By Emily Oldham
Help yourself to Lorrie Moore. Begin by meeting her in the first book, a slim volume of even slimmer stories. To read them is to feel yourself expand.
Lorrie Moore is a contemporary American fiction writer, still best known for her acerbic, yet humorous, short stories. Self-Help, Moore’s first collection, was published in 1985, amidst the stirrings of second-wave feminism and the women’s liberation movement. These stories are situated within white, middle-class, heterosexual female experience, where wanting men is entangled to the point of confusion with wanting autonomy and wanting culture: “After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events.” This line, and many others like it, speaks louder than its narrator. “Seems” straddles personal and social obligation. Who, you may wonder, has sewn this ‘seem’? The ‘Other Woman’ of this story veers between glee, resignation, and blind anger. Such anger – the watchword of second-wave feminism – charges each narrative. Bitterness and art, Moore says elsewhere, are “close, gossipy neighbours… getting their laundry confused.” This is the tone throughout the collection. How much is bitterness, and how much art?
Moore often writes using the second-person pronoun “you”, creating a mirror in which the narrator seems to speak to herself. ‘Mirroring’ is also a counselling technique where the therapist repeats a patient’s idea. But beware the power imbalance, ma semblable, ma sœur. Your reflection, your narrator knows more than you and she will tell you so. She will tell you – with imperatives, with sliding indicatives – how to become your mirror. Moore’s titles are equally strident, expert: ‘How to be An Other Woman’; ‘How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)’; ‘How to Become a Writer’; ‘Go Like This’.
At times you will be labelled: “You are a mistress, part of a great hysterical you mean historical tradition.” Is this a self-description, or a therapist’s diagnosis? Hand on your back, Moore draws you towards the false binary of a ‘hysterical’ and ‘historical’ tradition. History, for women, is one diagnosis after another. The hysteric wanders out of line and out of the proper confines of the body, just as in classical medicine (hypothetical, hypocritical) the womb errs from its place. “Hysterical you mean historical”, that hastily-retracted Freudian slip, meanders from the proper script to point out the madness of tradition.
In contrast to the outdated medicine of tradition, Moore presents writing as self-medication, or homeopathy. Self-help, help yourself, because no one else will: not your parents or your lover or your cat. Words might. Sometimes they choose to. Words wriggle to free their objects from stasis, creating a new confusion as they do: “We curl up on the couch together, under a blanket, whisper I love you, I missed you, confusing tenses I think.” Like limbs under the blanket, time becomes tangled and unwillingly compromised. Extricate yourself, unfurl, and what is left? Loneliness?
Loneliness is never referred to by name, but it simmers underneath each story, much like a man in ‘What is Seized’ who wears “icy anger tucked behind his face.” Ultimately Moore’s narrators are not the experts they claim to be, but questioners. How, they ask, can we live? How can we survive affairs and death and divorce and loneliness?
These stories will not solve your problems but they will be alive beside you. They will be funny and angry and poignant by turns and sometimes simultaneously. Lorrie Moore bares her teeth, eating words like air, Plath’s Lady Lazarus: is she glaring or grinning? Are you? Sex, for instance, is “like having a book out from the library.” A beat, a line break. “It is like constantly having a book out from the library.” In ‘A Kid’s Guide to Divorce’, the process of eating popcorn – a treat? – becomes an ordeal. Moore instructs you to “get [a kernel] caught in your throat and begin to gasp and make horrible retching noises.” Follow her stories too closely and you begin to feel masochistic. Your reward will be a moment of compassion tinged with humour, like the end of ‘How’: “A week, a month, a year. The sadness will die like an old dog.”
Moore’s sentences are sparse yet gnomic, staccato, jolting like an anxious knee. You become willing – eager – to temporarily don Moore’s archetypes of modern life. See how they suit you, how you might adapt them for the twenty-first century and for yourself. Perhaps pieces of them are already part of you. Perhaps they always will be.
A caveat: this is a beginning, not a primer. The rest is between you and your books.
An antidote, supplement or the main course: Kathleen Collins’s Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? These stories, written a few years before Moore’s Self-Help, require no recipe; they are as natural as inspiration.
Collins, Kathleen. Whatever Happened to Interracial Love? Granta, 2016.
Moore, Lorrie. Self-Help. Faber Modern Classics, 2015.