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Lorrie Moore Laughs Wild Amid Severest Woe

A new novel from the master of wit and death offers solace for the massacre ahead

David Yaffe
August 08, 2023

John Foley

John Foley

I never had to learn how to love Lorrie Moore. She was always unrequired reading. I went to college in the ’90s, the decade of peak Moore—of her second and third collections, Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998)—when there were fewer distractions, when noncurricular reading greased the wheels to the real thing. A Lorrie Moore story was a tryst, a trip to Pleasure Town, something to imbibe not because it was good for you but because it was good. You were not going to be quizzed on this, or have a theory, for God’s sake—and this was a moment when you were supposed to have one. During the heady late ’90s, in Salon, Moore was asked by Dwight Garner—now a New York Times critic who reviews her books—if, while at Cornell for her MFA, she had any interest in literary theory. Her response:

I never got really completely immersed. I was at Cornell where Jonathan Culler is, and where Derrida was a visiting professor for a bit, and so it was really very much, you know, in the corridors and in the conversation at Cornell … We hung out with all the other graduate students who were clearly immersed in theory. I did take a couple of courses and read the books and I did find it interesting initially. Although the complete removal of the author from every single text was always a little alarming to me. You know, going back home and trying to write your own.

She read but did not convert; she needed no hermeneutical interventions. Alison Lurie was her mentor, but it was obvious to her that Lorrie Moore was Lorrie Moore right away: no guru, no method, no teacher.

Moore had a voice that, like Philip Roth’s, announced itself immediately. Voice is this amorphous category that most writers cling to. Everyone has one, but they are not created equal. Bad writers have bad voices, and the successful ones use them to reinforce their badness. Or, if it’s an algorithm-driven imitation of a voice, it checks all the boxes, it seeks the corporate embrace. This badness chatters everywhere. You wish you could drown it out, but you can’t. The industry tells writers they must be some version of this, because this is what people like.

But good writers have voices, too. You have never met this person, but this person knows you. Where have they been all your life? Lorrie Moore’s voice was unmistakable. Her voice took you to the brink and you had to laugh. To be an MFA student in the late ’90s was to write Lorrie Moore knockoffs.

Why did they want to be Lorrie Moore? Because to read a Lorrie Moore story is to be devastated. And the subject lurking in the background or brimming at the surface, beyond the screwball banter and wordplay, is the inevitable. It is inevitable to find being a professor in the Midwest a drag when you’ve lived in New York, though when Moore did write about New York, it is usually in even bleaker terms. A Lorrie Moore heroine is always the smartest and most clever person in the room, so smart and clever, she knows the limitations of smartness and cleverness.

Read a Lorrie Moore story when you’re young, and you gasp. I couldn’t imagine going through that, even though you just did if you were reading correctly. Get older, moving farther, moving faster, and maybe your trauma will beat my tragedy or Lorrie Moore’s ordeal. But live long enough, and it will hit you. Will you endure it like a Lorrie Moore heroine? Will you be laughing wild amid severest woe? Or will you be completely swallowed up?

“The Nun of That,” a novella in Anagrams (1986), a short-story collection calling itself a novel, is the beginning of Moore presenting to us the way we delude ourselves just to get through our daily lives. This was already Moore’s second book, even though she was only 29 and already on the tenure track at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In “The Dead,” Gabriel Conroy was a phantom of what Joyce feared he would become if he had never left Ireland; Moore’s Benna Carpenter is what Moore feared she would have become without her precocious success: a teacher at a community college. In her real life, Benna has an affair with a student, gets fired from her job, and is sexually assaulted by her brother. But the story really comes alive with George, her imaginary 5-year-old daughter, and Eleanor, her imaginary friend from grad school. George spouts cute malapropisms, singing a Dylan anthem as, “The ants are my friends. They’re blowing in the wind,” yet another invented reality. Eleanor persuades Benna, five pages into a dissertation, to drop out, saying, “This isn’t writing. This is drinking.” All of the best dialogue comes from the fake people.

With all her achievement, failure was Moore’s muse. And as Benna’s life unravels, her imaginary creations evaporate, and we must mourn for the people who never existed. Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories to live, and this is what a Lorrie Moore heroine does. Daily life is unbearable, and delusion helps us through. “Sometimes,” says George in the end, “I feel like I’m right in the mist of things.”

And there were times when Lorrie Moore was right in the mist of things for me, too. When A Gate at the Stairs was published in 2009, I found myself swept up in nostalgia for my wild youth, but even though that voice was as present and beguiling as ever, it felt like a bad match for 9/11 and losing your brother in Afghanistan. It’s not that you couldn’t joke about it. Jon Stewart and Team America: World Police found a way. It just didn’t fit. One could enjoy it, but it was hard to justify it. She was missing a step in her post-Birds of America stories, too. I found myself commiserating with other Lorrie Moore-ites about these stories—they felt like Lorrie Moore, they had that inescapable voice, but they were somehow mid. Her essays, collected in See What Can Be Done (2018), still had it, and I loved this one on Titanic:

By the third time one sees James Cameron’s Titanic, believe me, its terrible writing is hardly even noticeable! The appalling dialogue no longer appalls. The irritating and obtrusive framework that surrounds the central narrative and that gives the viewer long lingering gazes at a minor actress with whom the director is having an affair tumbles away, inessentially. By this time too, one clearly no longer cares that not one adult one knows and respects doesn’t despise the film; nor does one any longer care what any of these respectable adults might think about anything. Love misunderstood—the heart societally, perhaps cosmically, rebuked—is one’s theme.

There are, in other words, reasons to be obsessed with something, to need to see it over and over again, but it does not necessarily have to do with its being good. Something could suck you in and you are completely absorbed. You are clinging to the mast, and it is taking you in until the lights go up.

Lorrie Moore’s take on Titanic becomes fate. Would she be a shimmering memory of the ’90s while the world moved on? She’d still be in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, she would still have a named professorship at Wisconsin, then at Vanderbilt, but would every visit to Lorrie Moore really be a tribute to a time when she was the most admired short-story writer in America? Would she get another moment?

Wit, it has been said, is cold. Death is even colder. Cultivate the former before you inevitably face the latter. This is the bargain Moore proposes to us, starting with “You’re Ugly, Too,” a story included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century, edited by John Updike. The title comes from a rather crude joke—the answer to a patient wanting a second opinion—but it is not a crude story. Our protagonist, the ironically named Zoë, is someone who not only enjoys jokes, but survives by them. And she’s an assistant professor of history in the numbingly sincere Midwest. After she is informed by her doctor that she has a mysterious growth on her abdomen, or ovaries, or gallbladder, she asks, “You guys practice medicine?” She visits her sister in New York, says nothing about her medical news, and ends up on the roof of her sister’s Manhattan apartment at a Halloween party. Zoë is 34 and single (“Oh my God,” she says, “I forgot to get married”), dressed as a bonehead—with a bone through her head—is getting set up with a guy dressed as a naked lady, with tacky tits and all the rest. This guy thinks he’s funny, but he’s not, plus he doesn’t get her jokes. She eventually nearly pushes him over the roof, enough to upset him, but not enough to get in trouble. The few seconds of peril are her revenge, and we, along with John Updike and everyone else along for the ride, feel a mini catharsis. First the joke, then the diagnosis, then the dangle.

But all of this seems innocent compared to the story for which she will always be best known. The title itself—“People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling and Peed Onk”—juxtaposes a grim summation with wordplay. This is a story about a mother whose baby gets a cancer diagnosis, and with that, the joking doesn’t stop. The jokes are a retort, a weapon. They are all the Mother has. She had them before the news, and then she thought of them immediately.

“Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.” A joke, for God’s sake. After he was born, she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over and over again, like a novel by Mrs. Camus. These jokes will kill you!

These jokes will kill you, yet the joking doesn’t stop. There are jokes on every page, a bereavement laugh track. The story first appeared promising fiction-as-disclosure, when New Yorker fiction editor Bill Buford ran a fetching picture of the glamorous author who went through hell for you. Moore was furious that the picture ran without her consent, but as a branding campaign, it stuck. Moore didn’t want the photograph to run because it was fiction, not memoir. Yet Moore went through something like that experience, but she says she made most of it up. Her son is a grown man and survived whatever it was, something more mild and less dramatic.

Lorrie Moore is not a stoic. She’s in a screwball comedy, wondering how she got to this radiology lab with the actuarial odds. The Husband knows the Mother, and immediately wants her to monetize her agony:

“Take notes,” says the Husband, after coming straight home from work, midafternoon, hearing the news, and saying all the words out loud—surgery, metastasis, dialysis, transplant—then collapsing in a chair in tears. “Take notes. We are going to need the money.”
“Good God,” cries the Mother. Everything inside her suddenly begins to cower and shrink, a thinning of bones. Perhaps this is a soldier’s readiness, but it has the whiff of death and defeat. It feels like a heart attack, a failure of will and courage, a power failure: a failure of everything. Her face, when she glimpses it in a mirror, is cold and bloated with shock, her eyes scarlet and shrunk. She has already started to wear sunglasses indoors, like a celebrity widow. From where will her own strength come? From some philosophy? From some frigid little philosophy? She is neither stalwart nor realistic and has trouble with basic concepts, such as the one that says events move in one direction only and do not jump up, turn around, and take themselves back.

“Take notes and the pain goes away,” said Virginia Woolf, who did until she didn’t. Whether or not the pain goes away, the Husband points out that the taking of notes could be monetized. It’s the late ’90s. Glossy magazines paid $2 a word for this stuff, sounding even more calculating than his wife. (Lorrie Moore would be talking about her divorce in public a couple of years later, so go figure.)

The Mother is surrounded by cases way worse than her son. Many of the children will not live long. One mother tells the Mother, our mother, that she is planning an escape: “I can’t go into too much detail because—hi, honey!—the kids are in the room, but I’ll spell out the general idea: R-O-P-E.”

The Mother suffers, but she suffers the least. She makes it out without a bald child. She plans to never see any of the people that she met at the cancer ward ever again. She will take her baby with her and go back to being whatever normal life is for Lorrie Moore. But not until this famous, drop-the-mic ending:

These are the notes.
Now where is the money?

The Husband, at least the fictional one in this story, knew her a little too well. These lines could be on her tombstone.

Moore’s exchange relationship with her trauma looks pretty cold blooded on the page. But then here comes good old cold wit, before we get to even colder death itself. Lorrie Moore has a “no hugging, no learning” approach to trauma and bereavement. This is the centerpiece of Moore’s new novel, I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home

It’s been a little over 25 years since “People Like That Are the Only People Here.” She could dine out forever on it. Formally, it’s a tour de force. It starts with the horrifying news and ends with an escape, a comfort that everyone else will be so much worse off. But for those of us who hang on and see where she is going next, it is clear that if wit and death are her master themes, then her new novel takes these even further, maybe further than some readers might have liked, although Parul Sehgal, in The New Yorker, called her “critic proof,” which is an elegant way of saying, I have so much affection for this imperfect yet beguiling thing before me.

The Lorrie Moore heroine with her medical tests and jokes, then with the baby’s medical tests and jokes, has nowhere to go but into the thing itself. Our heroine is a party clown who keeps attempting suicide until she finally succeeds while under psychiatric observation. Finn, her ex who never got over her, gets urgent news about her while he is tending to his brother, who is dying of cancer in a hospice facility. The book’s early pages are pretty dark, unable to see beyond heavy, inconsolable grief. Finn must pick up Lily’s body and take it across the country to an organ donor facility in Tennessee. Lorrie Moore may have been thinking of Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a cross-country trip to honor the wishes of the dead matriarch Addie Bundren. The most famous line of the novel is “My mother is a fish.” Finn and dead Lily allude to this in their exchange.

“I am a fish,” she said.
“You are a fish. Or fishlike.”
“My mother is a fish.”
“Yup. There is that.”
“I suppose by now I have violated the three-day fish rule.”
“The fish rule does not apply to you.”
“That is the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.”

This exchange is happening when Finn, in a hotel room, bathes his dead, great love. But in Faulkner’s novel, the dead stay dead, even if they continue to haunt. In Moore’s book, the most vital character has a lot in common with earlier Moore heroines, except that she is a rotting corpse.

Yet even as a corpse, Moore makes us fall for her, knowing that she is already in the mist of things.

When Finn is at home without her, when she has died twice, he cannot let go. He is sitting in front of his keyboard. Twitter is filled with accounts of the dearly departed. AI can keep a phantom of the dead alive, sort of. Sort of is all Finn has left.

He changed all his passwords to Lily1 with a dozen y’s—strong with a long bar of green. Memory. Passage. Nothing in the world is truly over.

A couple of years ago I moved from Syracuse to Brooklyn, and I made an extra trip to retrieve my vaccination card and anything else I might have forgotten. We who have too many books are always looking to cut them down to essentials, especially when there is a big move to a smaller space. And yet, dear reader, it took until recently for me to realize that I forgot to pack a single Lorrie Moore book with me. When my apartment burned down over 20 years ago, replenishing Birds of America and Anagrams were high priority. Did I really think I had moved beyond Lorrie Moore? Did I see my new urban life as one with more stoicism and less delusion?

When I read Lorrie Moore’s new novel and then reread everything else, I find that, as I age, I need my delusions more than ever. I’m not above communing with my imaginary friends. I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home is by no means a perfect book, but I am grateful for it. There is a massacre ahead. Here is someone to help me through. Whatever life does for me or to me, I will never leave Lorrie Moore behind again.

David Yaffe is a professor of humanities at Syracuse University. He is the author, most recently, of Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell. Follow his Substack: