. Might it be a marker of a dysfunctional relationship? ('You see how I'm talking? Things are wacko around here.') Perhaps it's an individual pathology. ('Everything's a joke with you.' 'Nothing's a joke with me. It just all comes out like one.') There may even be a deeper principle involved - 'Overheard, or recorded, all marital conversation sounds as if someone must be joking, though usually no one is.' Except that every conversation in the book, by this yardstick, qualifies as marital.

Two stories in this collection stand apart, one by virtue of seeming autobiographical to the point of postmodernism, the other by taking place in a parallel universe. The first story is 'People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk' ( Moore never seems to have found a title arch enough to satisfy her, but surely this time she comes close). It's about the Mother, an unnamed writer of Moore's age whose baby boy is diagnosed with a kidney tumour (Peed Onk being shorthand for paediatric oncology). Her husband tells her to make notes for a story, since they may need money for the medical expenses.

In theory, then, this is about a piece of life too raw to be transformed into fiction, but in practice, it's the most mannered and posturing thing in the book. The Husband says (why Husband and not Father?): 'You know, in a way, this is the kind of thing you've always written about.' The Mother agonises in a philosophical register: 'How can it be described? How can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveller's mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it.. one can go, and upon returning make a lot of hand motions and indications with the arms.'

The wisecracks don't actually stop, they just become grotesque, with the Mother imagining an interlocutor speaking in rebuttal: 'What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future... therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovery and - let's be frank - fun, fun, fun! There might be things people will get away with. And not just motel towels.' It's all simultaneously self-indulgent, while imagining it's writing degree zero. Towards the end of the piece, the Mother bridles at the phrase 'collateral beauty', used by the parent of another child with cancer, thinking: 'Who is entitled to such a thing? A child is ill. No one is entitled to any collateral beauty!' Except her, of course, who a page or two back was describing 'the black marbled sky and the electric eyelash of the moon'.

The other story, 'Like Life', is set in a Eighties New York where it's illegal to unplug the television and the water from the taps is too caustic to bathe in, let alone drink. Young men are dying, so that women have to date men twice their age, except for Mamie, who has Rudy. This is an Aids-era story with the epidemic somehow mutated, and it's fascinating to see how removing the reference points adds to its power. Moore even goes cold turkey on the wisecracks, right up to the moment when Mamie asks Rudy what he fears, and though previously inarticulate he shoots back: 'The Three Stooges, Poverty, Obscurity, Masturbation. Also the three E's. Ennui. Anomie. Misery.' Nothing dispels atmosphere more effectively than jokes fired at random.

The real tragedy is that Moore's self-presentation isn't even an original way of nullifying the threat of being female and clever in America. Nothing could be more traditional than apologising with kookiness for an intelligence too strong to be hidden. Would she really rather be cute and goofy than smart? It's a bad bargain because she cheats herself and her readers of something that had a real chance of being original and fierce."

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Reading Progress

Finished Reading
September 30, 2007 – Shelved
June 14, 2013 – Shelved as: short-modern-americans

Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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message 1: by Ruth (new)

Ruth I have to admit, I'm a sucker for a good wisecrack.

message 2: by Ian (new)

Ian "Marvin" Graye I'm a sucker for wisecracks, puns and jokes. And brains having sex.

message 3: by Stephanie (last edited Mar 09, 2013 12:42PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Stephanie Sun Sorry to pick a fight with you on your own thread again, but I think that the reason that some people enjoy Moore's goofball humor is that she's also pretty self-aware about it most of the time. She uses it and has her characters use it as a twitchy defense mechanism (therefore it is to mask pain, not intelligence as Mars-Jones attests). In her best stories, she overcomes the twitch altogether (in my opinion) to create something of genuine and lasting beauty.

I can see how it can be jarring if you've come to her books only by hearing obscene amounts of hype about her and her wit, though.

The other thing you have to know about Lorrie Moore is that many of her most ardent fans first came to her work in the context of her short stories in The New Yorker in the 80s and 90s. The Carver paragraph that you quote speaks to this, but imagine coming across "Peed-Onk" or "You're Ugly, Too" in that context and at that time and you'll see why people think she's the cat's pajamas. They're people who want to be people who like reading New Yorker stories but would rather watch another episode of Seinfeld.

Paul Bryant I read two of her books and got a kind of literary sugar rush for the first few stories and then it was like being cast away on a desert island where the only thing washed ashore was vast amounts of CocaCola and crates of boxes of luxury handcrafted chocolates. Anyhow, that's not too much of a fight, Stephanie... that was a slight demurral. I rated this 3 stars and you gave it one star more. What's a star between friends? By the way, see when I posted this non-review? 2008? I been on this site all these years! I feel old now.

Stephanie Sun Paul wrote: "I read two of her books and got a kind of literary sugar rush for the first few stories and then it was like being cast away on a desert island where the only thing washed ashore was vast amounts o..."

Yeah, I guess my real beef is with this fellow Mars-Jones. He needs to open a Goodreads account so I can tell him what's what.

Paul Bryant He's one of those "proper" reviewers, which means he's also a novelist. I read one of his books. It was okay.

message 7: by Mona (new) - added it

Mona Great review, Paul. I haven't read Moore, but it's clear you've given a lot of thought to her style.

Jean Carlton Peed Onk is not in this particular book

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