The Collected Stories By Lorrie Moore Faber, 672pp, $ 59.95
WHEN writers set out to create fictional worlds, they have a tendency to glamorise things. Bad writers do this in a literal- minded, sex- andshopping sort of way, taking our humdrum desires and making them richer and more exotic in appearance.
Good writers are guilty of a different and perhaps more insidious approach. Their beautiful words lend an unwarranted elegance to the ugly and fitful motions of consciousness; they accumulate like lacquer over the coarsest surfaces of the real. It was the power of words to shape our perception of the world that led Plato to banish poets from his ideal state.
Lorrie Moore’s universe, by contrast, is absent of glamour. Her language is demotic, her settings are suburban and her dramas are suburban, too: the ordinary heartbreaks of alcoholism or infidelity or children succumbing to diseases with complicated names.
In her short stories, it is true, high- falutin’ ideas or sentiments are sometimes expressed. Her prose can be as suave as the best of her contemporaries, while her metaphors arrive with the regularity of heartbeats, tiny pulses of poetry that transfigure the mundane.
Yet, despite all this, Moore’s writing refuses to fall in love with its own effects.
Here is Ira, the usually affable Jewish divorcee of the 2003 story Debarking . It is Easter and his distress over a failed affair has merged with disgust at his country’s present bellicosity. We find him ‘‘ lit to the gills’’ in a bar where Iraq is being invaded on television while fellow drinkers perch on the chrome and vinyl islands of their bar stools:
Happy Easter,’’ Ira said to them, lifting his glass with his left hand, the one with the wedding ring still jammed on. ‘‘ The dead are risen! The damages will be mitigated! The Messiah is back amongst us squeezing the flesh— that nap went by quickly, eh! May all the dead arise! No one has really been killed at all — OK, God looked away for a second to watch some I Love Lucy re- runs, but he is back now. Nothing has been lost. All is restored. He watching over Israel slumbers not nor sleeps!’’ Almost all of Moore’s method is contained in this paragraph: the willed awkwardness of language and syntax designed to approximate actual speech, and the sparks of eloquence struck by rubbing grand diction against lowbrow cussedness. Meanwhile, beneath the noise and light, a deeper allusion is smuggled in: this time, a reference to Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah . Moore’s uniqueness, however, resides in the follow- up. For all the righteousness of Ira’s speech — with its subtext of sympathy for the persecuted, borrowed from the high moral seriousness of European romanticism — the story’s final sentence is given to another:
Somebody slap that guy,’’ said the man in the blue shirt down at the end. Faber’s handsome edition of Moore’s collected stories is curiously titled, since some of her stories are left out while selections from her two published novels are included. Its 600- plus pages constitute a portrait gallery of the broken: women, usually, but there are plenty of men like Ira about. And sometimes men and women are captured together, unhappily bound by ‘‘ the socially sanctioned animal comfort of marriage’’.
The damage each of them suffers can be as dull as divorce or as terrible as the accidental killing of a baby. But what is common to almost all of them is that the wound cuts them off from the realm of contentment: they can no longer lose themselves in the ambient drone of the social world. Instead, they fall into conversation with their own unhappiness.
In Vissi d’Arte , for example, a struggling playwright, whose partner leaves him, retreats into his writing: Harry worked hard, as he always had, but this time without the illusion of company. This time there was just the voice of the play and the playwright in the bombedaway world of his apartment. He started not to mind it, to feel he was in some way suited to solitude, to the near weightlessness of no one but himself holding things down. Yet these soliloquies, recorded mainly from an over the shoulder third person perspective, can be as antic as anything out of the 19th- century Russian tradition of Gogol and Dostoevsky. Take Adrienne, the disturbed 30- something newlywed of Terrific Mother , stuck among a colony of self- regarding scholars in an Italian hill town retreat, attempting to make art in the small stone hut allotted to her in the villa’s grounds: She set her sketch pad on the worktable and began a morning full of killing spiders and drawing their squashed and tragic bodies. The spiders were star- shaped, hairy, and scuttling like crabs. They were fallen stars. Bad stars. They were Earth’s animal try at heaven. Often she had to step on them twice— they were large and ran fast. Stepping on them once usually just made them run faster. Sometimes the stories end in despair, the narrative cutting out as though it had reached the brick wall at the end of a one- way street. In others, as if through some extreme therapy, unhappiness is momentarily transformed into the semblance of wisdom, or acceptance, or grace.
Stories such as these are proof, if it were necessary, that Moore does not despise her characters; rather, she decries the world that has made them what they are. As critic V. S. Pritchett once wrote of Dostoevsky’s men and women, the madness of Ira and Adrienne is ‘‘ the madness of life, not the madness of the mind’’. Pritchett could be speaking of Moore when he concludes that ‘‘ profoundly humorous writers are humorous because they are responsive to the hopeless, uncouth concatenations of life’’.
Moore began her career young: she was 26 when her first short- story collection, Self- Help , appeared in 1983. But her thrilling talent has held and even grown since then.
As Julian Barnes, normally the most reticent of critics, wrote 10 years ago, reviewing her third volume, Birds of America : ‘‘ Moore retains the avian eye of her early books, and an unwavering sense of social tone; she is thankfully still clever and witty, but her depth of focus has increased, and with it her emotional seriousness. I hesitate to lay the adjective wise on one of her age. But watching a writer move into full maturity is always exciting. Flappy- winged take- off is fun; but the sight of an artist soaring lifts the heart.’’
This collection not only confirms Barnes’s praise, it moves beyond it. The wisdom of which Barnes speaks is present here, but I would say it stems from her humility as much as her talent. Moore’s ambivalence goes beyond her reading of the human heart; it shapes her prose. Plato, that stern moralist, who distrusted art while being supreme artist himself, might well have found in her a kindred spirit.