I was so taken with the story at the time that I finagled an assignment to interview the author and ask her about the intimations of autobiography that were abuzz. She replied that reading autobiographically was “a vulgarity,” reminding me that the story is “a work of fiction concerning, among other things, the subject of the transformation of life materials into fiction.” But then she said, “I came up with this story in the course of a year when I was helpless before its subject matter.”
For those who are not new to the droll delights of Moore, this small, fat book with its slender gold ribbon bookmark — “like the psalm book it so stealthily resembles,” according to the passionate and excellent introduction by Lauren Groff — will be a treasure. “It is impossible to overstate,” writes Groff, “how deeply it can move you to discover, in a literary world that you love all the way to the bedrock but find mostly barren of any trace of yourself, a voice that could be your own, if only refined into art.”
The stories are arranged alphabetically rather than chronologically, from “Agnes of Iowa” to “You’re Ugly, Too” for reasons the author explains in a brief opening note: “Attempting to glimpse the growth of an author through chronological arrangement is, in my opinion, often a fool’s errand and even if possible and successful is somewhat embarrassing to the young author who remains alive within the older one.”
And for the young readers who remain alive within us older ones, there’s a detailed chronology, 1957-2019, at the front of the book where we can confirm our memories of how it was. The very ’80s “Self-Help” appeared right in the middle of that decade, 1985 — the same year as Grace Paley’s “Later The Same Day” and Anne Tyler’s “Accidental Tourist” were published, as well as the beginning of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reform of the Soviet Union.
“Like Life” was 1990; “Bark,” 2014, and between them, the great “Birds of America” in 1998 — the year of A.S. Byatt’s “Possession” and Bill Clinton’s impeachment. My previously unresearched belief that “Birds of America” is everybody’s favorite story collection has been supported at least by Carrie Brownstein, Miranda July and Sloane Crosley, each of whom separately told the New York Times that this was one of the 10 books they would take to a desert island. In addition to the 37 stories that come from the collections, three stories are adapted from the novels “Anagrams,” “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and “A Gate at the Stairs.”
If you are new to Moore, it might be better to start with one of the original collections, as reading the stories for the first time in this setting blurs them a bit. Just about every major character has the same propensity for jokes and malapropisms and misconceptions relating to language — a restaurant with steaks cooked “to your likeness”; a man who tells his girlfriend she looks “hunky-dorky.” “Why is there a month named March,” a character asks, “but no Skip? May but no Can?”
The effect recalls what they say about your dreams: Every character is actually you. In fact, Moore’s use of language is so exuberant and adroit that while I was reading this book, it seemed to me that other writers were either very lazy or not quite fluent in English.
“Everything’s a joke with you,” says Midwesterner Pinky Eliot to his East Coast poet girlfriend Odette in Moore’s 1989 story, “The Jewish Hunter.”
Odette replies: “Nothing’s a joke with me. It just all comes out like one.”
That could describe just about every story here. Sharp insight into every kind of trouble — marital, medical, musical, veterinary — comes cloaked in irony, bedecked with wordplay, aphorisms sparkling. Like a nurse distracting you as she slips the needle into your flesh, Moore makes you forget for a moment the serious problem that occasions your meeting.
There are a great many stories about disappointment in love, whether it’s the boy-girl kind or the parent-child kind; maybe all of them, in some way, are about that. Memorable formulations abound. “Marriage. It’s an institution all right.” “Marriage was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically.”
“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is about both kinds of love: boy-girl and parent-child. Abby is contemplating the end of her marriage while on a trip to Ireland with her mother. Eventually, she figures out that what went wrong is that no toast was made at her wedding, and she toasts her mother, who may have been short on TLC, but passed on a “knack for solitude.” Abby’s conclusion is classic bittersweet Moore: “It was really that the world was one’s brutal mother, the one that nursed and neglected you, and your own mother was only your sibling in that world.”
In the end, Odette is right. Nothing’s a joke with her. It just all comes out like one. You’ll laugh, sure, but you’ll also feel profoundly understood.
Collected Stories: Lorrie Moore
Everyman’s Library, Knopf. 748 pp, $27