The Lorrie Moore phenomenon

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 9.

I often hear people lay down rules for a good short story: gripping opening, compelling storyline, twists and turns, killer ending. When I hear this, I wonder if they’ve read Lorrie Moore. Because Moore is one of the best short story writers alive, and her fiction barely, if at all, conforms to those demands.

The plot in Moore’s stories is generally quite simple. You could probably summarize 95% of them like this: It’s about a woman who struggles with [fill in the blank]. They tend to start in an offhanded way and end more or less abruptly, without epiphanies or so-that’s-what-it-was-about jolts. (This seems nonchalant, but you can be sure the stories were carefully assembled.) To talk about twists and turns here would be odd, since the action generally moves by spurts, one episode slumped on the next. So if plot is what you’re about, you’ll probably feel cheated and ask for your minutes of reading back.

And yet Moore is a master craftsperson of the short story. Her stories are not about the plot. You don’t normally read Moore to find out what happens next; you keep reading because what you’re reading is so good. She presents snippets of people’s lives. Her command of language is impeccable. You get the most unexpected words that make you rethink something you had become all too familiar with. She manages to do this without falling into the kind of artificial wordiness I’ve criticized a couple times this month. Moore is bold with her similes, which is risky, but she pulls it off regardless. Take this pithy comparison from Birds of America: “Her heart flapped and fluttered, like something hit sloppily by a car” (p. 204). The “sloppily” turns a familiar turn of phrase into a quite powerful description of the situation.

Moore is also very good at giving a strong sense of the characters. She picks out great details that characterize the inhabitants of her short stories quite well: a pet peeve, a way of talking, a particular form of recklessness. Her ability also comes to the fore in the way in which she brings some of these elements together to bind the story into cohesion. This works wonders. For instance, in the story “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” (in Birds of America), the main character writes exams for American Scholastic Tests, and so the story is dappled with quirky multiple choice questions and wordplays that reveal a lot about her. And speaking of quirky, Moore is very observant, and her stories are crawling with wonderful asides, quirky little details that are tossed in and not pursued further. Her sense of setting, her keen grasp of different cities in America, is also remarkable.

Having said all this, I must explain something about my Moore experiences. The first I read of Moore was a book of stories called Birds of America. I was dazzled from the start, with “Willing,” the opening story about a washed-out middle-aged actress. You can read that story here. After a few more troubled and despondent female narrators, though, I started to feel the anthology was becoming repetitive. About halfway in you can find this story about a woman who utterly collapses after her cat died; you can find an earlier version of it here. And then more women in crisis: one of them accidentally killed a baby, another has a child suffering from cancer, yet another has affairs and drinks too much while riding out a political appointment as a judge. This recurrent framework dampened my enthusiasm.

And then I ran into Moore in the book Contemporary Fiction I’ve mentioned before. Hers was story number 35 (“You’re Ugly, Too”), about a reckless American History professor living in Illinois. After many good stories, but also many not-so-good stories, Moore towered high. I was struck by her skill and her pace, and wondered why more of the stories in the volume were not at least a bit like hers: funny and provocative, technically sophisticated and free-flowing. “Childcare,” about a college student from the country who considers becoming a “childcare provider,” is probably Moore’s most recent story. It was published in this year’s July 6 edition of The New Yorker. You can find it here. Here’s a trademark Moore description from that story: “her mouth, with its few and crooked teeth, bits of shell awash on a reef of gum, seemed a curious home for her voice, which was slowly surprising, with its intelligence and humor.”

I recommend sipping on Moore’s stories. Don’t read a bunch of them in one sitting. Take one at a time. Enjoy the language. Chuckle at the comparisons. Feel swept away by the surges of emotion. Then let Moore rest for a while, and after reading stories by other people you’ll return to her and relive the enthusiasm all over again.


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