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
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
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
This is a celebrated story by a celebrated short story writer, and one of the most devastating I can remember reading. It’s a first-person account of a family: The Mother, the Husband, the Baby, who suddenly find themselves catapulted into the world of paediatric oncology and the prospect of grim treatment and grimmer prognoses. What makes it so breathtaking is the black humour, desperation, fear and rage that Moore injects into the Mother, the story’s first-person narrator – and also a writer who realises that she might need to capture the experience to pay for her child’s care. “Take Notes. In the end, you suffer alone. But in the beginning you suffer with a whole lot of other people.”
(First published in The New Yorker in 1997. Also in Moore’s Collected Stories, from Faber)
If I had to choose a favourite story – the one that is closest to my heart – then this would be it. I often set it for Creative Writing students, to see how they cope with its sentimentality, for although Moore majors in irony, she can also tip over into the whimsical. This story walks the line between the two with grace and ease. If ‘Heavy Weather’ is pro-family propaganda that would have made de Gaulle proud, then ‘Dance in America’ cheerleads for the virtue of art – although it takes an interesting route to get there. Its narrator is a dance teacher (single, no children) who drops in on an old friend, Cal, and his wife, and their son, Eugene, who has cystic fibrosis and is likely to die young. Moore gives precocious Eugene most of the best lines, though Cal has the best line of all. ‘“The arts are so nice and wonderful. But really: I say, let’s give all the money, every last fucking dime, to science.”’ Looking at the narrator, with her failing career, her chronic self-absorption and self-deprecation, it’s hard not to agree. But Moore shows how art – and art of the most homely and pedestrian kind – can pay its way, even if she can’t resist stealing the narrator’s happy ending out from under her.
(read in Moore’s collection Birds of America, also in her 2008 Collected Stories. You can hear Louise Erdrich read and discuss it on the New Yorker fiction podcast here)