book by Lorrie Moore

annotation by Marianne Woods Cirone

What would happen if you took a classroom full of talented, witty MFA students (okay, very talented students) and told them each to write a short story about three characters named  Gerard, Benna and Eleanor; a Renoir painting, a lounge at the Ramada Inn and a diner named ‘Hanks’?

The results would be likely to look like Anagrams by Lorrie Moore.  This book, which has been loosely called a novel, is closer to some of the permutations, or anagrams, if you will, that you would get from the writing assignment above.  This book is made up of various short stories about these same three characters:  Gerard, Benna and Eleanor, as well as Benna’s “imaginary” daughter, Georgie, which are told in different POVs and in different voices.   From first to third person point of view, from Gerard to Benna’s voice, Moore interweaves the various combinations available to tell the potential stories of these characters, offering a glimpse into the options that we have as writers when we approach a project with a given set of parameters.

In each of the stories, the relationships change, the character’s backgrounds and life choices change, yet there is enough consistency in the thread between the stories that they truly illustrate the vast array of possibilities which a writer has available when choosing to create her fictive world, even with a set of given parameters.  To the reader, the various situations and outcomes the book presents mimic  the world of life possibilities which we all at times ruminate over:  what would my life looked like if I had married him; if I hadn’t married him; what if he died; what if we had a child; if we didn’t?  Moore’s various stories play out varying scenarios across the lives of these three characters with different details, twists and relationships.

The thread of consistency which Moore offers is her sharp wit, her keen eye for detail and her borderline anguish over the constant small (and large) disappointments which life offers.  She ably interweaves a topic of grave seriousness, (e.g., a lump found in Benna’s breast) with laugh out loud humor:

“These are the words they used:  aspirate, mammogram, surgery, blockage, wait.  They first just wanted to wait and see if it was a temporary blockage of the milk ducts.

‘Milk duds?’ exclaimed Gerard.

‘Ducks,’ I shouted.  ‘Milk ducks!’

Moore’s rhythmic sentence structure contains the necessary cadence and use of metaphor that are necessary for good writing and excellent comic timing.  In one story, Benna’s best friend, Eleanor, just admits that she has slept with the man Benna is involved with:

“”Don’t you see, sisterhood has to be redefined,’ she [Eleanor] was saying.  ‘There are too few men in the world.  It’s a heterosexual depression out there.’

What I finally managed to say, looking at the Heimlich Maneuver poster, was, ‘So, this is sociobiology?’  She [Eleanor] smiled weakly, hopefully, and I started to laugh, and then we were both laughing; teary-eyed, our faces falling into our arms on the table, and that’s when I took the ketchup bottle and cracked it over her head.  And then I got up and wobbled out, my soul numb as a crossed leg, and Hank yelled something at me in Greek and rushed out from behind the counter over to Eleanor who was sobbing loudly and would probably need stitches.”

During this scene, Benna happens to be pregnant with Gerard’s baby (which she later aborts), and is also waiting to see the progression of a suspicious breast lump.  After the confrontation and the abortion, and the benign resolution of the breast lump drama, Benna offers a glimpse into the wisdom which will pull her through these experiences:

“But I believed in starting over.  There was finally, I knew, only rupture and hurt and falling short between all persons, but, Shirley, the best revenge was to turn your life into a small gathering of miracles.

If I could not be anchored and profound, I would try, at least, to be kind.”

Anagrams was written in 1986, when Moore was about 28 years old, and I so I wondered how her work and her voice had changed since that time.  Then, I remembered reading the short story, “People Like That are the Only People Here,” Moore’s semi-autobiographical short story about a young child’s bout with cancer, during my recent writing classes at the local community college (coincidentally, this type of educational institution was another topic which Moore addresses with great angst).

Moore has honed her skills of dealing with life’s seemingly random cruelties with sardonic wit as she addresses one of the most dreaded scenarios to face a human being:  a child experiencing a life-threatening illness and the apparent meaninglessness of it.    Upon review of this short story, I noted that Moore uses a distant third person, naming her characters by their roles rather than names:  the Mother, the Baby, the pediatrician, the nurse, the Radiologist, the Surgeon, the Husband (using capitalization as noted herein).  As the piece progresses, so do first names:  given to a couple nurses, then some of the other pediatric patients, their parents.   I see Moore’s distancing as both a means to emotionally disconnect from the rawness of the subject matter as well as a way of expanding the universality of the experience.

Both of these pieces by Moore show her incredible facility with language, her rare sense of timing, and her ability to explore the commonalities of human vulnerability.  While Moore seems to be wrestling with a deep underlying sense of disappointment with the events of  life that can never be understood, she demonstrates that these experiences can, at least, be profoundly be revealed—and processed– through the process of artistic expression which illustrates the human events that connect us all.


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