Like Lives: On Lorrie Moore
In the fall of 1984 Bright Lights, Big City, the debut novel by Jay McInerney, was published by an imprint of Knopf. The book seemed to its early readers not simply a piece of fiction but a kind of talisman; it appeared to summon the cultural promise of an entire generation coming of age under Reagan. It was told in the second person, and the insistent "you" was like a serial invitation, one to a new kind of life, in Manhattan, lit by a string of parties in the city's hipper quarters that might exhilarate you or make you feel despondent, but which certainly made the city itself feel alive again. For a stretch of time people had stopped believing in cities, even this one, and had, in patches, abandoned them, even this one. But Bright Lights was composed in the insubordinate spirit of a creative revival; it helped proclaim, to those who came and those who dreamed of coming, that New York City was available once more to the audacious and the reckless young.
In the spring of 1985, Knopf published Self-Help, an acerbic collection of stories by the precocious aphorist Lorrie Moore. Self-Help was also a debut, and it was also written largely in the second person, but it told a very different story about the allure of city life and the comforts of living in close quarters. One would not want to change places with anyone in Moore's New York--"it is like having a degree in failure," she wrote of living there--or, for that matter, with those characters in Scranton, Rochester or Owonta, who viewed the '80s not as a new frontier but as a deadening stretch of the same old disappointments, romantic, professional, intellectual and filial. A mordant series of devotional texts, Self-Help traced those disappointments, mapping the lean inner life of the American boom years. The second-person voice of Bright Lights was flat, credulous and smug; Moore's prose was briny, superior and self-loathing. The book was a study of the dream life of fatalism, and it was narrated in the clairvoyant mood.
"Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie," begins "How to Be an Other Woman," the cheeky first story in the collection. "Whisper, 'Don't go yet,' as he glides out of your bed before sunrise and you lie there on your back cooling, naked between the sheets and smelling of musky, oniony sweat. Feel gray, like an abandoned locker room towel." "Smoke marijuana," advises an entry in "How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)." "Try to figure out what has made your life go wrong. It is like trying to figure out what is stinking up the refrigerator. It could be anything." "How to Become a Writer": "First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably."
There has not been much public failure in Lorrie Moore's working life. She won a Seventeen magazine fiction contest when she was 19 and sold Self-Help when she was 26. The stories of that collection were drawn from her work as an MFA candidate at Cornell, and her subsequent stories--published in Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998)--are among the finest and most memorable short fiction produced by an American writer in the generation to follow Raymond Carver. And yet a spirit of devastating failure pervades her work and the lives of the characters who populate it--an acquiescent sensibility arising from quiet despair. Her stories are plotted, typically, with disappointments, and recounted in voices discontent and disconsolate, by characters buckled and wryly resigned to a supermarket culture that overstocks imagination and undersupplies real possibility, especially for women and especially in the strip-mall states she has called, archaically, "the Middle West."
Geography is everywhere in Moore's fiction, usually as a measure of personal estrangement. "Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here," quips the professor protagonist of "You're Ugly, Too," from Like Life.
She used to insist it was irony, something gently layered and sophisticated, something alien to the Midwest, but her students kept calling it sarcasm, something they felt qualified to recognize, and now she had to agree. It wasn't irony. What is your perfume? a student once asked her. Room freshener, she said.
"You had to get out once in a while," declares the professor. "Even if it was just across the border to Terre Haute, for a movie." "I feel like I've got five years to live," says Agnes, in "Agnes of Iowa," having made a brief go of things in New York. "So I'm moving back to Iowa so that it'll feel like fifty."
Alienation is the main preoccupation of this early work, rendered by Moore out of fidelity to her subjects not as a cultural condition but a social fact: the feeling of being pressed, as if by centrifugal force, to the periphery of conversations that whir before you wildly as zoetropes, of buzzing invisibly as an electron in the distant orbit of some truly nuclear party. Her protagonists are invariably witty, but wit is, in Moore's wallflower fiction, simply another measure of human distance.
"At a party," she writes in "How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),"
when a woman tells you where she bought some wonderful pair of shoes, say that you believe shopping for clothes is like masturbation--everyone does it, but it isn't very interesting and therefore should be done alone, in an embarrassed fashion, and never be the topic of party conversation. The woman will tighten her lips and eyebrows and say, "Oh, I suppose you have something more fascinating to talk about." Grow clumsy and uneasy. Say, "No," and head for the ginger ale.