More on Lorrie
It’s been a while, The Slog. I’ve been busy slogging away at other much less interesting endeavors. I’ll spare you the details.
Way back on September 10th, I went to hear Lorrie Moore in conversation with Michael Silverblatt at LA’s downtown library. The LAPL’s reading series is one of LA’s little gems. If this were New York, the event would be standing room only and/or would sell out in a day. Instead it’s a pretty relaxed affair and everyone has a place to sit. Did I mention it’s free? By the way, it’s free.
Once inside, it was a nice mix of young and old, male and female, readers and writers. Michael Silverblatt hosts KCRW’s program Bookworm (which is available on podcast here). I enjoy his conversations with authors immensely because it’s not all intellectual nit-picking. He doesn’t use -isms. He approaches the work with compassion and discusses it using language anyone can understand. He reads in order to enrich his own life and better his understanding of the human condition. And that’s a good reason to read. (He’s the subject of a lengthy profile in Oprah’s O magazine. You can read a lovely excerpt of this over at The Elegant Variation.)
This was not the fist time Silverblatt and Moore had sat down to talk about her work, so they slipped right into a familiar banter and even broke into song at one point (West Side Story’s “Gee, Officer Krupke”). I had never seen nor heard an interview with Moore before, and I was surprised to find her a very mild-mannered English professor in practical footwear. She spoke in smooth tones, almost the kind of sugar-coated compassionate voice you would hear in a commercial. For some reason, I was expecting her to be like the manic, self-deprecating and witty women in her fiction: a little more lively and chatty. This was not the case.
Okay, I have to admit I have a love/hate relationship with Moore. On one hand, I think she’s a brilliant writer; sometimes her sentences leave me in awe. Her female protagonists are smart and feel misunderstood. She ventures into dysfunctional terrain other writers avoid. However, I feel like she writes about women at their worst, and this gnaws at me. She always seems to focus on women in bleak circumstances, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but she doesn’t offer them a ray of hope. Not that all fiction has to have a happy ending, but (for me) there needs to be some kind of redemption or hope, even if it’s only implied. I find her work to be really depressing! Mary Gaitskill’s work is almost cheery in comparison.
So I was pleased when Silverblatt spent the first 15 minutes asking Moore if she considers herself a hopeful person. He said he cried a lot when he read her latest novel A Gate at the Stairs, so he continually returned to this point in their conversation even though she did her best to sidestep the issue. Trying to avoid a direct answer, Moore mentioned that nowadays people seem to be less hopeful simply due to the widening gap between rich and poor; this constant struggle just to make ends meet can leave a lot of us feeling less than hopeful about the future. Finally, Moore relented and admitted she’s become a little bit older and a little more weary of the world. Youthful optimism is an animal thing, she said; it’s about moving forward and propagating the species, and this tends to fade with age. At one point, Silverblatt referred to this as “irrational optimism,” and I laughed out loud.
I think this is an important conversation to have with an author like Moore, someone who seems to harp on life’s sore spots. In my opinion, she tries to balance out this bleak landscape with slapstick humor and puns that feel a little fake, so I was so glad to read Jonathan Dee’s review of her new novel in the September Harper’s. He says, “if you like it, you call it wordplay, and if you don’t, you just call it punning.” He continues:
At its most gratuitous—as with the German ex-boyfriend in Like Life whose one characteristic is that he always gets English colloquialisms a little wrong (“to each a zone” and “hunky-dorky)—this technique comes at the cost of emotional credibility. It’s the sheer accumulation, however, that’s most compromising; one or two characters who claim to mistake Gandhi for Bambi, or hostage for sausage, or who find it worth recording that “lovesick” is an anagram for “evil sock,” might seem plausible, but when nearly all of them do it, when over the course of several books it is well established as the rule rather than the exception, then it is clearly not about characterization at all.
I was so happy to read this. I am not alone! (There are also some voices of dissent concerning her new novel over at The Millions.) I completely agree with Dee’s idea that it undermines her emotional credibility. Is it an attempt at comic relief? For me, her continual punning feels like a nervous laugh or laughter intended to make others feel more comfortable. It’s not something done with sincerity. There’s no joy in it.