With a Tilt Toward the Surreal: Lorrie Moore

'In the dictionary, lumpy jaw comes just before lunacy, but in life there are no such clues,' Lorrie Moore writes in 'The Nun of That,' the second section of her first novel, Anagrams (1986). It is a sentence that handily displays many of the overarching themes and stylistic choices in Moore's work—three novels, three short-story collections, and a children's book. Moore is famous for her mordant wit and wordplay, as well as for stories that place characters in grave or morally questionable situations that are firmly grounded in reality, however mundane—indeed, her second book of stories is titled Like Life (1988). But in Moore's reality, there is always a sharp comeback, a subtle but penetrating one-liner, or even a tilt toward the surreal, as in 'The Nun of That,' in which the protagonist, Benna, a community-college poetry professor, has both an imaginary best friend and an imaginary daughter. Moore takes part in the Lannan's Readings & Conversations series on Wednesday, Jan. 19, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center. With her is Kate Moses, editor and author of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath and a memoir, Cakewalk.  

'I mostly find humor in the world, and sometimes it emerges in the course of characters speaking on the page or when a protagonist enters a new room or a foreign place: a sense of the absurd can take over the mind of anyone,' Moore wrote in an email exchange with Pasatiempo. 'Absurd things are everywhere and may be the part of life that [my] stories are noticing most. There are also moments where people actually try to get each other to smile, which I think is also true to life. Hardly a day goes by without it.'

Moore published her first collection of short stories, Self-Help (1985), in her 20s and soon after took a teaching position in the creative-writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she continues to teach today. Her third collection, Birds of America (1998), was a New York Times bestseller—quite a rare feat for short fiction, which doesn't often capture the attention of a mass audience. One story from Birds of America, 'People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk' won the 1998 O. Henry Award and captivated readers and critics, as well as medical students, doctors, and families of terminally ill children, for its gripping depiction of an unnamed mother's inner monologue as her baby is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes surgery. The severity and seriousness of such a topic isn't softened by Moore's trademark humorous prose so much as it is mitigated by it. 'Wilms'?' the mother in the story repeats when told what kind of tumor her baby has, while her baby plays with the light switch in the surgeon's office. 'The room is quickly on fire again with light, then wiped dark again. Among the three of them here, there is a long silence, as if it were suddenly the middle of the night. 'Is that an apostrophe s or s apostrophe?' the Mother says finally. She is a writer and a teacher. Spelling can be important-perhaps even at a time like this, though she has never before been at a time like this, so there are barbarisms she could easily commit and not know.'

In works that are not overtly comic, Moore said that humor's function is 'secondary to the simple fact of its realism. But I do think humor can make difficult things more bearable if it arises from the resilient part of human nature.'  Many of Moore's protagonists suffer from a kind of love malaise—either they can't find love, or love is leaving, or they want to leave love—especially in her earlier work, in which women are forever torn between their hearts and their minds. In Self-Help's 'How to Be an Other Woman,' the reader is directed through a series of increasingly emotionally mortifying circumstances: 'Wait in front of Florsheim's until seven-twenty. He finally dashes up, gasping apologies (he just now got back from the airport).' In Moore's second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), a couple goes to Paris for the husband's medical conference but also to save their marriage, and the protagonist, Benoîte-Marie, better known as Berie, is sent into reverie, back to the summer she and her best friend, Sils, were 15 and worked at a theme park called Storyland in upstate New York. Without drawing obvious lines, Moore contrasts the refinement of Paris with Berie's working-class French-Canadian childhood, the person she was with the person she's become, and the people she left behind. Tassie Keltjin, the protagonist of Moore's most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009), is similarly distanced from her family—by temperament, worldview, and other elements of cognitive dissonance that so often separate people from their roots. Mothers in Moore's stories frequently have a creative streak but are clinically depressed, though in the case of Benna in Anagrams, Moore creates a new vision of parenting, allowing a character the opportunity to figure out how to love and be loved unconditionally. Benna's motherhood might be imaginary, but it's also voluntary and desired, and Moore is capable of rendering the mother-daughter relationship so vividly that a reader would be forgiven for forgetting, during the course of the story, that the little girl isn't real.

Moore said that she did not claim a preference for novels over short stories or vice versa. 'I think the differences may be superficial (length) rather that essential. But even that one superficial difference allows for a great difference in reading. Time is both a medium and a subject in a novel. Not so much in a short story, which is more about disruption.' Moore's greatest talent may be her ability to speak directly to experience—for putting a reader, if not in the shoes of her characters, at least next to them on the couch or sitting at the end of their bed commiserating while laughing the kind of laughter that resembles crying. Moore knows this laughter well. In Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Berie savors a French pastry called divorce and recalls a dinner party at which a newlywed woman 'kept interrupting her husband to say in a theatrical whine, 'Honey, can we get our divorce now? Now can we get our divorce?' I was the only one there who thought she was funny. I was the only one there who laughed every time. At the end of the night, she leaned forward by the door and kissed me on the lips.'  

This article originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 01/14/2011