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How a Person Shouldn’t Have to Be: On Heather Havrilesky’s ‘What if This Were Enough?’


In 2018, the phenomenon of the magazine “agony aunt” might strike as an outdated relic. Within a climate where reactions and opinions to our most prosaic problems can be conjugated instantly via a parade of always-on messaging apps, “writing in” to a sagacious stranger to solicit thoughts seems quaint; a symptom of a more considered time where distance and perspective were esteemed above the restless tumult of the now.

Heather Havrilesky—the long-standing respondent of The Cut’s popular “Dear Polly” column—accounts for this moment of insatiable communication at the cost of actual connection in her third book, What if This Were Enough? She updates the columnist’s stock Q&A format with a collection of more roving, labile essays. Not quite venturing “advice” per se, but brimming with the author’s warmly diagnostic and incisive voice, the pieces crystallize as potent blends of cultural critique, memoir, and anecdote, which take a scalpel to the inured surface of modern American life.

Havrilesky’s second book, How to Be a Person in the World, which anthologized a selection of her column’s most insightful questions and responses, was conspicuously more sure-footed in tracing a path for how to navigate the strains of self-actualization. As its title signals, What if This Were Enough? is more hesitant and querulous in tone: less eager to lure readers, in this turbulent administration, with packaged certainties or digestible truths. At the same time, the book doesn’t shirk from the fact that in a late capitalist context, “There’s not much understanding in store for those who hesitate, change their minds, falter.” “Success” is found instead in strict, unwavering fidelity to a “chosen path”; or what the author laments as the dubious, anxiety-infected temples of your “best life” or “your truth.”

Always briskly observant, and often mordantly funny, the topics of these 19 chiseled pieces range from an excavation of the blunt hypocrisies of Disney World, “a carefully honed feat of interactive advertising”; to the “callow” premise of the Fifty Shades trilogy, “late capitalist fairy tales that double as sexual daydreams”; to a meditation on the fragile state of the modern girl, “a delicate glass vase, waiting to be broken.” An essay wryly titled “Delusion at the Gastropub” unapologetically eviscerates the polarized and class-segmented food culture in America, which reifies “rabbit larb and Japanese uni” at one end of the spectrum yet feeds the masses on “a wasteland of over processed, cheap and empty grub” at the other, making neurotic, conspicuous consumers of us all.

In addition to these flinty shards of cultural critique, autobiographical vignettes peer into Havrilesky’s family and marriage, which allow the author to expand her voice beyond her Polly avatar (“Playing House,” “Stuffed,” “True Romance”). More universal manifestos for women and their sense of worthiness and self-esteem more broadly also feature (“Bravado” effortlessly trumps the fatigued tropes of most Ted Talk scripts). Perhaps Havrilesky’s greatest strength of all, however, is her talent in distilling the specific grain of “the contemporary.” Much of the pleasure in reading her is derived from shivers of abrupt recognition: that Crossfit is kind of bullshit, actually; or that the dutiful quotidian imbibing of probiotics or “decaf coffee drinks” won’t “whisk away” the absence of an inner life (or what Joan Didion, in an essay in the volume Slouching Towards Bethlehem, famously defined as “self-respect”).

With a view toward interior integrity—what her first book called “all the magic inside of ourselves”—one of What if This Were Enough’s key messages is that in these over-stimulated times, we must carve out space to “step back” and observe what isn’t good for us, or to claim time for “quiet wandering” out of the exhausting frame of “events and sounds and messages that have nothing to do with where you are.” This is most successfully exhorted in an essay called “Lost Treasure,” which recounts an old childhood friend of the author’s mother taking frequent three-hour walks to amass “aimless junk,” which she would later fashion into crafted artifacts, proudly displayed in her eccentric home.  Though spliced with Havrilesky’s typical irreverent admissions—“When I go on walks these days, I listen to podcasts and answer texts and make phone calls and listen to Kendrick Lamar”—the serene state that “Lost Treasure” ultimately ends up counseling feels a little too abstracted, idealistic. Disconnecting and “tuning in on what’s around you” depends on certain material bolsters and secure coordinates, i.e., a baseline sense of privilege.

The acknowledgment, in a later essay called “The Popularity Context,” of Havrilesky’s moderate and vaguely out-of-character Twitter addiction—that she likes to “look at her numbers” and attend to the “illusion of a waiting audience”—is therefore gratefully received. It is more in line with the book at large’s ode to “the miracle of the mundane” and the “off-kilter,” chaotic, often contradictory experience of being human. Obsessive shuttling toward being better, more “authentic,” or more abundant, Harvilesky warns, overwrites the stilling peace that can be found in straightforward acceptance: that one may indeed have spent an hour lost in a social media vortex, and, so long as such an act is generative as opposed to “numbing,” then that is, imperfectly, OK.

In a short story simply titled “How,” from her 1985 collection, Self Help, Lorrie Moore writes, of the quietly spreading malaise that typifies contemporary adult life, “It hits you more insistently. A restlessness. A virus of discontent.”

Today, that virus has spread so capaciously that to “go viral,” or to have your online life eclipse the imprint of your existence IRL is often held up as a way of being ultimately present, more connected and more alive. In What if This Were Enough? Havrilesky’s “answer” (for she retains some sketches of the columnist) to the problem of the now is the intentional “savoring” of the present (whether it be currently experienced online or in a forest, culling twigs) or the mantra that “This is exactly how it should be,” despite the pressures of the perfect, winningly on-brand people in our heads. It is glued together with the awkward bonds of everyday life, or with the rote “rhythms of survival”—attending children’s birthday parties, getting car checkups, watching reality TV—which hopefully encompass other people but sometimes don’t. The most visceral question, in the end, is whether we can sit down with ourselves amidst all the clutter. Yet instead of telling us to “streamline our message” or to excise everything in life that does not unilaterally “spark joy,” Havrilesky’s most resonant piece of advice is also her most simple: Let it all in.

How a Witch Cured My Writerly Envy

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I parked my car in front of the house of a modern-day witch called The Oracle of Los Angeles. I climbed the stairs of the giant, rambling, craftsman-style house to knock on her door. Through the glass I could see a bookshelf loaded with tomes by Salman Rushdie and Joy Williams. This, I thought to myself, was one very well-read witch.

I had arrived at the witch’s house because envy—that most unflattering of emotions—had long been gnawing at my innards. Often it made me feel lightheaded, almost dizzy. I wanted what other people had. In particular, I wanted what many of my friends had, friends whose career success came to them with what looked to me like little effort and mountains of luck while I toiled for years on projects that always seemed to bounce off the rim.

The Oracle (whose real name is Amanda Yates Garcia) opened the door, welcoming me by smudging me from head to toe with burning sage and sweetgrass, ringing a bell up and down the length of my body. She ushered me into the dining room, an open space with a long, low altar covered in tarot cards, candles, a set of animal horns coated in silver glitter, crystals, feathers and other objects.

I gave her cash—the spell would cost the equivalent of 50 minutes at a therapist’s office—and offerings for the goddess: chocolate and a small bottle of whiskey, as well as items I would need for our spell. The witch gave me a delicious cup of tea made from rose petals, and then she asked me why I had come. For an hour we talked. I told her the long history of pain that had brought me there, about the envy I had tried to assuage through various healing modalities. I cried. The Oracle seemed unfazed; she told me that everyone who came to her cried.

The Oracle told me we would no longer use the words “envy” or “jealousy” to describe this emotion that had ahold of me. Envy was a demon that inhabited me and so we would call it a demon, and in the course of the spell we would drive the demon out.

Before we began I went to the bathroom. The witch’s toilet reading included a tattered paperback of mythology, Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and a booklet entitled, “Witch-Hunting, Past and Present, and the Fear of the Power of Women.” I was somehow pleased to see that like my bathroom, the witch’s could use a scrub.

When I returned it was time for the spell to begin. The witch stood up and let out a piercing whistle while fervently shaking a gourd rattle, which I first mistook for a maraca. As she spoke, her voice changed, become low and growling and beautifully theatrical: “Hail Guardians, spirits of the East, watchtowers of the mind, Guardians of intelligence, mighty Guardians of the air. We call you now. Witness our rites. Charge our spell. Be here with us.”

While I felt I should probably close my eyes, I kept them open as she called spirits from all four directions. This performance, done so earnestly, was fun, dramatic, almost campy in its showy playfulness. But it was also poignant and powerful. It alone, I thought, was well worth the price of admission.

These spirits of water, wind, air, and fire called from the north, south, east, and west would join us and help create a sacred, protected space where our spellwork could occur. Did I believe this? I felt it didn’t entirely matter—nothing spiritual I’d done before had ever been so delightful. And while I was watching a witch shake a maraca, was the demon twisting my innards, was I wanting what other people had? No way. I was too busy being entranced, enjoying the strange beauty of the experience.

After the spell, we went to a fire pit in the backyard to burn an image of a demon that I had brought with me. There was something tactile and satisfying about seeing the demon go up in flames, then turn to ash that the witch carefully folded up in a tinfoil packet. When I asked if I should leave the ash with her, the witch shuddered. “I don’t want that bad juju around here,” she said. And then she gave me instructions on how to dispose of it far from her home.

When I arrived at my house late that night, my scientist husband emerged from our bedroom to hear how things had gone.

“What’s that on your face?” he asked, worried.

But even as my hand rose to touch my cheek, I knew. “That’s ash from the demon I burned and then dumped at a crossroads where I will never go again,” I said.

“Ah,” he said, nodding. I think part of the reason he loves me is I don’t bore him.

I went into the bathroom and scrubbed the ash away with a wet washcloth.

Was the demon gone forever after that night? At first I was as envious as before, but when I felt the old twinge I had a new tool. “Go with honor, go with love. Be gone, be gone, be gone, I banish you!” I would say to the demon, just as the witch had taught me to do. (This is a technique remarkably similar to cognitive behavioral tools focused on stopping negative rumination.)

But a few months later, when I saw a kind friend’s project featured in a popular magazine, I texted her with genuine enthusiasm and ran out and bought a hard copy for her. The act of kindness and support felt light, good. Soon after that same friend told me she was suffering from depression. Raising small kids and trying to write was weighing on her; it was hard to find time to even shower, much less exercise. And she was envious of another author whose book was published on the same day as her own and was receiving more attention.

It was after my visit to the Oracle that I realized it: there are stories we tell ourselves about success. That it will heal us. That it will make us happy and whole and self-confident and well. That it will protect us from every disaster and heartbreak and illness and tragedy. And we know none of this is true. Logically, making a list of famous authors who have suffered terribly would disavow these lies. Virginia Woolf. Ernest Hemingway. Anne Sexton. Hunter S. Thompson. David Foster Wallace. Success does not heal.

But certainly for a very few of us, it does grant some sort of immortality. It guarantees we will be remembered. There are writers whose work we recognize in a line or two, and our hearts sing with recognition, even joy. And so they live on in us.

Someone told me once that Jay Leno stopped worrying about his legacy after he mentioned Dick Van Dyke to an intern, who thought he was making a gay joke. Going to see the witch has helped me to accept that no matter what I achieve in this lifetime, in many ways I will forever be like the demon whose likeness I printed on paper and burned. As will the people who materialize before me during my bouts of envy. We will die. We will be turned to ash, chips of bone. Someone who loved us will scatter us, maybe not at a crossroads, but certainly in the wind. And like the demon, we will be gone. Nothing left but a smudge of ash on a forehead. Nothing remaining that a washcloth cannot scrub away.

Image Credit: Pexels/Mac Mullins.

Is She Writing About Me?: A Profile of Lorrie Moore

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“What does your tattoo say?” Lorrie Moore asks our young waiter.

Moore has the distinct quality of seeming silent even when she is speaking. Her low, honeyed voice moves in jovial swoops, and when she laughs, she does so deeply, like she means it. We sit tucked away in a corner of Brassiere V, on Madison’s trendy Monroe Street, Moore sipping on beer and coffee like she has a hundred times before for a hundred other journalists and I imagining an invisible web spreading out from her, potential narratives vibrating on the periphery.

“It says ‘I am the rock that grounds me.’ Deep,” he adds, sort of apologetically.

“That’s too deep for a tattoo,” Moore teases. Turning back to me, she says, “There was a girl who used to bartend here with a tattoo I borrowed for a character. It was a city on her neck and I had a character who had all the cities that she didn’t want to go back to as tattoos.” KC, a young but tired indie musician, is tattooed with “Decatur,” “Moline,” and “Swanee” and befriends, at her apathetic boyfriend’s suggestion (and with questionable motives) an aging and maybe-horny man.

The story in which KC appears, “Wings,” was published in Harper’s and is in Moore’s new collection, Bark. “Wings” is both a summation and forgiveness of the gross things we do, like dating schmucky people and schmoozing the nice-but-wealthy old man next door, things meant to help us get ahead but that instead leave us a little behind. “Ignorance ironically arranged for future self-knowledge,” thinks KC, “Life is never perfect.”

Taking in the room, Moore explains that her writing usually starts with characters and predicaments, “people who are up against the world in a particular manner. Feelings you are trying to get at with language.”

Thirty-seven years have passed since Moore’s first published work appeared, a short story about a janitor in an elementary school, which won Seventeen magazine’s fiction contest in 1976. She was 19 years old and refers to the experience as a “fluke,” noting that she didn’t get serious about writing until many years later. Originally, she had hoped to win Seventeen’s art contest but says that by time she wrested up the courage to send them anything at all, she was writing stories. “What I remember most is the 500 dollars,” she recalls. “Which seemed a fortune to me, and I was able to buy my textbooks plus a new stereo.” Her next published work would not appear until 10 years later, the barbed and reflexive Self-Help, a book that hooks you with all the tough, but good-natured love readers go back for again and again.

Born in Glens Falls, a small town in upstate New York, Moore attended Saint Lawrence University where she studied English, graduating summa cum laude. Her father was educated as a scientist and worked in insurance, though his true love was music, while her mother was a nurse, a teacher and homemaker, and a “community activist of sorts.” The household was fairly religious; dinners began with grace and there was minimal TV watching, a home replete with all the “general suspicions of the 20th century” Moore said last October in a talk, “Watching Television.” Like many of her generation, her and her brother’s salad days were full of illicit television viewing in the basement TV room and mad dashes back upstairs as their parents pulled into the driveway. Their mother would sometimes press her hand against the TV screen to see if it was warm, the vestiges of “Gilligan’s Island” and “F-Troop” evaporating off the glass.

Moore says her parents weren’t supportive or unsupportive of her writing career. “No parent in their right mind should really encourage a child to become a writer. It has to come completely from the child,” she explains. Besides the relative poverty most writers at some point find themselves in, the writing life also tends to be an isolated one, with observational skills sharpening at a quicker pace than social ones. I ask her whether or not she feels her capacity to observe ever gets in the way of simply interacting with people. “I think with all observers it’s a problem,” she remarks, and refers to one of her favorite writers, Alice Munro. “I can’t remember precisely what she said,” Moore says of Munro’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in Literature, “But I think essentially it was ‘I just want to be normal now.’” It’s the old idea that to be a writer is to lead a double life. “You’re not doing quite what other people are doing in the same situation perhaps,” Moore reflects.

Part of what defines Moore’s public persona is the debate over how autobiographical the work is, as well as the fervid enthusiasm of her fans. Set in that comfortably crummy place we call middle class, Middle America, her protagonists are often witty, stubborn, and charmingly self-deprecating, a humor mostly lost on the mollifying Midwesterners that surround them. It’s an embarrassing show of intelligence that leaves them feeling more isolated and misunderstood than before. Moore invokes with eerie familiarity awkward moments that tend not to pan out so well — if at all — in a landscape distinctly red, white, and blue. Her hometowns are dead-on, though they have caught her some flack from a few of her Midwestern neighbors. “She made it clear in many interviews how little she thought of the city and its people,” an anonymous reader writes on Madison’s local The Daily Page. “This disdain also showed up in her fiction.”

Home of the University of Wisconsin Badgers and the fiercely granola, Madison is somewhat of an anomaly: a university-town hailed for its liberalism and farmers’ markets in a largely conservative state. The summers in Madison are buggy and bird-chirpy, full of Friday night fish fries and beer-drinking Lutherans. The winters are insanely cold, with hoar frost and black ice and gobs of snow. Cars remain salt-encrusted until mid-March, when temperatures rise high enough to wash them without the doors freezing shut. Wisconsin, like the rest of the Midwest, is dull and cozy and more appealing when filtered through fiction or Instagram.

Some locals took umbrage with Moore’s story that appeared in 1997, in The New Yorker. “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” is a tale in which a baby is diagnosed with cancer and undergoes an operation with some procedural errors. Moore has a son of college-age who was also very ill as a baby and Moore, speaking to the Guardian, explains that the story was assumed by some to be attack on the local hospital. “They felt that I was hard on the medical students, and hard on the doctors.”

From the opening paragraph, it is hard to divorce the fiction from its foundation in reality.
The Surgeon says the Baby has a Wilms’ tumor. The Mother, a writer and teacher, asks, “Is that apostrophe ‘s’ or ‘s’ apostrophe?” The doctor says the Baby will have a radical nephrectomy and then chemotherapy. The Mother begins to cry: “Life has been taken and broken, quickly, like a stick.” She thinks perhaps she is being punished for her errors as a mother. At home, she leaves a message for the Husband. The Baby has a new habit of waving goodbye to everything, which breaks her heart. She sings him to sleep and says, “If you go, we are going with you.” The Husband comes home and cries. He tells the Mother, “Take notes. We are going to need the money.” He says, “I can’t believe this is happening to our little boy,” and cries again. The Mother tries to bargain for the Baby’s life, imagining the higher power she addresses as the Manager at Marshall Field’s. She argues with her husband over the idea of selling the story: “This is a nightmare of narrative slop.”
Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.”

She ruffles slightly when asked directly how autobiographical the work is, and is careful to describe writing like stagecraft. “I’m never writing about myself. It’s [about] observing a feeling in someone else. Imagining a feeling in a particular character — and that character is a collage from your mind — and then you enter into that character like an actor or actress. You’re not going to be journaling. You’re trying to find, as efficiently as possible, a thing that person would say — or possibly say — and definitely do, that you, the author, are interested in the reader feeling. All of that happens at your desk.”

Moore does not journal at all, but she does keep a notebook. “One should always take notes and try not to be lazy about it,” she says. And to that end, one is reminded of Joan Didion, who failed at keeping a diary, instead finding comfort in the distinction of note taking. “The point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking,” Didion writes in her essay “On Keeping a Notebook.” “That would be a different impulse entirely, an instinct for reality which I sometimes envy but do not possess.” Similarly, Moore’s work is brimming with a brilliant discernment of what may be interesting to express through prose as opposed to what is overly expressive, a literary refining process Didion describes as “just this side of self-effacing.”

“People Like That” is one of Moore’s best-loved short stories, and to say it is simply memoir perhaps diminishes her ability to pull back and allow the reader some breathing room, a little space for Moore’s audience to enter into her characters and share their pain and the evolution of their love.

Moore is no memoirist, but it is not impossible to connect a few dots between her world and that of her characters, especially when sitting in her web. A small sympathy went out to our waiter when he described the quinoa salad as a “mélange.”

“That’s a terrible word to use for food,” Moore teased. The boy blushed and fumbled for a better description. In her novel, A Gate at the Stairs, protagonist Tassie Keltjin marvels at the evolution of menu-language. “I went back to studying the menu — was it not a kind of poetry?” narrates Tassie. “There were astonishing things: crab mousseline with a shellfish cappuccino. There were fennel-cured salmon noisettes with a champagne foam. Not a Chubby Mary in the house. There was bison carpaccio with wilted spring leaves…There were salads of lambs quarters and mint and sorrel with beets and pea shoots and tomatoes that were heirloom, like brooches, and cheeses that had won prizes in shows, like dogs.”

Obvious correlations like tattoos and menus, or the doll hospital near Moore’s hometown and the one that appears in “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” are peppered throughout her prose, making it especially hard for people — fans, relatives, friends, and boyfriends — to not become paranoid. “But that’s what artists do,” Moore says, explaining that if she does borrow something like a tattoo, she asks. “And ultimately, elements of a story collide and create a certain feeling,” she says. “You are trying to give the reader an experience.” And with Moore, it’s an experience that occasionally makes the reader want to bash their head in.

“I remember reading a story of hers about a woman who drops a baby,” says Jad Abumrad, host of the popular radio show Radiolab, “and I was devastated.” The last in her collection of short stories, Birds of America, published in 1998, “Terrific Mother” opens with a young woman, Adrienne, awkward and discomfited by the idea of motherhood. At a backyard party, Adrienne is asked to hold a friend’s baby and in an unfortunate moment of picnic benches and gravity, drops and kills the child. It’s a dazzling and trenchant look at one woman’s struggle to somehow continue a life after a god-awful event; about how heavy past events can weigh in the present. “She goes right for the jugular,” says Abumrad.

Her newest collection, Bark, is perhaps her darkest yet and took her over ten years to compose. “One wants a story to be searing and to be whole in terms of what it’s taking in of the world and of life,” she writes later in an email, recognizing the punch she can pack. She suggests that the stories can stand alone, that they should perhaps be read that way. “I think as with all story collections the reader must pace herself, since certainly the writer did.”

Our waiter returns with a small pot of coffee and instructs Moore to “wait three minutes” before pouring. Turning his attention to the newly arrived couple seated next to us he recites the specials, this time without using the word “mélange.”

Like many writers, Moore’s life is not innately interesting, and could be a stand in for most artistic types whose repertoire includes graduating with a liberal arts degree and moving to New York City. “I used to be skinny and young in New York,” she says laughing. Moore worked briefly as a paralegal in the city but the allure of a MFA program, especially one that would pay your tuition, proved magnetic enough to draw her away from city life. “It’s a lonely business, writing. To be around other writers — for them to read your work — it sounded like a dream come true. [And] it kind of was.” She wasn’t keen on leaving New York City but Cornell offered her the best deal. “’My god!’ I thought, ‘I’ll never see another bagel again!’ But of course the main street of Ithaca is all bagel shops.”

Shortly thereafter Moore left for a job at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where she taught for over 30 years, only this January relocating to Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Her more recent emails are flavored slightly with southern vernacular, trying on colloquialisms like “darlin’” for size.

What is remarkable about Moore’s prose is how true it feels, her gift in pointing out the “general absurdities of being human,” as Brooke Watkins, a librarian at the New York Public Library wrote to me. I met Watkins at “Watching Television,” part of the NYPL’s annual Robert B. Silvers lectures. Her readings are a veritable bonding experience, excited conversations of “first times” with Moore’s work edge into something akin to sexual frenzy. A young man behind the merchandise table selling Moore’s work raved with abandon about “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” — his personal favorite — while the woman behind me avidly agreed, saying the book “enters into your bloodstream.” The two hit it off so well I felt like the third-wheel, and slouched off with my then still unread copy. (It is now also my personal favorite. Followed closely by Birds.)

Her fans have been described by the New York Times as “ardent, even cultish.” And like the equally ardent and cultish readers of Joan Didion or David Foster Wallace, writers also distinctive and evocative and deadly funny or deadly sad, we the willfully misunderstood finally feel understood, and we crave her writing, almost narcissistically so. Because we each feel like she “gets us,” we also feel — covetously and alone — that we “get her.”

It is her heroines, specifically, that cull strong, sororal ties. “I’ve met lots of men who love and admire her fiction,” writes Watkins, “but I think it’s her female readership that has more of an obsessive relationship to her work.” Moore, the writer of anxious women with rogue emotions — women unsure of what scares them most, domestic failure or domestic success — has been collectively appointed mother to a thousand disoriented daughters. “Her characters aspire toward a life of the mind,” Watkins writes. “They crave some kind of hard-won wisdom but often slip into self-deprecation and cynicism instead, which ends up being really funny.” With honed bullshit detectors and an over-developed sense of humor, Moore’s characters exemplify a “way to be resilient even when they’re sinking fast. I’ve always found her writing obliquely instructive in this way.”

Moore is no minor authority on human understanding and her language is quick, the kind of language that asks us who you are and what you want to be, reminding us that higher understanding always prevails at our own expense and that happiness can be hard work. In “How to Become a Writer Or, Have You Earned This Cliché?” Moore writes, “First, try to be something, anything else.” And then, later, “You spend too much time slouched and demoralized. Your boyfriend suggests bicycling. Your roommate suggests a new boyfriend.” And later yet:
Vacuum. Chew cough drops. Keep a folder full of fragments.

An eyelid darkening sideways.

World as conspiracy.

Possible plot? A woman gets on a bus.

Suppose you threw a love affair and nobody came.
The essay is Watkin’s personal favorite. “I’d never read anything like it,” she says. “In the end, of course, the story is a cautionary tale about a woman who sacrifices everything for the time to write, and eventually she’s left with no ideas or inspiration, or really any friends, and when I was eighteen I thought this was both sad and hilarious, and the truest thing I’d ever read.”

Exploring the demands of a life is the heart of Moore’s work, and the resonate truth of her prose has fueled a fevered desire for her books. Her characters don’t so much adventure through life as they do drift and stumble through it, making it a map of emotional landmarks, places you keep finding yourself in. One suspects that Moore is not simply writing a life, but cleverly recording yours. There is a commonality linking reader with character, an elastic boundary between her fiction and our reality that both reinforces and subverts one’s own sense of uniqueness. Coming away from one of her stories, one is reminded that we are all just doing this the best we know how.

Image via Bill Morris

The Danger in Cohesion: Tom Perrotta’s Nine Inches

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Tom Perrotta occupies a rare and privileged place in American letters: the literary writer with popular appeal. He writes serious, thoughtful realism, but his stories have mass appeal: his novels Election and Little Children have both become Academy Award-nominated films, the film version of The Abstinence Teacher is in production, and The Leftovers has recently been picked up as an HBO series. Nine Inches is Perrotta’s first book of short stories since 1994’s Bad Haircut: Stories of the Seventies, and it is being publicized as his first true short story collection (the stories of Bad Haircut are all linked by the same protagonist, making it something of a novel-in-stories). The dark suburban tales of Nine Inches are compelling and likely to appeal even to many Americans with no special interest in the short story, a form that has notoriously become the province of the ivory tower. But taken as a collection, Nine Inches reveals a fatal flaw that undermines the skilled artistry: Perrotta’s heavy hand.

Perrotta’s strengths as a writer are clear, and they are remarkable: narrative efficiency and unity of vision. Perrotta’s narrators tell the reader what they need to know, when they need to know it. Details, whether internal or external, serve the development of character motivations and narrative tension. Nothing is wasted on, say, removed rumination or subtle texturizing. Our subject is always clear: these people in these places, with these problems, inevitably driven toward these game-changing epiphanies. Nowhere is this clearer than in Perrotta’s tightly-constructed opening sentences: “The Superior Wallcoverings Wildcats were playing in the Little League championship game, and I wanted them to lose”; “Ethan didn’t want to go to the middle school dance, but the vice principal twisted his arm”; “In the turbulent, lonely months that followed the collapse of his marriage, Dr. Rick Sims became obsessed with the blues.” Instantly, we have the narrative skeleton: character, conflict, and — perhaps just as essentially for Perrotta’s way of storytelling — the quirk. Passion inspired by a Little league game, coercion into middle school dance attendance, a divorced doctor taking up the blues: there’s a taste of the intriguing in the ordinary, inviting us to watch the drama unfold.

As for unity of vision: first of all, Perrotta’s standard setting is no secret. In fact, it’s his calling card. The blurbs on the back of Nine Inches proclaim it: Perrotta is, according to Time, the “Steinbeck of suburbia,” while USA Today has called him an “astute student of twenty-first-century suburban life.” It is no surprise, then, that Nine Inches’ milieus are without exception suburban, while its concerns are affluent, white, suburban concerns. These concerns frame and underscore the collection’s coherent existential outlook: cynical, exhausted, and oppressed.

As a theme, marital strife dominates. In fact, every one of the marriages at the stories’ forefront is plagued by divorce, adultery, or a medley of the two. Two stories deal with the college application grind: one from the perspective of a good student who ended up somehow rejected from even his “safeties,” the other with a professional SAT-taker. The stories inhabit the same psychic as well as socioeconomic space: they could conceivably take place in the same area code. In fact, they read like various inflections on the same attitude. Life is unfair, this attitude holds. Hard work, good intentions, and a sensitive soul go unrewarded. Institutions will inevitably betray you. And life’s sweetest, most profound moments are to be snatched lustily and illicitly, like the nerd’s revenge in “The Test-Taker” and the adulterous kiss in the title story.

And here we begin to see how Perrotta’s strengths collapse into a flaw. This thematic, geographic, and socioeconomic coherence is what Nine Inches stands on to give it the look of a proper collection, and it is what lets us hear Perrotta’s voice as a voice. It is this unity that earned Nine Inches a comparison to James Joyce’s Dubliners in The Boston Globe. But this well-intentioned coherence also betrays Perrotta’s authenticity as an artist in revealing his heavy hand. Perrotta’s voice, as manifest in these stories, is neither dynamic nor complex. Rather, it is resolute, heavy, and oppressive. It lacks nuance. The comparison to Dubliners turns out to be superficial and lazy; while Joyce’s masterwork illuminates the complexities of human life through its distinctive milieu and voice, Perrotta’s collection elides subtleties in favor of unquestioned certainty: this is how stories work; this is what life is like.

This flaw only becomes clear as the collection unfolds. Though some stories are stronger than others, each piece taken on its own is far more compelling than the collection as a whole. “The Test-Taker,” which I had the pleasure of hearing Perrotta read at an event this past summer, is clever in concept and darkly convincing in execution as it unveils the seemingly cosmically tragic interactions of aspirational high schoolers. But read as the penultimate story in the collection, the perspective and the narrative devices employed to convey it have become monotonous. Nine Inches ends up being less than the sum of its parts. The stories begin to fade from their superficial distinctions into a drone. At times it seems that a new story will offer a truly unique perspective, as in “The Chosen Girl,” which leaves the settings of high school and troubled marriage to consider the difficulties of having one’s son grow up and grow distant. But these rare moments become lost in the flood of sameness. By the collection’s end, the reader is struck by the sense that, however strong Perrotta’s eye for narrative structure, the content of the vision is not only unified, but bleakly unvaried and simple.

Amidst the book’s too-coherent vision, each story’s structure begins to seem too intentional, too pointed, too constructed. The seams start to show. Perrotta is an efficient writer. Perrotta, as Aristotle said of nature, does nothing in vain. But as the collection’s outlook grows increasingly tiring, Perrotta’s tricks start to seem more like tricks. An attentive reader can reliably predict when a flashback is coming, when a scene is going to fade into character exposition, and of what the climax will consist. This is not to say that Perrotta ought to be an experimentalist (which he certainly is not), or that there is anything inherently wrong in sticking to tried and true narrative structures and strategies. But without a rich breadth of perspective, the artistic architecture is bound to start showing. Perrotta would do well to loosen his grip, and to reconsider the way his own attitude overpowers his characters’. He could take a cue from classic collections like Dubliners or Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help, or even Jim Gavin’s recent and masterful Middle Men, and see that stories need not be univocal for a collection to be coherent: better that they harmonize instead.

Post-40 Bloomers: Shannon Cain’s The Necessity of Certain Behaviors

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This piece was produced in partnership with Bloom, a new site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older. Click here to visit Bloom, where Shannon Cain will be the featured author throughout the week.

Shannon Cain will never be convicted of excessive reverence.
My father is a literature professor, retired. Emeritus. Charles Dickens was the genius at the center of my childhood. If Dickens were alive and in need of a baggage handler or someone to suck his dick, my dad would have been the man for the job.  (from “The Nigerian Princes”)
This penchant for the subversive syllogism is one of the many pleasures of Cain’s story collection The Necessity of Certain Behaviors, which won Pittsburgh Press’s Drue Heinz Prize for 2011. Making her debut in her early forties, Cain came to fiction writing via an energetic first act that included political activism, work for philanthropies and non-profit organizations, and parenting. She’s also the recipient of an NEA grant, and with Lisa Bowden, the co-editor of Powder, a book of writings by women military veterans.

The title of Cain’s story collection is polymorphously suggestive, teasing the reader into attempted decodings in reaction to the individual stories. Some of my attempts: “The awkward pressure of domestic arrangements.” “The revelatory power of embarrassing situations.” In its context in the title story, the phrase has to do with a character’s complicity in her own idealization, but the collection invites us to think about the title more expansively. In an interview for Arizona Public Media, Cain asserts she writes about people living on the margins of society, not necessarily the economic or racial margins, but the behavioral ones. She’s interested in people who make decisions which get them into trouble.

Often, both the behavior and the trouble are sexual in nature, and sexual politics are one of the collection’s major concerns. Cain describes herself as “a proud feminist-leftist bisexual loudmouth,” whose literary models are James Baldwin, Sandra Cisneros, and Nadine Gordimer. However, the collection is anything but polemic. Instead it’s gentle, compassionate, and funny. It’s not driven by a sense of grievance or injustice, but by a politics of empathy, and what it offers us is not indictment of how things are so much as an alternate vision of how things might be. It’s not fiction that makes a political argument, but fiction that reifies a political vision. What my family used to say about my grandmother goes equally well for Cain. She never fights: she only conquers.

Perhaps because the first and last stories are about women energetically playing both sides of the field, bisexuality has a strong enough presence in the book to push the reader towards thinking about it as metaphor. In literature, bisexuality often signals the writer’s interest in notions of androgyny, gender confusion, or flexible identity. That’s not Cain’s beat: she’s interested in inclusion, in what might be declared in-bounds for any or all of us. She’s less about sexual Independence Day than sexual Christmas morning. Cain also cites Kurt Vonnegut as an influence, and it’s easy to think that she’s ringing changes on Welcome to the Monkey House in a number of places. The Necessity of Certain Behaviors works the second wave of the sexual revolution of the sixties chronicled by Vonnegut.

Cain shares Vonnegut’s love of deflating the pompous, as seen in the quote at the top, from the story “The Nigerian Princes.” Cain also shares Vonnegut’s love of social topsy-turvydom. For example, in the same story, the narrator uses his best male friend as a reverse beard, pretending that they are lovers (he is in fact heterosexual) in order to keep his parents from pestering him for the grandchildren.

“The Queer Zoo” takes topsy-turvydom a step further:
There’s no actual policy at the Queer Zoo against hiring straight people; that would be illegal. Sam is alert to rumors about the existence of other hetero employees, but so far none have turned out to be true.
Sam cleans cages. Primates, birds, elephants. No, not cages: enclosures. At the Queer Zoo, the word “cage” is forbidden. Sam’s girlfriend, Teri, says he underestimates his coworkers, that he ought to come out, already, that they’re more open-minded than he gives them credit for. But it would be absurd, after all this time, to admit he isn’t gay.
One of Sam’s charges is to care for a group of Bonobos, the subspecies of chimpanzee famous for their bisexuality. But the chimps are not presented as an object lessons in ideal behavior: anything but. Instead, Sam begins to feel protective of the one chimp who doesn’t want to live as if it’s five minutes before the end of the world in a sixties novel. The story works its way towards an unexpectedly touching Bladerunner-esque ending that leaves us asking questions about the ethics of normative pressure, no matter from which angle it may come.

“There is a boy and there is a girl. Jane sees the girl on Tuesdays and Fridays, and she sees the boy on Wednesdays and Saturdays. The other three nights, she sleeps by herself in her big, firm, bed.” “This is How it Starts” is the first story of the collection, and, minus the second-person address, it’s reminiscent of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help in its wry and wistful account of young love in New York. Cain’s comic tonal strategies are similar to Moore’s. Both of Jane’s lovers slowly crank up the pressure on Jane to take their mutual activities from the status of a twice-weekly racquet-ball date to something resembling a normal relationship.
The boy walks beside her, all the dogs at her side. There is silence, during which she assumes his thoughts have moved on to football or food. But at the next doorway, he says, “Lousy pay is why they invented rent control.” His eyes flicker upward, in the direction of her apartment.

In evolutionary terms, her job at this moment is to encourage him. Her girl instinct is clear about this. She is supposed to say something to spark further comments regarding shared domesticity.
Like Moore, Cain is interested in the divided consciousness. We know the idea that’s occurring to Jane, but there is a conspicuous failure of one part of her mind to endorse the observation of the other.

In the wrong hands, the comedy of comparison could go Seinfeld very quickly. Did you ever notice how in bed, woman are all like THIS but men are all like THIS? But the language is delicate, specific, and original. “She ponders instead the unfair advantage of girls over boys. Their adaptable body parts, and their ability to say what they mean.”

Again, the title keeps pushing at us to look for patterns. What certain behaviors are so damn necessary? Jane’s female lover confronts her and pushes her to make a choice. Jane’s habitual response is to deflect, to avoid.

She looks for something relevant to say, some piece of information, something that will not require her to form a sentence containing any of the same words the girl has just used. She looks for a small fact, a clarification. What she ends up with is this: “The dog was a gift.”

Later, on the same page, it’s the boy who wants a heart to heart.
“I’m going back to my wife,” the boy says. They are sitting at the dinette table. Normally he would be gone by the end of her first dog [walking] shift but today she comes home to eggs on the table.

She pushes her plate away. “This is my great-grandmother’s china. It’s antique.”
In the end the story isn’t about the pleasures and pitfalls of liking both oysters and snails. Jane’s bisexuality is a given of the situation, almost a sleight of hand trick, and a clever diversion from the story’s true line of inquiry, which has to do with Jane’s capacity for commitment and intimacy, with her readiness for adulthood. As we eventually learn, Jane’s most significant relational axis is not the romantic engagement of equals but the vertical one of parents and children, and she ends the story on the phone with neither the boy nor the girl but her mother. It’s worth noting the collection features nearly as many pairs of mothers and daughters as it does lovers.

In another interview at The Short Review, Cain says that the number one thing she wants to know from her readers is, “Did I go too far?” Too far in what direction? The book is anything but angry: she’s not working Kathy Acker’s side of the street. Despite the collection’s glorious cover featuring perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing protuberant breast in the history of publishing, the stories aren’t stealth attempts to double as titillation. Writing about sex isn’t the same as writing erotica — Cain isn’t working Susie Bright’s side of the street either. What is sexual freedom pushing against, in this collection? Perhaps in a nation whose Puritan roots are omnipresent, there’s no need to overtly state what the enemy is.

The closest the collection comes to defining its opposite is in “The Steam Room,” the story that does go the furthest, at least in terms of how much trouble it dishes out to its main character. In its opening scene the protagonist Helen is caught masturbating in the YMCA steam room by two “after-school Bible Clubbers.” But lest we read any Manichaean confrontation into this, the story quickly makes it clear that the girls are not cardboard fanatics, and Helen has only herself to blame for getting caught with her pants down. “‘Don’t think it’s not a sickening feeling,’ she confessed. ‘I’m sickened.'”

Helen’s “expensive orgasm” and subsequent public humiliation threatens to land her in jail and is potentially devastating to her husband’s political career. The story is hardly cynical or flip about either of those consequences, but while protestors camp in front of her house holding candles and banners that proclaim, “The Wages of Sin are Death,” an odd thing happens: friends, family members, and complete strangers begin to privately share their own stories of sexual misbehavior and shame with her. Because she’s been caught “jilling off,” she becomes a kind of psychic shame-free zone for others. It’s as if the world keeps failing to draw the most elementary conclusions from high school health class. Everybody likes to get off, so why do we have to expend so much effort concealing it? Welcome to the monkey house.

Good fiction is an invitation to ponder the hologrammatic relationship between the part and the whole. How does this image, or phrase, or sentence, or scene somehow incarnate its parent vessel? How does our take on the intentions of the book inform the way we read its components? Jane, of “This is How it Starts,” is an artist who paints on glass, which necessitates a seemingly backwards approach. “She must paint her foregrounds first… she must put blush on a cheek before she paints a cheek.” The image is slyly suggestive of the process of fiction itself: details have a way of creating stories around themselves, and the act of writing is often a quest to discover why some mental snapshot or fragment of language is exerting such relentless pressure on the writer’s cerebral cortex. The passage also directs us to look at the way human lives are driven by small details, by contingency.

One final return to that pesky multivalent title: here it is in its natural environment.
In the city where she’s from, Lisa knew a man named Bennett with full Greek eyelids, a cynical urban grin, and unappeasable curiosity about Lisa’s feelings. Some mornings while she showered they’d pretend she wasn’t aware he was watching her through the vinyl curtain, which was clear but tinted a flattering pink. Her selection of the curtain was deliberate. In the city where she is from, people in love understand the necessity of certain behaviors.
The more time I’ve spent with the title, the less it seems like code, and the more straightforward and irreducible it’s become. I think most of us have often wished for a flattering pink bathroom curtain ourselves, perhaps one we could wrap around our souls. I know I have. “The Necessity of Certain Behaviors” which ends the collection, has a whiff of magical realism about it. Lisa, with the absolute minimum of explanation, leaves Bennett and ends up in a mountain village in a foreign country, where she settles into a life of jealousy-free sex with both a male and female lover. The magic lies not so much in the unexplained oddities of the village (where are the children and old people, and how come they don’t have broadband yet?) as in the absence of emotional mess and trauma. In this village, all sexual attachments are allowed to run their course without anyone locking themselves in the bathroom or hiring a lawyer. That’s one flattering pink curtain.

For more on Shannon Cain, and other authors who “bloomed” after the age of 40, visit Bloom.

Mothers and Daughters: On Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name

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There are certain arts which even the most seasoned practitioners swear remain a mystery to them. Motherhood is one. Arranging a short story collection is another. In her debut collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, Natalie Serber grapples with both, and the result is a clear-eyed case study of what’s necessary and unsolvable in each.

The mothers and daughters in these stories are working out how to hold on to one another even as they scramble to get out of each other’s way. Most of the stories within follow two main characters: Nomadic Ruby Hargrove and her daughter, Nora, who she’s trying to raise as a “liberated” woman, and doing it solo.

The stories about these two women take place in the apartment buildings and classrooms of 1970s America, Florida and New York and California, worlds we know, though at times one gets the feeling Serber knows them better. Not because of poetic flights of language or narrative tricks — there aren’t many — but because her prose resists elision. Serber delves into the dreamlike and the mundane with equal comfort, writing as convincingly about an LSD trip as she does about the details of post-partum pain. And she does not shy away from the unbeautiful: “His tender eye skin was gray as raw shrimp,” she writes of Aaron, a character who started the story with bedroom eyes.

This commitment to the real world as one finds it (i.e. often unbeautiful) is also a source of humor. While on LSD, Nora falls out of Aaron’s van and injures her elbow. As they come down and he cleans her wound, she realizes that “his hair no longer smelled like the forest floor; it smelled like hot-dog water.”

Though this is her first book, Serber is a confident storyteller, and the stories bear the mark of a writer who has mastered the form enough to have some fun with it. “Plum Tree,” in which Nora loses her virginity, begins like this:
Nora cupped the pot in her hand and stepped out to her backyard. Her best friend, Zellie, was waiting, digging through her backpack. “I don’t have any papers,” Zellie said. Instead she held up a Tampax and ran her tongue along the edge of the wrapper. “We’ll have to use this.” She ejected the tampon onto the struggling lawn, where it lay like a white firecracker.
In other places, such writerly awareness comes off as too on-point. Can a salad plate covered with a napkin really look like a “cat-size corpse”? In a story about a missing cat, a reader may get to this and hear the familiar warning of the GPS lady-robot: Approaching Symbol in 2 miles.

Moreso than a traditional novel, linked stories like the ones in Serber’s collection must contend with — and build from — the slats between the stories. Of course all scenes are chosen things, but in a collection of eight or 11 stories, those spaces become nearly as significant as what’s on the page. In those between-spots, Ruby and Nora swap apartments, then swap coasts; they change jobs, change schools, change boyfriends. (It’s no accident that no man other than Marco appears in more than one story.) With all these full set changes, Serber creates continuity by using details as little relay batons: Ruby’s mother’s Green Stamps resurface as she furnishes her Manhattan apartment, and the suitcase Marco leaves for Ruby in the hospital turns up stories later on the baggage carousel when Nora goes to meet him in Chicago.

There’s a bigger relay move at work here. Eight of the stories center on Ruby and Nora, and the first three of those are told from Ruby’s point of view. Home for a summer during college, Ruby and her father stop at his local bar on their way home, and she begins to understand that she’s inherited his storytelling, but also his drinking and ability to disappoint her mother. In the next story, Ruby finds out she’s pregnant while her lover Marco is gallivanting around Europe, and she’s struck by a very believable failure of imagination: “She could imagine herself neither in Europe nor pregnant.” Though Marco urges Ruby to give the baby up for adoption, she chooses to keep it, and he exits stage right, leaving Ruby a new suitcase and a security deposit.

From here, the narrative baton passes to Ruby’s daughter, and we see the rest of the linked stories looking over Nora’s shoulder. It’s an interesting meta-fictional tactic for a book interested in what’s passed from mother to daughter: make point-of-view itself one of those inheritances.

Yet this choice comes at a cost. As Nora assumes the narrative gaze, Ruby relinquishes it, and flattens out into a series of habits and tics: the woman in the other room, flirtatious and drinking and starved for attention. To be fair, this may be an accurate portrayal of the unsympathetic indictment of mother by daughter: “Nora couldn’t stand when her mother was earnest and dumb. She wanted to make her own new and unique mistakes.” And by the halfway point, no reader will mistake Ruby for a model mother: she forgets to buy bread, so a babysitter serves Nora Ritz crackers with her eggs in the morning. But because of where Serber starts the story — at Ruby’s elbow when she meets her father at the station, when she meets her daughter in the hospital — I was disappointed that the book didn’t step back into her shoes. After all, this is the woman who swore that “paying attention would set her free.”

Then there’s the matter of the other three stories, and what they’re doing here. The first and title story is a second-person instruction manual in the style of Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help that navigates a mother through her daughter’s struggle with anorexia. It’s a strong, open-eyed story. In the second unrelated piece (and the weakest), a new mother contends with a fussy baby and a blue-jeaned bully on a flight to meet her in-laws in Idaho.

But the final story, “Developmental Blah Blah,” more than makes up for it. Cassie, mother of two teenagers, is throwing her husband Ben a surprise 50th birthday party. Her 14-year-old Edith has toilet blue hair and has begun sneaking vodka from the freezer, 17-year-old Ethan is engrossed in a serious relationship Cassie fears she’s jealous of, and she finds she’s suddenly the “center of absolutely no one’s life.” At the party,
Cassie stepped forward with two beers for her men. She was both in the moment and not. She knew that this was what she should be doing, stepping into her family, looking too-too in her black dress, adoring smile, only her smile was slightly ironic.

But since Serber has given us such memorable women in Nora and Ruby, and spent so much time with them, it’s hard to close the book without asking why the collection, finally, leaves these women behind. (In fact, the opening of “Developmental Blah Blah” may play with that question. The prior story leaves off with Nora working as a baker, considering an offer to join her boss at a new bakery in Seattle. On the next page, we meet Cassie in a bakery, where she is contemplating cupcakes. For a moment I thought, Oh good — this is Nora’s bakery! But if it is, the story doesn’t let on.)

In a subtle rhyme with the title story’s final image, the last story closes with Cassie and Edith making a similarly precarious approach:
Her daughter caught her eye and for a moment the tightrope appeared, the two women stepping onto it, knowing everything about each other. Cassie’s swelling heart split wide and Edith mouthed something: I love you or fuck you, or both.
That both is Serber’s sweet-spot, and these stories are at their finest when she doesn’t tell us which it is: When we find ourselves there alongside Cassie, being claimed by these beautiful struggling people on stage, and even if we can’t quite make out the meaning from here, it’s enough to know that they’re speaking to us.

It’s Not You, It’s Me: Thoughts on Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs

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We all came out of Lorrie Moore’s overcoat–or her frog hospital, her bonehead Halloween costume.  If you’re a young woman writer with a comic tendency, and you like similes and wordplay, and you traffic in the human wilderness of misunderstanding and alienation, then you most certainly participate in the Moore tradition.  I recognize her influence in the work of my peers, and in my own.  She is one of my favorite writers, and I can still remember how I felt reading her first collection, Self-Help:  delighted, stunned, moved, humbled, and most of all, grateful.  By now I’ve read all of her books; I kept Anagrams at a distance for as long as I could, until I really needed a literary jump start.  And, waiting for me were terrific passages like this one:
The problem with a beautiful woman is that she makes everyone around her feel hopelessly masculine, which if you’re already male to begin with poses no particular problem.  But if you’re anyone else, your whole sexual identity gets dragged into the principal’s office: “So what’s this I hear about you prancing around, masquerading as a woman?”  You are answerless.  You are sitting on your hands.  You are praying for your breasts to grow, your hair to perk up.
Wowza, right?

You can imagine how excited I was to read her new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which has just been released.  I remember taking it to the tub (where I do all my best reading), and emerging wide-eyed.  “Oh that Lorrie!” I might have exclaimed to my husband.  It started out so well.  And then…And then.  Oh, reader, I was disappointed by this novel!  Deeply disappointed.  Once my father failed to call me on my birthday.  It felt sort of like that.

I decided I wasn’t going to write about A Gate at the Stairs because I love Lorrie Moore too much to criticize her first book in ten years.  And, besides, I figured other reviewers would succinctly articulate my disappointment for me.  But then, last week, Michiko Kakutani’s review came out:
Ms. Moore has written her most powerful book yet, a book that gives us an indelible portrait of a young woman coming of age in the Midwest in the year after 9/11 and her initiation into the adult world of loss and grief.
Jonathan Lethem, also for the New York Times, liked it as well:
Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once — unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She’s a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing A Gate at the Stairs I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately…
Upon reading these reviews, I was dumbfounded, and also, oddly, relieved  (I feel protective of Ms. Moore–so what if she’s not my real-life pal?)  But now that a praise-fest has begun, I must voice a dissenting opinion.  Whereas Kakutani is willing to overlook what she calls the book’s “narrative stumbles,” I cannot.

Like the novel’s narrator Tassie Keltjin, I was twenty years old in 2001, and like Tassie, I attended college in the midwest, and I was at that college on September 11th–and after.  Certain passages at the opening of the book captured perfectly my own experience, for although I wasn’t raised on a small potato farm, I too felt as if  “someone had led me out of the cave” and into a “life of books and films and witty friends.”  That is not to say that I only liked the book when it reflected my own life.   Here Moore writes deftly Tassie’s experience:
My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir.  Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma.  I was riveted.  I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The above passage differs from my own experience in important ways, and it’s still believable and comic.  I was not “a stunned farm kid,” and although I knew nothing of Henry James, I knew something about the sartorial possibilities for men.  (I am from Los Angeles, after all. )  Without the jeans-and-ties line, this description wouldn’t be as funny, just as the farm kid line juxtaposes wonderfully with Henry James line.   Overall, and most importantly, I believe in Tassie’s reaction to Thad, just as I believe in the uncertainty and discomfort she feels around Sarah Brink, the woman who hires Tassie to babysit her adopted daughter (before she’s even been adopted). This material in the novel was successful and meaningful to me.

Throughout, Tassie’s ruminations on the differences between young and middle-aged women rocked me in the way that only a character’s specific vision can:   “These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly sort of sleep.”  And, right on the third page: “Then we fell into a kind of hysteria–frightened, guilty, hopeless laughter I have never actually witnessed in a woman over thirty.”  Likewise, certain material about people’s complicated relationship with race also struck me as right-on, and surprising:  “When I was a freshman there was a girl in my dorm named Rachel.  Because her dad was black and her mom was white, her friends called her Inter-Rachel.  She would always laugh.”    In these moments, Tassie felt complex and real, and for a novel that asks me to have an emotional reaction to its narrator’s isolation, to the secrets kept from her, to the injustices of a country, of a town, of one family–I need to believe the narrator and regard her as multidimensional.

Unfortunately, as the novel continued, Tassie’s perspective felt less and less true to me. This is a retrospective account of Tassie at twenty, which means she is under thirty when she tells the story, perhaps still capable of that laughter referred to at the opening.  And, yet, this narrator did not feel like a twenty-eight year old woman. It’s difficult to figure out why exactly.  It wasn’t so much that her cultural references were before-her-time (they were, although one could classify this as one of Tassie’s distinctive characteristics), but that Moore failed to fully inhabit her first-person narrator.  This wasn’t Tassie’s vision of the world, but the author’s–or some version of Lorrie Moore that I’ve known and loved in previous books.   Either I’ve fallen out of love, or this book and its deeply complicated and ambitious subject matter requires more, or something different, than what my favorite author has previously offered.

In A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s beloved and well-known authorial perspective comes at a cost: the narrator is subsumed by it, and, unfortunately, so is the plot.  As Tassie became less of a character, more of a simile- and observation-generator, I felt less connected to the events occurring.  But, at the same time, I was also frustrated when the story stalled to describe things, like the speech patterns of Midwesterners; no matter how funny or sharply observed, these passages felt off the spine of the story.  I had the distinct sense while reading this novel, that it would have made a wonderful short story.  A Gate at the Stairs feels stretched out, thinned, with uneven pacing, slow sections and redundant scenes. I hate to say this, but I was often bored by A Gate at the Stairs.  My mother always said, “If you’re bored, read a book.”  But what do you do when the book you’re reading bores you?  And what do you do when the book that’s boring you is by your favorite author, and you’ve been waiting for it for so long?  Even now, I don’t know if my problems with the novel stem from the novel itself, or are my own.  It may be that I’m simply being too hard on it, or that my needs as a reader have changed.  Do we need to go to couple’s therapy, Lorrie?

In Lethem’s review, he considers giving A Gate at the Stairs to a friend of his who finds Moore “too punny.”  I don’t think that’s such a  good idea, for in this new novel, Moore’s gifts become the book’s greatest burdens.  If you’re a fan of Lorrie Moore, you must read this novel (and I sincerely hope you like it), but if you aren’t, or if you haven’t read her before, I suggest exploring the rest of her dazzling oeuvre first–you won’t be disappointed.

Slinging Stones at the Genre Goliath

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Sonya Chung is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher who nourishes her split personality by living part-time in the S. Bronx and part-time in rural PA. She writes and grows vegetables in both places. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Threepenny Review, BOMB Magazine, and Sonora Review, among others. Her first novel, Long for This World, is forthcoming from Scribner in March 2010. You can find her fiction and blog-chronicles (adventures in publishing a first novel) at a friend admits to me – usually a bit sheepishly, knowing that I am a literary writer and reader – that she is reading a paperback romance novel, or, even “worse,” a series of them, I laugh it off and say, as sincerely as I can muster, Good for you, I’m sure you need the relaxation and escape, and we move on to the next topic.In my fiction classes, I always ask students to fill out a brief survey on the first day of class so I can get a feel for their reading interests; invariably, a number of students list Dean Koontz or Dan Brown or Nora Roberts or (most recently and markedly) Stephenie Meyer as their touchstones. When I see these writers’ names or hear them mentioned in class, something goes thud in my stomach and a low-grade dread begins to buzz in my head.II.Am I just an insufferable snob? Possibly. If you think so, feel free to stop reading now; we may be at an impasse.III.A spiritual war rages between art and entertainment, elitism and populism, the difficult pleasure and the mindless escape, complex meaning and convention-driven predictability… literary fiction and genre fiction.Or not. On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times, a new “Summer Thriller” series – featuring, this past Sunday, a story (or serial installment?) by Dean Koontz. The protagonist is a whipsmart hostage negotiator who faces off with a Hannibal Lecter/Buffalo Bill-esque psychopath (he “displays” his dead [raped] female victims after dipping them in polyurethane). In a zippy plot twist (SPOILER alert), the hostage (ah coincidence!) turns out to be the negotiator’s savvy wife; the revelation elicits a “gasp” from the psychopath.In The New Yorker this week, a profile by staff writer Lauren Collins on prolific romance novelist Nora Roberts. I haven’t read the full profile, but it’s got Slate’s XX Factor blogger Willa Paskin (presumably not currently a romance reader) ready to pick up a Roberts novel – “Collins makes the case, without ever overselling, that Roberts’ books might not be totally devoid of artistic merit” – and eager to hang out with Roberts herself, who “comes across as a down-to-earth, foul-mouthed, self-deprecating, extremely grounded, extremely disciplined woman.”IV.What is going on here? Are we in the literary and genre camps laying down our arms and reaching across the proverbial aisle to hold hands and work together? More importantly, is “not totally devoid of artistic merit” some kind of newly-acceptable standard for reading selection? (Like how the standards for “organic” loosen to near-meaninglessness as big farming corps get into the business?)To anyone feeling ready to click away from this post in a huff: I feel a little like Sherman Alexie, who said last week in a follow-up to his feather-ruffling comments about the Kindle being elitist that he felt like David being mistook for Goliath.With its obligatory happy endings, strict conventions, formula elements, and, above all, comforting predictability, genre fiction will always garner a wider audience than literary fiction. Which is another way of saying that more people buy books and spend time with the words in them to evade the (messy, complicated) world as it is than to see it more truly – in all its mystery, pain, complexity, and beauty. Resistance – perhaps opposition is not too strong a word – to genre fiction for a writer and reader of literary fiction is, in my opinion, a literary ecosystem imperative.V.Why do The New Yorker and The New York Times want me to rethink my dividing lines? Are my soul or my artistic integrity at risk of atrophying if I don’t see the light and embrace a new political correctness that’s deemed formulaic genre writing and literary writing more alike than they are different?Let me, for the sake of this essay and the ensuing discussion, take a (overstated, survival-driven) hardliner’s position: pure genre writing invites and indulges engagement and validation of our lesser, lazier, unthinking, hedonistic selves; well-wrought literary fiction affords, in the critic Harold Bloom’s words, a difficult pleasure and illuminates the truths of the human soul, for better or for worse, thus opening the engaged reader to the possibility of courage, intellectual and emotional honesty, wisdom. Popular genre writing and literary writing represent diametrically opposed visions of the value and necessity of reading books; they are as different as lust and love, band-aids and surgery. To imply otherwise is to cop to hysterical anti-intellectualism and give credence to the same sorts of “elitist!” cries that sought to make Barack and Michelle Obama appear out of touch and John McCain a man of the people.There are real stakes here. What you read matters.VI. But enjoy your genre books, I say. Life is tough, we all seek ways to effectively distract and soothe ourselves. Consume your genre series with gusto and pleasure, like a drippy, juicy bacon burger; kick back and let them carry you away weightlessly, like an after-midnight Wii session. But do not imagine or attempt to argue that they play a vital role in augmenting the human experience. They allow for, are designed for, reader passivity and thus do not do what Joe Meno described eloquently in Edan Lepucki’s profile this week:Books have a different place in our society than other media. Books are different from television or film because they ask you to finish the project. You have to be actively engaged to read a book. It’s more like a blueprint. What it really is, is an opportunity… A book is a place where you’re forced to use your imagination.VII.So with Roberts and Koontz now occupying prized real estate in the pages of The New Yorker and the New York Times, it’s fight or flight as far as I can tell. Recently, I’ve been developing a list of what I call “bait n switch” books – books that bring together the strengths of both the genre and literary forms: suspense, sexual tension, absorbing dialogue, compelling plots, characters you come to love like your favorite pets; and fresh and inventive language, complex characterization, settings you can taste touch and smell, consequential ideas, ambiguity and surprise and mystery. I’ve given these as gifts or recommended them to people who tend to read only genre fiction or little fiction at all; with good response. My ultimate mission: to convert the unbelieving to the (crucial, soul-shaping) fact that you needn’t ingest bad or “not that bad” writing in order to be entertained and/or absorbed by a book. For anyone who’d like to suit up for the battle:Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (for erotic thriller lovers)Pam Houston’s Cowboys Are My Weakness and Lorrie Moore’s Self-Help (for chic lit readers)Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, Chekhov’s “The Lady With the Pet Dog,” and really anything by Henry James (for romance readers)E.L. Doctorow’s World’s Fair and Ragtime (for Harry Potter and other boy-adventure fans)Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son (for manly men who are into horror)Poetry by Jane Kenyon and Rilke (for people “intimidated” by poetry)The following two are a little riskier, but I’d like to try inflicting one or both of them on a poor unsuspecting soul one of these days:Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees (a simple, universal story of love/breakup/love again)Roberto Bolaño’s Last Evenings on Earth (pure storytelling, you hardly know what hit you)And, if all else fails, well: there’s always “The Wire.”[Image Credit: Randen Pederson]

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