Collected Stories – Andy’s out on the Moore

November 10, 2011

There’s a problem, or at least there can be, with collections like this – 600-plus pages of closely printed text, almost 40 stories by the same writer. No matter how good she (or he) is, if you read the book as Netty and I did, from cover to cover, you end up slightly numb to what you’re reading. Of course a book like this isn’t really designed to be read like that, it’s meant to sit in your bookcase and be pulled down occasionally, a story read here and there, before being returned to the shelf. That’s how I treat most big collections of stories that I’m not reading either for this Challenge or for review. And this is the biggest of the four collections of stories Netty and I have read over the past couple of years.

It’s a credit to Moore’s talent that, while a very, very slight edge of numbness was creeping in by the time I finished the book, I was still for the most part deeply engaged with her characters and her writing. She’s not my favourite short story writer – I think Carver’s probably still king of that hill – but she’s up there.

This collection is oddly compiled. Most collections of stories start with the writer’s earliest work and then move forward to their most recent. Moore’s collection does the opposite, starting with four “new” stories (new when this collection was published, in 2008) and then proceeding to stories from her most recent collection and working backwards to her earliest. This struck me as unusual but I nevertheless read the book from front to back. Netty did things the other way round, but I’ll let her explain that.

Moore isn’t the kind of writer with a style that slaps you in the face from the first sentence, the sort of writing that makes you think, “Wow! I’ve never read anything like this before!” He brilliance is underplayed and subtle. There are times, though – and in hindsight I really wish I’d written them down, or Facebooked them as I was tempted to do – when her sentences are so sublime you have to stop and re-read them, and then re-read them again, not because they are confusing but because her turn of phrase is just so mindbogglingly beautiful. This doesn’t happen on every page, or even every story – although the writing almost never misses a beat – but every so often she just floors you. While Carver will be forever revelatory simply because I’d never read anything like him before, Moore leaves a less distinctive but nonetheless lasting impression.

Moore doesn’t write exclusively about women. A number of the stories are from the perspective of men (although always, if I remember, in the third person, while she has a number of female first-person narrators). And she writes her male protagonists very convincingly, although usually she’s writing about their relationships (or lack thereof) with women. That’s not a criticism, simply an observation. One exception to this, and a standout story for me, is What You Want to Do Fine, a story about a gay relationship. Moore convincingly portrays the dynamics of two recovering alcoholics, one a labourer who’d considered himself straight until he found himself in bed with a blind, male lawyer. She’s famed, I think, for finely and beautifully balancing wry humour with sadness and an understanding of the small tragedies of everyday life, and that balance is well and truly on display in this story.

Humour is a key element of Moore’s writing, although it’s often rather bleak and dark. I think I might have laughed out loud once or twice on the train reading this but hers is not what you’d call laugh-out-loud funny humour. That a story (Terrific Mother) opening with a woman accidentally killing another person’s child can be funny – and even the opening is quite lightly handled – can go on to be very funny is an impressive achievement. Real Estate is another story that had me smirking frequently. It might even have been responsible for one or two of those public transport guffaws.

It’s tempting to speculate about Moore’s own life. There are many divorces in these stories, many dysfunctional families and relationships. There are a number of sick women and a handful of sick or dead children. It’s rocky terrain for someone who’s to a large extent a comic writer. I haven’t done my research so I don’t know the details of Moore’s life and it’s possible she is the kind of intensely private person that allows very little to be known of her family life. But there are certain things, let’s say, that wouldn’t surprise me.

Not every story here is perfection on the page, and that’s not taking into account some of the earlier stories (so later in the collection) that I can barely remember. Like Life, the title story from Moore’s 1990 collection, doesn’t really work for me. There are elements of vaguely dystopian sci-fi that do not form an integral part of the story and distract and detract from the story itself. That said, this section contains some of the collection’s strongest stories, including Joy, You’re Ugly Too, and Places to Look For Your Mind.

Some of the stories in Self-Help, her first collection, (1985), come across today as slightly try-hard. A number of them are written in the second person in the style of, as the title suggests, a self-help manual. Some of them work well and there’s plenty of humour to be had in the form, but there’s a “look at meeeeee!” element to these stories that Moore dispenses with later in her career – and rightly so.

Overall, though, this is a seriously impressive and richly rewarding collection of short fiction. The Yanks really do seem to be the master of this form.

One comment

  1. I think one of the most exciting writers of the 1990s was Thom Jones, who wrote only short fiction. To my mind, his story “The Pugilist at Rest” (also the title of his first collection) is one of the best American short stories written in the last 50 years (not that I’ve read them all…). Jones kind of disappeared from the literary scene a dozen years ago, but a quick Google search just revealed that he was published in Playboy last January. I should see if I can get my hands on that…strictly for the story, naturally.

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