Women on the shelf – Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie MooreThe Collected Stories is a compilation of short stories from some of Lorrie Moore’s previous publications (Birds of America (1998), Like Life (1990), Anagrams (1986) and Self Help (1985)), prefaced with four new stories for this release. A bulky volume at over 650 pages, it starts in an underwhelming way; ‘Foes’ is trying to say something, but never really seems to arrive at it, and the characters suffer from the inherent brevity of the short story format coupled with a narrative which I found rather stilted and oblique. I couldn’t invest in what was happening or the people involved, and given the richness of the stories later on in the book, I’m not convinced this was the strongest place to start. It is, however, well worth a little perseverance on the part of the reader, because beyond this shaky start waits a collection of fluent and resonant stories.

‘Paper Losses’ made me furious for Kit (the woman whose relationship is so incontestably over that even basic communication with her husband while on holiday has become almost impossible) while never once asking me to view her as the victim of any specific circumstance or individual. Perhaps Kit is simply a victim of what is and what cannot, and never could have been, changed or improved? Inevitability becomes an abstract, inaccessible antagonist in many of Moore’s stories; a real character in its’ own right, always representing the implication that other characters are not fully in control of their own direction.

‘Paper Losses’ is followed by stories where the very sense and meaning of protagonism is questioned, and Lorrie Moore treats self-obsession and pretension in her characters particularly artfully. For example, in ‘Two Boys’, where the very first paragraph details the contents of a postcard where Mary boasts of having two boyfriends at the same time, the words on the postcard feel tongue-in-cheek and almost self-deprecatory, but the fact that Mary really is living this big joke belies this apparent self-deprecation. Mary becomes something of a parody of herself; making fun of herself, but perhaps lacking the self-awareness truly to realise the pathos of her own situation.

The Collected Stories is a wonderfully varied showcase of Lorrie Moore’s modus operandi: engaging, authoritative writing, winning out in the face of themes which could easily be wide open to cliche and unconvincing characterisation. Her protagonists, in the hands of a less skilled writer, could easily have become a series of archetypal wronged women and ‘bloody men’, the bereaved and the cast-out, the overweight and the terminally ill or pretentious, misunderstood artists. Instead, they are both surprising and believable within both ordinary and extraordinary contexts. Lorrie Moore is playing with cliche, and she’s winning. All human life, typical and remarkable alike, waits within The Collected Stories.

For my part, I feel that the true beauty of Moore’s stories is that they and their characters have such an organic interpretative scope. Whatever Moore had intended her stories to say or show, she possesses that irresistible talent for inviting every reader to bring their own unique reading to each one. Many of her characters are almost parodic in their self-pity, self-doubt or self-consciousness, yet at the same time they retain interpretative value and invite questions, and there is little which is ‘obvious’ about her narratives. For this reason, I particularly recommend The Collected Stories for reading groups. Each story is rich in interpretative possibilities, and you’ll have a great time discussing them all!

Moore is unafraid to experiment with stylistic variation and the kind of evocative imagery that makes the reader smile in a sort of snug feeling of recognition (the description of acne as being like red lentils sitting under the skin is a personal favourite). ‘How’, for example, is stylistically short and sharp, written in imperatives and present and future tenses so that it reads like a manual or guidebook, matching the strained, tense subject matter perfectly. Many of her stories give a nod to the widely-held dictum that things should be ‘shown’ through direct speech rather than ‘told’ through description, but Moore can also write with very limited dialogue to ‘tell’ with enormous skill and, perhaps most interestingly, by inviting the reader to infer and conclude through considering what is not said.

The ‘Wronged Women’ and maternal themes which are often to be found in Moore’s stories could so easily have resulted in The Collected Stories’ condemnation as nothing more than a fictional treatment of feminism (or a lack of it). But Moore doesn’t defer to female (or feminist) darlings, and this is not simply ‘a book for women.’ Her male characters can be sinned against as much as sinning, and her stories are not always ‘about’ the wives and mothers as opposed to the husbands and fathers. Mary in ‘Two Boys’ and Charlene in ‘How to Be an Other Woman’ are neither empowered nor made admirable by their apparent sexual ‘liberations’, and ‘Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People’, ‘Terrific Mother’, ‘Places to Look for Your Mind’ and several others all ask different, but equally interesting and often deeply uncomfortable questions about maternity. Most enthralling is Moore’s refusal to shy away from ‘mummy martyrs’, disappointed or disaffected mothers, demanding mothers or any of the other potentially cliched maternal characterisations. This, I believe, comes back to the fact that Moore is able to write life into a cliche-in-waiting, and so needn’t cleave to ‘original’ ideas which are new, but essentially unbelievable. I’ve rarely read a writer with such an ability to make memorable characters who have such profoundly ordinary faults, simply by giving them an unusual location, event or even shaking up the style in which the narrative itself is constructed. Incidentally, Lorrie Moore was recommended to me on the basis of my fondness for Alice Munro’s work, and I can certainly see why; fans of the latter will find the work of the former very stimulating.

I experienced no great sense of ‘immersion’ in many of Moore’s characters, but I don’t regard this as entirely a bad thing. Her style lends far more to a sense of being an observer than of having to get inside each character, which is really rather refreshing. Her stories can feel like a very literary read and, much like good poetry, sometimes re-reading is necessary to truly appreciate the characters and themes beyond that which we find on the page. Her ‘show, but also tell’ approach makes it easier to view her work in an independent and enquiring way, and she’s not a dogmatic or forceful storyteller with a clear moral to relate by any means necessary. She also puts any idea that women cannot write convincing male characters firmly to bed. This book is a must-read for anyone who enjoys engaging short fiction with real substance, and appreciates a range of writing styles and searingly astute observation.

This review was written by Rebecca, a volunteer at the Glasgow Women’s Library.

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