Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review: Self-Help, by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore really loves to write about dancing, and she does it so incredibly well. This was something that I noticed as I finished reading her debut short story collection, Self-Help, published in 1985. The final piece in it, “To Fill”, contains an exuberant scene of a young boy named Jeffrey trying to teach his mother some dance moves that he’s learned at school. It reminded me of another, later story of Moore’s, called “Dance in America”, collected in her book Birds of America. In that piece, another young boy – named Eugene, who is dying of cystic fibrosis – also shows off his dance moves for adults. Whereas these insouciant gyrations of the human body play a minor role in the earlier story, they are at the very heart of the later one. Dancing is, according to Moore, our way of letting the infinite know that we are here. Or, as she more eloquently puts it: “It’s life flipping death the bird.”

You could argue that the short stories in Self-Help are a form of linguistic, literary dancing. (In fact, you might interpret the cover image of the edition I have, from Faber and Faber, as that of a young woman in the throes of dance.) You get the sense that Moore – who was just 28 when she published this book – is writing out of a profound sense of freedom, of unencumbered movement, flinging her limbs to the sky and not caring who is watching or what she looks like as she performs. It’s what gives these stories their startling originality.

Many of the pieces in Self-Help are framed as how-to manuals of the type you’d expect to find in a book with this title. We have stories called “How to Be an Other Woman”, “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce”, “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)” and – God help us all – “How to Become a Writer”. These and other stories in the collection are written, daringly, in the second person – which lends them another level of playfulness, of unselfconsciousness.

While there is a unifying vision to the pieces in the book, Moore also shows some incredible range here. Take the first and last stories, for example. “How to Be an Other Woman” follows a fairly traditional narrative arc: our protagonist meets a man, has several dates with him, begins to fall in love, finds out he’s married, then struggles over whether to continue the affair, and finally approaches a moment of climax with her situation with him. “To Fill”, by contrast, has a far more unconventional narrative structure: it assembles a number of simple, seemingly disparate scenes, like a collage, that slowly reveal the story of a woman who is stealing money at work, dealing with a mother who is faking mental illness, and who suspects her husband of having an affair. There is no traditional climax here, but when the story ends you feel as if you’ve been taken through something incredibly profound.

Not all of Self-Help worked for me. Maybe it was Moore’s relative youth, but I did find a low-grade misandristic tone to a lot of her stories – the men here simply existing to be abused, scorned, abandoned or written off as emotionally unavailable. I also felt that there were times when her prose style did get a bit too showy. The story “Go Like This”, about a children’s author dying of cancer, pushed its cutesy buttons a little too often for my liking.

These are minor quibbles. Self-Help stands as a brilliant debut and a harbinger of the other brilliant work that Moore has gone on to produce. Let’s hope she continues writing with this kind of ebullience, with this kind of literary dance. Let’s hope she never forgets how to go wild and fling her limbs to the sky.

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