‘Terrific Mother’ by Lorrie Moore

Everybody who knows thirty-five-year-old artist Adrienne tells her that she “would make a terrific mother.” But at the beginning of the story, there is a fatal accident. While holding her friend’s baby at a picnic, Adrienne loses her balance, drops the child, and the child dies of a head injury. Adrienne is left traumatised. She drifts into marriage with Martin, an academic, whom she accompanies to a villa in northern Italy which doubles as their honeymoon. The villa, full of scholars that are experts in their various fields, is an emotionally sterile environment, perfectly mirroring it seems Adrienne’s state of mind, who for most of the story only appears to emotionally engage with thoughts of the dead baby: “Adrienne felt a light weight on the inside of her arm vanish and return, vanish and return, like the history of something, like the story of all things.” And later when she goes to a masseuse to help her relax, she hears lullaby music: “She was to become an infant again. Perhaps she would become the Spearson boy. He had been a beautiful baby.” The story, though, treads lightly when dealing with the aftermath of tragedy, the startingly accomplished writing shot through with black humour and acerbic wit that makes it all the more powerful.

First published in The Paris Review, Issue 124, Fall 1992, and available to subscribers to read hereCollected in Birds Of America, Faber, 1998 and Collected Stories, Faber 2008; also a Faber Single, 2019

‘Dance in America’ by Lorrie Moore

A brief dip into the life of a family who reside in ‘Pennsylvania Dutch country’, ‘Dance in America’ is the best example of what Moore does exquisitely – conveying how happiness and joy must exist amidst trouble and sorrow. The family’s young son has cystic fibrosis, and when the narrator, a dance teacher, spends the night at theirs whilst working in the area, she dances with him and his parents. She herself has her own troubles, having been recently left by her partner – a seething undercurrent to the evening. When they dance to a Kenny Loggins song, and Eugene, the son, runs out of breath, the narrator goes to sit with him before they get up and – fuck it – dance again.

As Eugene rallies the body given to him by fate, she says angrily:

I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space. This is what life’s done so far down here – this is all and what and everything it’s managed – this body, these bodies, that body – so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?

The dance at the end of this story is one of my favourite moments in any story – I love seeing such joy and sympathy on the page. Moore reaches beyond the limits of domestic realism not through show-offy similes or wild allusions, but simply by showing both the beauty and anger in a quiet evening of people gathered together.

First published in The New Yorker, Jun 1993, and available to subscribers to read here. Collected in Birds of America, Knopf/Faber, 1998, and The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, Knopf/Faber 2010

‘How to Be an Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore

Of all the stories by Lorrie Moore that I could have chosen, I decided to go with ‘How to Be an Other Woman, the first story in Moore’s debut collection Self-Help, because I was re-introduced to it recently at a writing workshop given by Lara Williams (more on Lara later!) and reminded of how utterly sublime it is. 
 
‘How to Be an Other Woman’ is the kind of short story we all want to write: witty, charming, irreverent, and original. It is also written in the second person, the literary equivalent of hair gel; some writers think it is really cool, others can’t stand it, but love it or hate it most of us have given it a go at some point with varying results. ‘How to Be an Other Woman’ follows the doomed trajectory of a love affair between Charlene and Jack, and what I find special about this story is the calm authorial undertaking to explore poor life choices and the acknowledgement that sometimes it is these same choices that glitter amidst the mundanity of an ordinary life. Yes, it can be messy. No, it is not always dignified. But, Moore reminds us quietly, perhaps life is not supposed to be. (HC)

First published in Self-Help, FSG/Faber, 1985 and then in the Collected Stories, FSG/Faber, 2008

‘Agnes of Iowa’ by Lorrie Moore

A story for April
 
I was a short story reader before I was a writer and the first writer I fell in love with was Lorrie Moore. Her wry, ironic, conversational voice. Those puns and quips! The way her characters stumble through life. Her stories made me want to write my own, about the ways people I knew lived their lives.
 
‘Agnes of Iowa’ is about a quiet teacher who once lived in New York and now is in the Midwest. Her husband (“he smelled sweet, of soap and minty teeth, like a child”) is a little disappointing, so her sudden attraction to a visiting poet one April shocks and delights her. That month is “cool and humid. Bulbs cracked and sprouted, shot up their green periscopes.” There’s a lovely sense of something shifting in her life, when she would “wait for the moment, then seize it.”

From Birds of America, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1988. Available to read online on the Granta website

‘How to be an Other Woman’ by Lorrie Moore & ‘How to talk to a Hunter’ by Pam Houston

More second person-ers. The second person can manifest in different ways, but often there is the implication that this is a person who has been fractured, made to feel their sense of agency is reduced. ‘How to be an Other Woman’ explores the protagonist’s relationship with a married man, a relationship that causes her increasing feelings of impotence and estrangement.

“In store windows you don’t recognise yourself,” the voice says. “Wonder who you are.” “Gaze into a mirror at a face that looks too puffy to be yours.” Similarly to Houston’s story, there is the sense that the events are happening to the protagonist, rather than something in which she is an active participant. The story is dominated by imperatives: “Feel grey, like an abandoned locker room towel.” Instead of a kind of manual for life, this onslaught implies inevitability – the sonorous thrum of it seems to catch and hold the protagonist in its grip.

As the protagonist, Charlene, commences list making – an attempt to emulate the man’s wife and her proclivity for lists – she loses more of herself, and the futility of the exercise is demonstrated when she gives herself three options – “rip open the front of your coat”; “go into the bathroom”; “go downstairs and wave a cab for home” – but chooses none: “He puts his mouth on your neck. Put your arms timidly around him.” 

In Pam Houston’s ‘How to Talk to a Hunter’ there is a similar inactivity:

When he says “Skins or blankets?” it will take you a moment to realise that he’s asking which you want to sleep under. And in your hesitation he’ll decide that he wants to see your skin wrapped in the big black moose hide. 

Both stories’ characters have an explicit desire for empathy. In Moore’s, Charlene seeks a unity of experience with her coworker, Hilda: “Over Reuben sandwiches ask her if she’s ever had an affair with a married man,” while in Houston’s the protagonist tries to diagnose her feelings as a larger symptom of womanness: “He’ll give you a key, and just like a woman, you’ll think that means something.” 

Houston’s choice of future tense interacts interestingly with the second person; combined with the litany of “you”s the effect is one of prophecy. However, the incompleteness of knowledge betrays this implied omniscience. The prophetic style might promise comfort – this is what will happen; this is certain – but the speculation and gaps that permeate the voice betray a lack of clarity. The speaker can promise the “you” nothing beyond relayed experience, and it is the distance between speaker and listener, between the self and the self, not even supplemented by third-party insight, that makes this so uncomfortable to read. 

First published in Self-Help, FSG/Faber, 1985 and then in the Collected Stories, FSG/Faber, 2008

First published in Quarterly West, 1989 and collected in Cowboys are my Weakness, Washington Square Press, 1992. Also in Best American Short Stories 1990, Houghton Miffin, edited by Richard Ford

‘How to Become a Writer’ by Lorrie Moore

It’s funny. It’s wry. It makes you think of all the things that you might like to have been told. So, a little bit like To My Trans Sisters it sits here. “You read the whole thing out in class. No one likes it. They say your sense of plot is outrageous and incompetent. After class someone asks you if you are crazy.” It feels specifically American (someone should write a UK version, or every country should write their own version). “Write a story about a confused music student and title it ‘Schubert Was the One with the Glasses Right.’” I think ‘How to Become a Writer’ could get developed (go a little further) and it does leave you a bit hanging at the end. But for its audacity and style I’d put it in the mix, especially when there are so many myths and debates about writing courses, and writing as a career / profession. To quote Moore: ” A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph, a novel is a film.”

First collected in Self-Help, Knopf, 1985. Also in The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, 2009, Faber, and as a standalone publication by Faber Modern Classics, 2015

‘Wings’ by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore’s stories are about the abrupt and the absurd. In ‘Wings’—which is either about a woman and the men who trip her into the rest of her life, or about the unit of a couple and its inner dreaming, depending on how you read it—time curdles down to a haze of everyday coffees, dinners, music, walks and swims. KC and Dench are unfunny but earnest, like all lovers. They are hemmed into loneliness, their conversations scratching hard and daily on the same, brazen grooves of youth.  “Patience was a chemical. Derived from a mineral. Derived from a star. She felt she had a bit of it. But it was not always fruitful, or fruitful with the right fruit,” writes Moore. The story ends on a perpetual summer. Moore never dims the light on their interior boredoms, or on the question of what lies beyond a young life—a feat which is exhausting but wondrous to witness, like the first hot day of the year. 

First published in The Paris Review, Issue 200, Spring 2012, and available to read online here. Collected in Bark, Knopf/Faber, 2014. Chosen by Sharanya, who lives, writes and teaches between Essex and London. 

‘How to Become a Writer’ by Lorrie Moore

Choosing a single Lorrie Moore story is a problem. Choosing a single Lorrie Moore sentence is a problem. Take out all of her descriptions, for example, in this masterpiece (it’s a masterpiece), of blank facial expressions, assemble them into a short paragraph, and it’s still one of the best stories you’ve read. ‘Blank as a vandalised clock.’ I imagine the title sort of answers itself: this is how.

Available online here. Collected in Self-Help, Knopf, 1985, now also Faber Modern Classics, 2015, and Collected Stories, Knopf/Faber, 2008

‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ by Lorrie Moore

I was late to the Lorrie Moore party, but I made up for it by discovering her just when my favourite collection, Birds of America, was published, and then consuming every word she has published since, fiction or not – in fact her lively intersection is one of the best things about her work. The story ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ affected me profoundly: I read it over and over for weeks. It’s about a mother whose child develops a childhood cancer, and their experiences in the hospital. Her observation, her acuity, her humour, and above all her honesty and her confidence that these sort of experiences could make a story were liberating for me: a few years later, I drew directly on this story for an early one of my own, ‘The Not Dead and the Saved’.

First published in The New Yorker, January 1997 and collected in Birds of America (Knopf/Faber, 1998) and the Collected Short Stories (Knopf, Faber, 2008)

‘Paper Losses’ by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore’s ‘Paper Losses’ definitely isn’t an upbeat beach read, but it neatly illustrates the idea that wherever you go, there you are. Kit and Rafe met in the peace movement, but twenty years on they’re about to divorce and have “become, also, a little pro-nuke”. Moore’s depiction of their disintegrating marriage and an ill-advised final family holiday is full of clever observations and dark humour. There are Kit’s thoughts on being with Rafe: “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: should marriage be like that?” Then there’s her take on life: “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: choosing the best unhappiness.” The holiday itself sounds fairly appalling even if it weren’t taking place during the death throes of a marriage. Kit’s suitcase is lost; the “colonial” resort is surrounded by barbed wire, through which the local boys peer; their children are painfully aloof; and the finale of the holiday – watching turtles hatch – doesn’t go to plan. At all. However, as Kit moves on, her life seems pretty optimistic and, as she says, “Hope is never false. Or it is always false. Whatever. It’s just hope… nothing wrong with that.”

I first came across this story on the New Yorker podcast and revisit it now and then as a touchstone of how to write funny/sad stories with a central character who is trying to figure out what it is to be a human. Enjoy!

First published in The New Yorker, and collected in Collected Stories, Faber. Chosen by Zoe Venditozzi

‘Foes’ by Lorrie Moore

In her collection Bark, you can also read ‘Referential’, a beautiful modulation of Nabokov’s ‘Symbols & Signs’ with some accidentals thrown in. Remember when we used to do our barking in real life and not on Twitter? Moore captures the dinner-party barking perfectly in another story from the same collection, ‘Foes’, which was originally printed on the eve of the 2008 US election. Like all the stories I’ve listed, the author draws attention to the irresistibility of hierarchisation. It’s as if we shouldn’t just be born with a ribcage and skin, but also a me-shaped box, labelled to save time. This story is also reminiscent of the lethargy that sets in at around 35 when you simply don’t want to talk to anyone you don’t know anymore in social settings. Age does not bring clarity to either interlocutor. ‘Foes’ is one of the most vivid portrayals of how artists and creative types are generally treated at public functions, which is to say that they are usually invited there to be performing monkeys. I guess the thought being that if you earn very little money, the least you could do is be very interesting. This story is also fantastic at capturing what it was like to live during the George W. Bush era, where trauma didn’t seem to be an opportunity for transformation, rather cementation.

First published in The Guardian, 2008. Collected in Bark, 2014

‘Debarking’ by Lorrie Moore

This is another one I highly recommend you hear the author read herself, which you can if you buy the audiobook.  Lorrie Moore’s warm, laconic voice brings out the best in the humour here, and there is so much of it. In this long short story, newly divorced and nervous Ira starts a relationship with long-divorced but possibly unhinged Zora. Standing defiantly between them is Zora’s teenage son, Bruno – or Bruny, or Brune, depending on Zora’s fancy. Mother and son play footsie under the table, wrestle each other onto the sofa, and turn all Ira’s attempted dates into a disturbing threesome. Bad enough, but add in Zora’s sculptures of pubescent boys, ‘priapic with piccolos,’ and her planned children’s book about a hedgehog entering a house full of crocodiles… “I’ll spare you the rest,” Zora says, but she does not spare poor Ira. Sad and comical in equal measure, relatable but bizarre, sympathetic but also pathetic, watching forlorn Ira navigate this woman is mesmerising.

In Bark, Faber & Faber, 2014 and in The New Yorker, online here