Earth bound

Ge­ordie Wil­liamson

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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