Just below the surface
by Keith Taylor
Although she has written a couple of novels, Lorrie Moore is best known as a writer of short stories populated with the middle-aged and the middle-class, with lawyers and businessmen and college professors along with the occasional house painter. Her characters are often witty and bored: "I married my husband because I thought it would be a great way to meet guys," says one. Yet Moore's people are surprisingly likable and completely recognizable. Most of them could fit in quite easily in Ann Arbor.
Moore's success lies in her ability to draw us into what are for the most part the minor dramas that transform these lives. She finds mystery in the mundane and convinces us of its importance. As one of her characters says to his writer wife, "This is the kind of thing that fiction is: it's the unlivable life, the strange room tacked onto the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science."
That exchange appears in what might be Lorrie Moore's masterpiece, "People like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" (from her most recent collection, Birds in America). It's an emotionally wrenching long story about a young child undergoing surgery for kidney cancer. "Peed Onk" is a typical Moore move; it is the parents' slangy shorthand for pediatric oncology. The slang might suggest a certain distance, but the story and the illness of a very young child barely a toddler just discovering his first words change everything. The focus of the story is always on "the Mother." We never learn her name; in the intensity of this situation, she becomes her maternal role:
In the few long days since this nightmare began, part of her has become addicted to disaster and war stories. She wants only to hear about the sadness and emergencies of others. They are the only situations that can join hands with her own; everything
else bounces off her shiny shield of resentment and unsympathy. Nothing else can even stay in her brain.
Although "People like That" treats an extreme situation, Moore's talents are equally manifest in any number of quieter stories. She can write about family games at the holidays, where a subtle and frightening turmoil churns just below a seemingly convivial surface. Or a mother and daughter can take a road trip through Ireland, pleasant and ordinary enough until a moment kissing the Blarney Stone turns into terror. When the seemingly imperturbable mother contorts herself to kiss the famous stone, her dignified facade crumbles, as her daughter discovers when she hauls her back up: "She was heavy, stiff with fright, and when they had finally lifted her and gotten her sitting, then standing again, she seemed stricken and pale." The truth is in the momentary shattering of appearances to reveal what lies below.
Lorrie Moore reads from her fiction at the U-M business school on Thursday, January 23.
[Originally published in January, 2003.]