Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Review: A fictional guide to self-help

Since The New York Times rated Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs as one of the ten best books of 2009, I decided that it was finally time for me to take a look at Ms Moore's work, especially since I've had a copy of her first collection Self-Help beside my bed ever since I saw her speak at the Union Square Barnes & Noble back this past autumn.

Self-Help was Moore's début (1985), most of the stories collected from her MFA thesis at Cornell University. The self-deprecating humour that she's noted for is all there - the laughter in the face of death, the unwillingness to go down without some sort of fight, the unreasonable goals that we have for ourselves and our children and those that we know.

In 'Go Like This', a writer of children's books - William, William Takes a Trip, and More William - finds out that she has cancer and decides that that upcoming Bastille Day (as good a day as any other, though she enjoys the connection to the French Revolution, 'a choice of symbol and expedience') she will commit suicide. Being part of the aesthetic community, she invites her friends over for a 'farewell' drink fest, and they all debate the concept of suicide with age old adages: 'They do not gasp and murmur among themselves. I say I have chosen suicide as the most rational and humane alternative to my cancer, an act not so much of self-sacrifice as of beauty, of sparing.' The story shows how this author's marriage and relationship to her daughter somewhat changes over this time, as everyone is realising the gravity of setting a deadline like this. The final lines (and line break) is wildly powerful and strikingly memorable.

The following story, 'How To Talk To Your Mother (Notes)', is an interesting fragmented tale that progresses backwards from 1982 to 1939 - showing how a woman, in note form, relates to her mother after her death, while she's alive, while this political happening is occurring or this social event is commanding attention. It's written in sharp, quick half-sentences/commands, starting: 'Without her, for years now, murmur at the defrosting refrigerator, "What?" "Huh?" "Shush now," as it creaks, aches, groans, until the final ice block drops from the ceiling of the freezer like something vanquished.' Many of the rest of the stories have this similar structure, this commanding or second-person point of view structure that makes it feel like this fictional guide to self-help.

It's quotes like 'There is silence, grand as Versailles' that give Moore's work a sense of individuality: they ride clichés but are wonderfully and aptly descriptive. They make you laugh, and they make you revel in their apropos-ness. Self-Help has gotten me to buy her new novel and to read start reading it. Though I feel that perhaps Moore might be best - especially her humour - in small doses. But it's all to be seen.

1 comment:

Sasha said...

I read this collection a few months ago, and was just in awe of it. I love her prose, that wry humor, and how she's so offbeat yet honest about the heart of the matter.

And, no joke: I got my copy in a bookstore that stocked it in the Self-Help section. I happened to wander over there, saw this very cover, scratched my head, then bought the book.

Some people are too literal.

I'm waiting for her novel to be stocked here in the Philippines. In the meantime, I'm reading Birds of America.