The Moore the Merrier

Collected Stories BY Lorrie Moore. edited by Lauren Groff. New York: Everyman's Library. 776 pages. $27.

The cover of Collected Stories

Please don’t bury me
Down in that cold, cold ground
No, I’d rather have ’em cut me up
And pass me all around
John Prine, “Please Don't Bury Me”

Fearful indeed the suspicion—but more fearful the doom! It may be asserted, without hesitation, that no event is so terribly well adapted to inspire the supremeness of bodily and of mental distress, as is burial before death.
Edgar Allan Poe, “The Premature Burial”

There could be unexpected chiming or clanging.
—Lorrie Moore, “Author’s Note” to Collected Stories

IF THE STRANGEST THING ABOUT LORRIE MOORE’S COLLECTED STORIES is that it didn’t exist already, then the next strangest thing about it is the fact that it’s being published now by Everyman’s Library. You know those guys? They do the handsome hardback reprints of “distinguished classics” that you find on deep discount at The Strand and end up buying when you’ve had just enough coffee to believe that this is the year you’re finally gonna go all-in on Turgenev. (The titles currently showcased on the Everyman’s website are Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Other Writings and a volume of Horace.) It’s an alarming act of taxidermy to attempt on a writer who is sixty-three years old, alive and well, and on the faculty at Vanderbilt.

But maybe it’s meant as a bit of arch lit-world comedy, like when Morrissey brought out his autobiography with Penguin Classics. Everyman’s, after all, is an imprint of Moore’s regular publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and anyone who knows Moore’s work knows that if there’s a joke to be told, she’ll tell it. Look no further than this book’s “Chronology,” that typically staid piece of front matter in which the author’s life and career are lined up against the major historical moments of her day. Here, tucked in among the wars and presidencies, we find an entry on the cloning of Dolly the Sheep and a running count of Viggo Mortensen’s Academy Award nominations.

Is Moore just having fun, or is she chafing at the morbid undertone of the project? Of course, plenty of writers have availed themselves of a Collected and then continued to produce significant work, sometimes a lot of it: Jim Shepard, Alice Munro, Deborah Eisenberg, and William Trevor all spring to mind. At the same time, putting out this kind of book surely can’t help but feel a bit like hosting your own funeral. We can hardly blame Moore for wanting to choose her outfit and playlist, or for wisecracking under her breath during the eulogy.

For a lot of people (I’m one of them) Moore’s ascent into the pantheon of American short fiction is already taken for granted. Certain of her stories—“You’re Ugly, Too,” “How to Become a Writer,” “Dance in America,” “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”—have become so deeply ingrained in our hearts and minds and syllabi that it’s all but impossible to imagine a time before them. It’s like wondering what the world was like before penicillin or Jesus’ Son. I’m glad this new volume exists, but I don’t need it open in front of me (or even in the room with me) to summon the mother from “Canonical Babbling,” who describes a blood clot found in her baby’s diaper as “a tiny mouse heart packed in snow,” or Mary in “Two Boys,” doubly entangled in hopeless romance and halfway to a nervous breakdown, wondering whether “you could open your arms and have so many honeys you achieved a higher spiritual plane, like a shelf in a health food store, or a pine tree, mystically inert, life barking at the bottom like a dog.”

Lorrie Moore at her home, Wisconsin, 2010. © Alec Soth/Magnum Photos
Lorrie Moore at her home, Wisconsin, 2010. © Alec Soth/Magnum Photos

REVIEWING MOORE’S 2014 COLLECTION BARK for the New York Times Book Review, David Gates posited that “Probably no writer since Nabokov has been as language-obsessed as Moore.” You can read that line as a pull quote on the jacket of the present volume, but in the original text the sentence keeps going, and it’s worth letting Gates finish his thought: “but while Nabokov saw himself as an enchanter, a Prospero of words reveling in his power, Moore is a darker spirit, skeptical of language even as she makes it do tricks. ‘Mutilation was a language,’ one character reflects when she sees her son’s cutting scars. ‘And vice versa.’ She’s the most Beckettian of Nabokovians.”

What Beckett, Nabokov, and Moore all have in common—besides a love of wordplay and black comedy—is what Raymond Carver called “the writer’s particular and unmistakable signature on everything he writes.” It’s something more emphatic than a style but less tendentious than a worldview, and I’ll go ahead and call it genius because the only other terms that come to mind are “gift from God” and “secret sauce.”

Lauren Groff, in her excellent introduction to the Collected Stories, writes of her own undergraduate frustrations with literature, of trying to enter “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.” Things changed for Groff when she discovered—in a course packet for a creative-writing class—the work of “brilliant, inventive, wild, diverse, astonishingly alive” female writers such as Grace Paley, Alice Munro, Louise Erdrich, and Moore herself. She remembers buying Birds of America the day it was released and reading it to tatters. She tells us about studying with Moore at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, MFA program (cheese platters! karaoke night!) and how, even now, “Lorrie’s is still the voice I hear when I’m considering whether a piece is finished or not; her moral rigor when it comes to the right words in the right order has been my steady friend.”

Groff makes the case for Moore as a humorist, but also as more than merely a humorist. It’s enervating that the “more than merely” case still needs to be made for funny writers, but here the benighted subject is raised in order to tell us something useful about how these stories function, and to present a sort of Unified Theory of Moore:

The humor in Moore’s stories erupts when a clear-sighted character has a devastating observation so urgent that it rises up out of their depths, but—because they are inherently kind and don’t want to cause pain—the observation gets warped or twisted just before it reaches consciousness. When it is at last released, it has crumpled under its own weight and has become humor. Jokes, puns, and wit become survival techniques of people who would never be as cruel in life as their internal critics are.

I’m with Groff here, but it’s worth adding that there are as many reasons why people laugh as there are types of laughter: nervous, earnest, alarmed, alarming, surprised, delighted, offended, sexy, false. Laughter can indicate inclusion or exclusion, seduction or rejection, recognition or confusion, haughtiness or submission. It is a language without words in which we are all fluent—or think we are, until the moment when we’re caught laughing too loudly, or not loudly enough, or at the wrong thing. The only human behavior I can think of that is more prolifically ambiguous than laughter is sex, which in Moore’s work (as in real life) is by turns the most and the least important thing that we have to offer each other, an act of utmost exposure committed (usually) in conditions of utmost privacy, in which the best and worst of us is—wait for it—laid bare. I’m reminded of Nell in Beckett’s Endgame: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.”

Perhaps the best reason to pick up a Collected Stories is practical: Economy size! Four for the price of one! This volume, with Everyman’s Library’s signature cramped typesetting and small trim size, is dense as a study Bible. It contains all of Moore’s collections in their entirety plus one excerpt apiece from her three novels, though if you want to know what’s what you’ll have to consult the back matter, because the stories are presented neither chronologically nor by original collection, but alphabetically by title.

This is, on first appraisal, a baffling choice. I love the collections in the original forms, with their oblique epigraph pages and their meticulous, even pathological attention to theme. (Try counting all the dogs and trees in Bark sometime, or all the similes in 1990’s Like Life.) But Moore is quick to remind us—in a brief and maybe just slightly tetchy author’s note—that all her books are still in print, so if the “obvious, sequential order” is what you want, you can still have it. Just not here. She writes, “I hoped instead to let the magical alphabet set individual stories side by side in an otherwise unexpected way so that friction or frost might occur: they could jostle and rap and spark or repel. Rub their cold shoulders. Get cozy or surreal in the manner that chance juxtapositions sometimes produce.” She also admits to a desire to discourage those “who would like to trace or discover the ostensible artistic development of a writer,” a task she describes as “a fool’s errand,” one that “even if possible and successful is somewhat embarrassing to the young author who remains alive within the older one.”

Writer to writer, I sympathize, but as a critic and as a fan I can’t help but be interested in that development; it’s one of the main things (besides a bargain) that brings me to a Collected, especially one by a writer whose work I already know chapter and verse. But Moore is correct that alphabetization yields unexpected juxtapositions, revealing obsessions and tendencies not just within a given book but from book to book and from era to era. For example, there is a brief, haunting image of a dazed mother caught sitting on a toilet by her daughter in the early story “What Is Seized,” from Self-Help, which came out in 1985. An almost identical image appears in a story called “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People,” from Birds of America, which came out in 1998. Here they are separated only by “What You Want to Do Fine” (another story from Birds), which itself has an odd resonance with “Which Is More Than I Can Say . . . ” since both stories are about a stressful road trip taken with a loved one.

These three “Wh” stories produce precisely the friction that Moore had hoped for, while also demonstrating some of that development she would rather we ignore. “What Is Seized,” written when she was all of twenty-four years old, is a rare example of a Moore story that doesn’t entirely succeed. It overstays its welcome by several pages, and its denouement anticipates—but ultimately falls short of—the incandescently off-kilter endings of Like Life: At this stage she still has more power than control. To turn the page from “What Is Seized” to “What You Want to Do Fine” is to jump several books forward and find the artist at the height of her powers.

“What You Want to Do Fine” is a lesser-sung entry from Birds of America that I found myself newly enamored of here. The story is a bizarre riff on the middle of Lolita, i.e., the road-trip part that everyone forgets about because it’s kind of boring. In Moore’s version, Lolita and Humbert are replaced by a gay couple, Mack and Quilty (!), who have an age disparity but are both well into adulthood, and who have been specifically precluded from having sex because of a recent medical procedure that Mack has undergone. On a long amble around the South, they bicker and joke and play Trivial Pursuit and try to figure out what they’re doing with each other and with their lives.

In “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” the May-September male lovers have been replaced by a mother and her adult daughter on a driving tour of Ireland, making their way to the Blarney Stone so the daughter can receive the gift of gab and overcome her fear of public speaking. It’s easily one of the silliest premises in Moore’s oeuvre (which is saying something), and yet it builds, slyly and inexorably, toward one of the most moving endings she’s ever written, a revelation about what it means to love and be loved unconditionally, to recognize that “It was really the world that was one’s brutal mother, the one that nursed and neglected you, and your own mother was only your sibling in that world.”

“Go Like This,” perhaps the oldest story in this book (it’s from 1980), is a mordant, wrenching meditation on suicide that also experiments with white space and punctuation in what is clearly an homage to Donald Barthelme, another Beckett-haunted writer whose saddest stories tend to be his funniest. It appears here next to “How,” which boasts a Beckett epigraph. Funny thing, actually: Half the stories from Self-Help end up reunited here in the H’s, because they’re parodies of the “how to” genre.

Elsewhere in the alphabet, “Paper Losses” and “Paris” are a pair of marriage-on-the-rocks stories. “Paris,” which is an excerpt from Moore’s 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, is a dark story of despair, haunted by a moment of violence whose effects the narrator still feels in her body. “Paper Losses” (from Bark) blazes with anguish and indignation: “Married for two decades of precious, precious life, she and Rafe seemed currently to be partners only in anger and dislike, their old lusty love mutated to rage. . . . They spawned and raised their hate together, cardiovascularly, spiritually, organically. In tandem, as a system, as a dance team of bad feeling.”

Besides being a great story, “Paper Losses” reminds us that just as we can trace lines of influence from Moore’s work back to that of Nabokov, Beckett, and Barthelme, we can also look forward from it to see her influence on her own cohort and the generations that have followed: Gary Lutz, Sam Lipsyte, Deb Olin Unferth, Tao Lin, Karen Russell, Julie Buntin, Danielle Evans, Marie-Helene Bertino, and of course the aforementioned Gates and Groff. Each has adored, absorbed, resisted, and finally had to reckon with Moore’s precedent, her double presence as pathbreaker and lion-in-the-path. The variety of their responses is one measure of the scale of Moore’s achievement.

A few more favorites from the Collected: “The Jewish Hunter,” “Vissi d’Arte,” “Terrific Mother,” “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce,” “Wings.” Are we closing in on a conclusion here? An ending, at least. Of this marvelous and slightly forbidding monument to a life’s monumental work, all I really want to say is that we are lucky to have it, in this edition or any other. And insofar as museums are not mausoleums, here’s looking forward to volume two.

Justin Taylor is the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, forthcoming from Random House in July.