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In which Netty discovers the female Carver. Maybe.

November 16, 2011

Picking up the weighty volume that is American writer Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories, I – like Andy – was surprised to find this comprehensive chronology of her work presented in reverse order. As a complete newcomer to Moore’s oeuvre – hell, I’d never even heard of this author, whom Andy had been trying to get into the Reading Challenge for a good couple of years now – it was natural that I would, of course, want to start at the very beginning.

So I did the only logical thing. Well, as logical as you might expect from someone who read David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas linked chapter by linked chapter, rather than spliced together as one whole entity (“The way the author wanted you to read it,” Andy sometimes reminds me, meaningfully). Yes, I read these stories in the order in which they were published, meaning I waded in at page 535 and the year 1985, rather than page 3 and the year 2008. Hey, that’s just the way I roll.

The first story I delved into, therefore, was “How To Be An Other Woman”, from Moore’s debut 1985 collection Self Help. And to say that I was blown away was an understatement. “Jeez,” I thought to myself, “this chick is, like, the female Carver – 25 or so years after the fact.”

So did Moore go on to sustain my initial impression, over a 20-year span of 37 stories? Well, yes, she did – and no, she didn’t. The fact of the matter is that Moore is not Carver – but then again, no one is Carver. However, of the other predominantly short-story writers – and we’re talking great names such as Flannery O’Connor and Tobias Wolff – we’ve read over the course of the Reading Challenge, she is second for mine. And the best author I have discovered this year, probably even better than Don deLillo. Just maybe.

I note that Andy is not as impressed by the earlier stories as myself, and I can’t help but wonder if he would have felt differently had he, too, tackled them in chronological order. Self Help is comprised of stories from Moore’s master’s thesis, written when she was in her early 20s; earlier, as a 19-year-old university student, she won Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest. But unlike other young authors of her age and ilk, Moore appears to have shunned the spotlight, and her biographical details are scant. She is far more experimental in these earliest stories, utilising different structures, voices and narratives. There is more of a post-modern edge, but I will concede that yes, they do somewhat lack the elegance and succinctness of her later work.

The second section, Anagrams, appears to have been extracted from Moore’s novel of the same name (she has published three, the most recent in 2009, in addition to three collections of short stories and one 1987 children’s book). These four stories all centre around a man, Gerard, and a woman, Benna (and an ancilliary woman, Eleanor), who take on different guises and have different relationships to one another in the different tales. While the final instalment is little more than a sketch, Strings Too Short To Use is terrific, with Yard Sale not far behind. Both examples showcase Moore’s style, her dry humour, and recurring themes – female characters plagued by failing relationships, ill health, geographical constraints and uncertain futures, always with the shadows of their mothers, present or departed, looming large in the background.

The material that comprises Like Life (1990) and Birds Of America (1998) show a writer really hitting her straps. Most of these stories are fully formed, well balanced, and perfectly concluded (often without being perfectly concluded; the endings here are not always wrapped up in a neat little parcel tied with string, and this is one of their strengths). You can see the twist in the tale coming in Vissi d’Arte, with its hapless scriptwriter protagonist Harry, a mile off (and that’s saying something from me), but it’s a nod to Moore’s skill and talent that it takes nothing away from the story in terms of impact. The Jewish Hunter is a deftly handled, touching account of a relationship that is over before it begins, with Moore subtly lingering on the often-mundane minutiae that can doom male-female discourse, as she does to great effect in depicting the unsatisfactory is-it-love-or-is-it-just-sex? triangle of Two Boys.

I particularly loved the black humour of Real Estate, Terrific Mother and Community Life; while Dance In America and People Like That Are The Only People Here take the difficult subject matter of gravely ill children and craft emotionally wrenching but beautifully rendered stories. It was pleasing to see Moore change tack for What You Want To Do Fine, a depiction of the unlikely relationship between an ostensibly straight man and a gay man (which also got Andy’s stamp of approval). I wasn’t as convinced of Moore’s appropriation of the male voice as that of the female, but it is successfully realised here. She nails family politics in Charades and Places To Look For Your Mind; and skirts around the undercurrents of friendships and rivalries between couples in Beautiful Grade.

I will finish, of course, at the start of Collected Stories, with Moore’s four new pieces, presumably written to pull together this collection and bring it up to date. As has the author, so too have her characters aged, dealing with changing and disintegrating relationships, children growing up, illnesses leading inevitably to death. The bizarre, darkly comic The Juniper Tree is a stand-out, while the politics and interpersonal games are the focal point of the wry opener Foes. And, as always, the writing remains razor sharp.

So while she seems to take a while between drinks with regards to the frequency of her published output, I am nonetheless very pleased to have discovered – if somewhat belatedly – this very fine writer.

Moore please.

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