The Book Club

The Human Voice

Dear Sarah:

You’re right about the headlines, but do remember that I’m an editor. They pay me to reduce beautiful complexity to crude simplification. You’re wrong about me having changed my mind. I haven’t soured on the modern short story. I was just playing editor again, trying to get us onto Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro and off Jorge Luis Borges. (Since you know I think he’s boring and all.)

It didn’t work! I still can’t get you to talk about Munro or Moore as writers, rather than as cartoonish versions of a kind of short-story writer you say don’t like, though you phrase your objections in so (amusingly) hypothetical a fashion I darkly suspect you of disliking the idea of them more than what actually comes out of their word-processors. If I understand you correctly, you think Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro are interchangeable–with each other and with a slew of other writers–in the following ways: 1) They both write about lonely women; 2) They both swath their symbolism in painfully concrete details; 3) They both tell stories you think you’ve heard before. (Bitchy quibble of the day: Point 3 does not apply to Munro’s “The Children Stay” and The Bridgesof Madison County–in Munro’s story, the mother actually leaves her children behind.)

Your first two points are true, though not particularly damning. Flannery O’Connor clothed a broad Catholic symbolism in shockingly physical realism, her heroines were often lonely women–would you write her off for it? What I think you’re complaining about is a certain type of story that gets published a lot in The New Yorker, or used to. Both Munro and Moore get published a lot in The New Yorker, or used to. And yet I feel they’re as far from your caricature of TheNew Yorker writer as the middlebrow, middle-aged lady who may or may not have graduated from a graduate writing program as O’Connor would have been. I’ll explain in a minute.

Your third point is also true and also suffers from the so-what problem. All the stories have been told before. If you boil down the narratives in the Old and New Testaments, the Iliad and the Odyssey, Greek tragedy (a rehash of Homer), almost all of Western poetry (a rehash of Homer and the Bible), the Victorian novel (a rehash of Shakespeare, if Harold Bloom is to be believed, which means it’s a rehash of Homer and the Bible), the modern novel, the art film, etc., etc., you get a shockingly small number of basic moves: Boy meets girl, God meets man, boy loses girl, God loses man, etc. An entire theoretical movement–structuralism–was founded on this proposition. Remember Vladimir Propp and his Morphology of the FolkTale? I can’t remember how core stories many he came up with, but I seem to recall that it was in the low two digits.

What you’re overlooking in Munro and Moore is their distinctive voices–voice being, in my opinion, the most important part of any story, and even more so in a short one. Lorrie Moore may be afflicted with more than her fair share of self-pity, but hers is also one of the most unusually brilliant voices around. It’s this dizzying mixture of wry, dark, giddy, and surrealist. No one gets how we speak better than she does, even when she makes everyday speech sound like a tragicomic event. I laugh out loud when I read her, and don’t care that her whining makes me want to throw the book across the room. I can’t help quoting ad nauseum, hoping against hope that you’ll get the joke. Take the first passage from “Willing,” the first story in Birds of America, which pretty much sums up the Lorrie Moore story in all its goofy bitter bathos:

“In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, the naked hip, and even though it wasn’t her hip, she acquired a reputation for being willing.

’You have the body,’ studio heads told her over lunch at Chasen’s.

She looked away. ‘Habeas corpus,’ she said, not smiling.

’Pardon me?’ A hip that knew Latin.

’Nothing,’ she said. They smiled at her and dropped names. Scorsese, Brando. Work was all playtime to them, playtime with gel in their hair. At times, she felt bad that it wasn’t her hip. It should have been her hip. A mediocre picture, a picture queasy with pornography: these, she knew, eroticized the unavailable. The doctored and the false. The stand-in. Unwittingly, she had participated. Let a hip come between. A false, unavailable, anonymous hip. She herself was true as a goddamn dairy product; available as lunch whenever.”

By contrast to Moore’s bratty immediacy, Munro speaks at a great remove, from which she seems to see everything clearly and intimately and yet in the tragic fullness of time. I’m not putting this right–when I read the preceding sentence it sounds portentous and banal, but I don’t know how else to say it. She does omniscience better than anyone I know. She has a deep sense of actions and their consequences and the way they ripple through people’s homes, words, possessions, consciousness. And that knowledge comes out of her in these wonderfully calm, trickily simple sentences. Here’s Enid, the home nurse I was talking about from The Love of a Good Woman, who suddenly realizes that the people she’s trying to impress with her self-sacrificing routines (because she comes from too high-class a background to be a home nurse) probably all think she’s a fool, and instead of getting angry, feels guilty for her moral arrogance:

“So she got up and went to work; as far as she was concerned, that was the best way to be penitent. She worked very quietly but steadily through the night, washing to cloudy glasses and sticky plates that were in the cupboards and establishing order where there was none before. None. Teacups had sat between the ketchup and the mustard and the toilet paper on top of a pail of honey. There was no waxed paper or even newspaper laid out on the shelves. Brown sugar in the bag was hard as rock. It was understandable that things should have gone downhill in the last few months, but it looked as if there had been no care, no organization here, ever. All the net curtains were gray with smoke and the windowpanes were greasy. The last bit of jam had been left to grow fuzz in the jar, and vile-smelling water that had held some ancient bouquet had never been dumped out of its jug. But this was a good house still, that scrubbing and paint could restore.”

Everything you accuse Munro of is here: loneliness, and an emphasis on homey, even homely, detail. This could be country kitsch, or a rendering of psychological complexity of the sort you find so dull, or the same old Chekhovian insistence on humdrum detail as an oblique evocation for the more profound meanings of life. A woman cleans up someone else’s mess; that’s it. But Munro’s problem here is how to define goodness, and this strikes me as a beautifully economical way of going about it.