hort story anthologies became a primary source of discovery for me only in the last year or so. It’s obvious, but they’re often filled with fantastic writers in semi-bite sized pieces. Slow clap for Mayka! McSweeney’s various anthologies, in particular, have been well-curated collections that have led me to my contemporary favorites. Among them: Wells Tower, who does such great weighty lines about seemingly mundane life, and Lorrie Moore, who is absolutely one of the best writers for melancholy and word play. (Melancholy and Word Play may seem like they shouldn’t get along, but actually, when Moore is babysitting, they play quite well together.)
I first discovered Moore in Judd Apatow’s I Found This Funny. A collection published by McSweeney’s, Apatow warns in the beginning – in the subheading, actually – that some of the stuff is funny, and some of it is just not funny at all. It’s probable that if you read Moore’s inclusion, “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” you won’t find a bit of humor. But that’s Lorrie Moore. She’s actually quite funny, in an observant and maybe sad but not bitter kind of way. Once I finished I Found This Funny, I quickly ordered and libraried as many Moore books (Get it?) as I could find. I went on a spree, reading through Self-Help, Like Life, Birds of America, and Anagrams. (The last two are my favorites.) When you zip through four books by the same author, you begin to feel a little smothered, no matter how much you love her writing. I then took a break and avoided reading any Moore until I felt I needed to read her.
Fast forward many months since the end of my Moore marathon to a couple of weeks ago. I was bummed out that the library closest to me did not have Americanah, and wandered through the aisles. It’s a newer branch, so the shelves are sparse relative to the city’s main public library. I was determined, though. I scooted by in so many English classes from junior high to college just winging it in discussions that I still feel I owe it to myself to read a goddamn book.
Wandering shelves is really inefficient. How you can find something without a pre-researched list of potentials is beyond me, but I found myself in the Ms and Moore’s latest book, A Gate at the Stairs.
Because everything else I had by Moore was a short story (in a series of short stories) or a very short novella (like Anagrams), I was skeptical of reading her longer works. I’ve even avoided Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? for that reason, which is weird, because given my Moore marathon, it’d be like watching all but one episode of House of Cards and actively avoiding the finale. A Gate at the Stairs is about many things, and it may be the most uncharacteristic of her typical themes yet. Relationships, yes, but its contemporary (post-9/11) setting alone made me skeptical. I don’t know if she can do this, I thought.
Surprise! She can. It’s a different Lorrie Moore voice than her shorts from the eighties and nineties, but largely it still makes you feel. It’s still a ponderous thing, and the situations could only have happened in a post-9/11 world. Though it’s set in “Troy,” Wisconsin, I can see some of the same “modern” families living and breathing in Berkeley, California. Possibly even working the same occupations. A great deal of protagonist Tassie’s observations in life are shaped by her Midwestern Girl perspective – a lens Moore paints really really well – and it’s as if Moore is also proving to the world that she can continue to be a part of contemporary fiction at a globalized scale, dealing with relationships beyond just two people, and writing a piece that continues for more than a couple hundred pages.
It was weighty. It’s not my favorite Lorrie Moore piece, because by being longer and more outward-gazing than focused on a couple select intimate relationships, it just went astray from being quintessentially her. Still, I enjoyed it, and it’s an easy listening kind of read. And now, favorite excerpts. Semi-spoilers ahead:
On Tassie’s new boss:
I feared Sarah was one of those women who instead of laughing said, “That’s funny,” or instead of smiling said, “That’s interesting,” or instead of saying, “You are a stupid blithering idiot,” said, “Well, I think it’s a little more complicated than that.” I never knew what to do around such people, especially the ones who after you spoke liked to say, enigmatically, “I see.” Usually I just went mute.
Now we stood at the cold stream’s edge, tossing a stone in and listening for its plonk and plummet. I wanted to say, “Remember the time…” But too often when we compared stories from our childhood, they didn’t match. I would speak of a trip or a meal or a visit from a cousin and of something that had happened during it, and Robert would look at me as if I were speaking of the adventures of some Albanian rock band. So I stayed quiet with him. It is something that people who have been children together can effortlessly do. It is sometimes prefereable to the talk, which is also effortless.
Dark humor to the core:
She got out and slammed her door. “Yes, sir, and I’d hate to see the air let out of all four of your tires.” I got out carefully, and we walked quickly toward the building entrance. “The rental insurance covers everything, I do believe,” she said to me with great confidence. “Or else the credit card. I once murdered someone and American Express covered everything!”
On the accidental invention of sweetener:
“She looks like a little Irish Rose,” said Roberta, overhearing as she returned to the room, carrying a tray with two bowls: one piled with creamers and one jammed with yellow packets of sweetener that I’d learned from friends had been invented accidentally by chemists during a reformulation of insecticide. Death and dessert, sweetness and doom, lay side by side: I was coming to see that this was not uncommon. Such sugar, of course was corrupt. Death, on the other hand, was pretty straightforward. I knew several kids who for money had been lab rats in pharmaceutical experiments, and they had secretly mucked up the data by doing things like eating doughnuts on the sly or getting high on glue. But after their blood was tested or their sleep observed, the results were sent out as science.
Poignance and very Moore-esque juxtaposition:
The interesting thing about a wound in the foot was that the pressure of just standing on it, not babying it, stanched the bleeding and healed the thing: Was that a robustly New Age truth or what? ROAD CLOSED I love you.
On collecting tokens (Hah!):
The woman grew awkward but purposeful, in my experience, a bad combo. “Do you think they could get together for a playdate someday?” the woman asked. “Maddie doesn’t have any African-American friends, and I think it would be good for her to have one.” She smiled.
I was stunned into silence but only for a moment. Suddenly all the Wednesday nights I’d ever overheard distilled themselves into a single ventriloquized sentence: “I’m sorry,” I said to the woman, “but Mary-Emma already has a lot of white friends.”
THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH ADULTS READING HARRY POTTER:
“I’m worried about all the precious culture that comes now from nowhere: that is, it comes from trust-funded children’s book authors. ‘The Adventures of Asparagus Alley’ and such things. Adults are living increasingly as children: completely in their imaginations. Reading Harry Potter while every newspaper in the country goes out of business. They know so little that is real.”
When I said, “But how could the positions of the stars and planets have anything to do with our lives down here” she would just look at me, wounded but portentous. “How could they not?” she would say.
Where religion makes sense to an American millennial college student:
I had nothing against prayer. Those who felt it was wishful muttering perhaps had less to wish for. Religion, I could now see, without a single college course helping me out, was designed for those enduring the death of their sweet children. And when children grew stronger and died less, and were in fact less sweet, religion faded away. When children began to sweeten and die again, it returned.
On compassionate sadness:
The difference between opera and life, I’d noticed, was that in life one person played all the parts. Still, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, Sarah’s story.
It’s all over when the fat people wed:
I used to think that those essentially happy and romantic novels that ended with a wedding were all wrong, that they had left out the most interesting part of the story. But now I’d gone back to thinking, no, the wedding was the end. It was the end of the comedy. That’s how you knew it was a comedy. The end of comedy was the beginning of all else.