‘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

‘People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk’ by Lorrie Moore

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)

‘Dance in America’, by Lorrie Moore

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)