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"the barbarian Within" Cancer and depression as metaphors in the stories of Lorrie Moore.  By Allegra Wong

 

It is early December, 1996. My mother lies in her isolation room on the top floor of Saint Anne’s Hospital. She speaks: “You have heard that somewhere there exist ‘two-by-four’ stores that do a land-office business. These holes-in-the-wall do existor didbecause we owned one here in Fall River.
         “On December 4, 1907, my father and mother were married, and the next day they opened their grocery store in the cellar of the cottage they rented. The first week grossed them five dollars. My father was discouraged, but he decided to stay on one more week.
         “Well, in that week, my mother pressed forward. She took some of her savings and purchased a horse and a butcher wagon. She sent my father out with these to develop a route. It became, that butcher wagon, an institution. I suppose it was the forerunner of today’s traveling market. From this completely stocked Parnassus on wheels (stocked not like Roger Miflin’s—with booksbut with steaks, chops, dry groceries, green groceries, and baked goods), my father hawked his specialties of corned beef and pot roast.
        “Back in the store, my mother baked bread and pies. They were, she often said, her “drawing cards”. Daily, for an hour or two in the morning, equipped with salesbook and pencil, she knocked at doors in the Flint. She took orders small and large; she mentioned her bread baked that morning. Eager housewives bought the loaves; they bought meat and other staples, too.
        “In the afternoon, when my father returned from his route, he delivered these orders. The second week they grossed $200. They were ambitious; they were zealous; they were little ‘captains of industry’.
         “In two years, they bought the house and land adjoining the store they rented on Downing Street. At the corner they built a three-family house and the ‘two-by-four’ store I want to tell you about.”

Lorrie Moore’s characters embody the power George Sand called love.

The character usually portrays the passion called love, and consequently, must be…invested with all the powers one may aspire to or all the pains one has seen or felt the pangs of…He must die or triumph.1

        “I love exceptional beings…I give their deformities frightening, grotesque proportions…things which might give you nightmares,”2 said Balzac. Some of Moore’s characters may be called Balzacian grotesques, the types of psychologically unstable characters “the gentleman reader cannot fairly be expected to work up a professional interest in,”3 states Carmen Callil and Mary Siepmann in their 1980 essay on the mental breakdowns of female characters in literature.
        Most of Moore’s characters, like many well-crafted ones, unfold a bit at a time in a Jamesian manner, a scenic method of characterization. A character emerges—clothes, speech, behaviour, literary nuance (image, symbol), suggestion of appearance—“these qualities constitute a character,”4 David Lodge paraphrases Henry James in The Art of Fiction. But it is Moore’s use of metaphor that makes her characters and their situations truly memorable.
         “For you, a metaphor holds such a special place. I want to know what it is you love about metaphors and how you go about using them,”5 an interviewer asks Moore in a conversation in The Writing Self. She answers,

If the metaphor distances the writing or author from the reader, it’s the wrong metaphor. In trying to register experience and sensation and feeling, if your mind and imagination are associative, you often land on a metaphor that assists and clarifies and deepens that feeling or idea. If the metaphor doesn’t do that, then you’ve chosen the wrong one.6

        “One cannot think without metaphors,” says Susan Sontag. “Saying a thing is or is like something-it-is-not is a mental operation as old as philosophy and poetry.”7
         “Metaphor,” Aristotle says in Poetics, “consists in giving the thing a name that belongs to something else.”8
         “What is Seized,” “Go Like This,” and “Like Life” are stories in which cancer victims reside. “To Fill” and “Two Boys” have characters who are enduring severe forms of depression. These two illnesses may be symbolic of contemporary society’s morals, fears, and hopes. Can each illness turn a character into a grotesque? Can it kill? Can it give strength, even rebirth? Can it deepen love? Does illness as a metaphor “assist, clarify, and deepen” the reader’s contact with a character in these selected stories by Lorrie Moore?

Statistics

Cancer and depression are time-consuming illnesses. They require seasons to grow and reveal themselves; they are interpreted as diseases afflicting those with insufficient passion, those who are inhibited and repressed. They are scandals that traditionally jeopardize one’s career, friendships, and love life. Cancer and depression take time to heal. Sometimes there is no healing. In literature, cancer and depression replace last century’s tuberculosis and melancholy, but unlike last century’s tuberculosis and melancholy, they are not regarded as lyrical and aesthetic. Tuberculosis afflicted the reckless and the sensual; melancholy was the artist’s personality—refined, sad, interesting. Tuberculosis and melancholy were indicative of superior states of being sensitive, creative, and unique. Often, one did not want to be cured of these illnesses. Such illnesses, in literature, were fashionable.
         The earliest figurative uses of cancer are as metaphors for idleness and sloth.9 A disease of abnormal, but very steady and slow growth, cancer, like depression, is not recognizable until its sudden appearance; often the main symptoms are invisible until it is too late. The victims harden. They shrink.
        In “What Is Seized,” Lynnie relates her mother’s experience of a sudden discovery of her disease of slow growth:

I was fifteen when my father left us and my mother had her mastectomy. Both things happened suddenly, quietly, without announcement. As if some strange wind rushed in and swept things up into it, then quickly rushed out again; it simply left what it left. (42)

In “Go Like This,” the narrator, Elizabeth, a writer of children’s picture storybooks, is planning her fourth book. “A month ago I was told I have cancer,” (67) she says, and hesitates about beginning her new writing.

        “Precancer?” Mamie had reapeated quietly, for she was a quiet woman. “Isn’t that…like life?”
         [The doctor] took her wrist and briefly squeezed. “It’s like life, but it’s not necessarily life.” (152)

In “Two Boys,” Mary may be aware of her impending nervous collapse, but she keeps busy with her work and her two boyfriends and her religious poetry-reading hobby and so is able to ignore her illness for some time. Yet suddenly in the midst of one of her regular outings in the park, she faces her depression. “How did one get here? How did one’s eye-patched, rot-toothed life lead one along so cruelly, like a trick, to the middle of the sea?” (18)
        “I am becoming hugely depressed. Like last year. Just a month ago I was better, sporting a simpler, terse sort of disenchantment, a neat black vest of sadness.” (139) Halfway through “To Fill,” Riva notices her depression’s new stage. She acknowledges that her depression of a month ago was better, fashionable. It is likened to last century’s melancholy when it incorporates charm, but when it no longer connotes beauty or a wan look, when it is no longer contained in one area: “my face worsens” (139), “my brain feels crammed and gassy as if with cole slaw” (141), “I haven’t been able to stop eating” (145), “I slather heavy peach makeup over the rash by my mouth …” (155) Riva recognizes danger.
         Elizabeth, in “Go Like This,” acknowledges probable death when she discovers her cancer is not contained and clean in one area alone, perhaps her breast. Rather, it had spread through my body like a clumsy uninvited guest who is obese and eats too much, still finding, filling rooms. I tried therapy for three weeks, wearing scarves, hiding hairbrushes. (67)
         Cancer is notorious for attacking parts of the body that are embarrassing to acknowledge, Sontag says.10 In “What is Seized,” the narrator’s mother laughs hysterically, drunk on wine: “'They lopped off my breasts, can you believe it? Lopped them right ' and she made a quick motion with her hand in the air.” (43) Topographically, cancer can appear in any organ or can consume the entire body. Like depression, it is usually invisible, inside, and is traditionally thought to be a disease of the middle classes, of people with too much to eat and with too much time to think. It is an affliction of the repressed, a disease inflicted upon its sufferers, or patients, by the world. Victims usually have a painful death.
         Recent research (2001) by Robert A. Weinberg,11 professor of biology at MIT, shows cancer is a disease of old age caused chiefly by life experiences. It progressively evolves over decades, and if we all live long enough and escape other causes of death, we shall all die of cancer. Cancer-causing life experiences include bad diets (excessive intake of red meats, fats, moldy grains, unpreserved food, poor water), poor hygiene, smoking, and contact with chemicals.
         In “What is Seized,” the narrator’s mother closely examines her marriage. She is angry that her husband, a high school math and clarinet teacher and an actor, is a cold man. She is unhappy with his method of love-making, but she needs his bits of love so badly, she is too frightened to speak up. She represses her inner feelings and so is “that emotionally inert creature, the contemporary cancer personality,”12 states Sontag in her incisive attack on popular accounts of the psychological aspects of cancer.

“Your numbness,” my mother cries softly, “is something perhaps you cannot help. It is what the world has done to you. But your coldness. That is what you do to the world.” (36)

She blames him for the coldness he has given her. When her cancer matures in her breasts, after he leaves her, it seems a natural location for one who had a cold lover. “Cold men destroy women,” (30) her mother continues. When her husband made love to her, “he kept his eyes closed the whole time, turned his head away from her, and afterward would give her a hard, angry gaze…shake her off of him with a shudder or a flinch if she kissed his shoulder.” (25) Her mother also suffers a painful death with sexual images.

Her groaning woke the elderly woman in the bed next to hers. “What is happening?” cried the old woman. Something had seized my mother in the back, arched it, stiffened her limbs, her mouth a gash across her face… (44)

The narrator’s mother dies as she made love—in anguish.
         Mamie in “Like Life” is a freelance historical illustrator for children’s books. Her precancer is in her throat; she regularly drops off throat samples at her doctor’s office, prepares herself for the pain she is due in the future.

Mamie studied the realtor’s scarf, guessing the exact geometry of the folds, the location of the knot. If Mamie ever had surgery, scars in a crisscross up her throat, she would have to know such things. A hat, a scarf, a dot of rouge, mints in the mouth: Everyone in New York was hiding something, eventually. (153)

Mamie’s marriage of fourteen years is the world that has worked against her. At its best, her marriage to a struggling artist had endured on their sex alone. Their sex became the drug she craved. “But I would never die for you,” she tells her husband. (160). When she learns of her precancer, Mamie secretly begins looking for a small apartment of her own.
         Elizabeth, in “Go Like This,” uses aerosol sprays to cover the stench of her bile and undigested foods in the bathroom. She has planned her suicide. She will not allow herself to be subjected to this outside force that has invaded her body. “I am something putrid. I wonder if I smell, decaying from the inside out like fruit, yet able to walk among them like the dead among the living.” (75) She says she will not allow her cancer to destroy three lives: hers, her husband’s, and their daughter’s.
         Riva, in “To Fill,” is a department store manager. Her depression is “a vicious cycle” (154) in which she is caught up. Her mother is ill and hospitalized. Riva steals more and more money from her workplace, her sexual desire is lost, and “I haven’t been able to stop eating.” (145) Her depression fills her days, recurs when she least expects it. “Please die,” she says to it. (162)
         Mary, in “Two Boys,” distributes flyers for Boy Number One who is running for a local congressional seat, but she has relationships with two men, Boy Number One and Boy Number Two. Two men keep her running, stop her from thinking. When she finds One or Two has hurt her feelings, she combines the best qualities from both men and fabricates a third man. The third man enters her life more and more and causes her to tell lies to One and Two so that she begins losing them. The fear of loneliness victimizes her.
         Through the selected Moore stories it is possible to see that cancer and depression do share some of the same statistics: realization of the disease is sudden and unexpected; the location of the disease can be anywhere and everywhere (mental illness is not confined to the mind but is manifested in hobbies, habits, mannerisms, just as cancer is not always a mole on the back, a lump in the breast, but may be a loss of both breasts as well as a spreading throughout the entire body); the middle class is afflicted (although as Sontag states, certainly the very poor and the rich have cancer and depression); there is a painful death or awareness of a painful time of suffering that may lead to death; and the victim is usually a repressed person…repressed by marriage, love, or inability to free the mind from set patterns—Riva in the department store with her mundane existence, Mary with her two boys and lack of self-motivation, self-love, longing for self-growth in her life.

It is early December, 1996. My mother lies in her isolation room on the top floor of Saint Anne’s Hospital. I ask her, please, save your strength. Still, she speaks: “My parents enjoyed the new store, small though it was. There were shelves and wooden floors. They ground beef on the hand grinder; they corned more beef.
        “The mere being out of their subterranean place of business was joyful, too.
        “My brother had been born in the cottage. Now they had moved into the tenement that was just two steps away from the store. My mother could keep house, rear her son, and attend to the business at the same time.
         “World War I years came. My mother had had the foresight to buy flour and sugar barrels and barrels of each. You can see they did well.
         “The next year, 1919, the butcher wagon made its farewell appearance. It was the last in Fall River to go. My mother had an unexplainable desire to own an automobile. She (nonot theymy father was content to let her make all decisions) bought a Maxwell. It was the first such vehicle in our section of the Flint. My father now delivered orders in the Maxwell. Every Sunday, he, my mother, and my brother drove out to Cape Cod. (That is how I would come to love Truro and Provincetown.)
       “Another major event took place that year. I, their only other child, was born just two steps away from the store, so it is no wonder I’ve sawdust in my blood. I do not, of course, mean circus sawdust. In those days, the floors of groceries after being swept clean, were then spread with sweet, fragrant pine sawdust. For one week my mother “kept books” in bed. Then she was up and about. I was reared in the store, moving from the carriage at the door to a high chair near the meat block.
         “And so my brother and I grew up and were educated. My mother officially surrendered her place to my brother in 1934. In 1940 my dear father died, thereby surrendering his place to me.
         “In 1941, my brother and I took over in our then incapable hands the reins our parents handed to us. We came face to face with World War II years.
          “I suppose all the heartbreak and all the happiness I have known I experienced in the store during the eleven years I worked there. We were, first of all, successful. We were the counterparts of our parents. We were known as that ‘unique brother and sister team’. We worked every bit as hard in our modern way as did our parents. Of course, we had a walk-in cooler, a slicing machine, an electric grinder, a showcase for meat and delicatessen items, and a deep-freeze cabinet. All of these things consumed so much of our precious space that the poor customers had only elbow room in which to stand while being waited on. It was said that when we had two customers in our store, it was crowded. But everybody obliged. In fair weather, people waited outside in the shade of the awnings. In cold weather, they crowded in, glad of the warmth imparted by the other customers.
         “There were shortages; there was rationing; but we took them in stride. Butter was very scarce. We always had enough good meat. As for a delivery truck well, we bought one used car after another.
         “I had no social life. The store was my life. Why, we reached the point where at one time we were working 92 hours a week: Monday through Thursday from 8A.M. until 11P.M.; Friday from 7:30 A.M. until 3 or 4 A.M.; Saturday from 7:30A.M. until 2 or 3 A.M. After midnight on Saturday we counted ration stamps.
         “I carried with me two sound impressions of those late Friday hours (rather, those early Saturday morning hours). In the summer after closing the store, I walked slowly from the corner to my cottage. The air was so mild and so filled with insect sounds and human sounds that my only thought was ‘how fertile and what a swarming place this old planet is’. By contrast, in January, when I was dashing home through the still zero air, I thought what a frozen barren old planet this is. These impressions come from the lateness and from our having been alone putting up orders for three or four hours. My brother and I were too tired to talk; we kept that energy for reaching up to high shelves, or for running downstairs to the stock room.
         “It was different during the day when there were many salesmen and customers to converse with. In those daytime hours, the scene shifted constantly; people from all walks of life entered. And I was a chameleon, constantly adapting myself to them. Oh, it was exhilarating, it was wonderful; and, it was slenderizing. I lost so much weight, I became positively sylphlike. And at the moment when I reached the proper degree of sylphlikeness, I had my first romance. With it came my first heartbreak, bitterness, and disillusionment. But I shook them off. I had to. The business had to be attended to. Those were war years and I could not be replaced. I became engulfed in it all again.”

Permission for a Voyage

Lorrie Moore feels that gaps between people, and not loneliness, are particular qualities of her stories.13 “The attempts to bridge those gaps or the attempts to acknowledge them, I think, are often the interesting aspects of a character’s life,” states Moore in her interview with Nourok in The Writing Self.
         Cancer and depression are metaphors that enable Moore’s characters to bridge gaps. Their illnesses give them permission to hate, to enjoy isolation, and to contemplate suicide. They find they are free to voyage.
         In literature, a consumptive appearance became a staple of nineteenth century manners. Pale, drained pallors were chic. The agony of the dying was interesting. A consumptive was permitted by society to become a bohemian, with or without an art form. He was allowed to be a voyager in search of healthful places: Italy, the Mediterranean islands, the South Pacific. If his trip was not beneficial, he was placed in a sanatorium where he would have a psychic trip and in Mann’s The Magic Mountain, that trip would include the avenues of stimulating conversations with other residents. Last century’s treatment for consumption and melancholy parallels this century’s treatment for cancer and depression. There is confinement: Sanatoriums for tubercular recovery, hospices for those dying of cancer, insane asylums for the depressed and severely melancholy; a taking of the sick out of the mainstream, out of the dailiness of their lives as a cure. And the taking of interior trips, as well as of going on neighborhood voyages are recurrent strategies for Moore’s victims of cancer and depression.
         In “Two Boys,” Mary takes trips to her neighborhood park. She dresses in white, reads Bible poetry, eventually strikes up an unusual conversation with a young woman who sometimes appears to be a girl. The young woman seems to be a mirror of Mary, for she talks of her boyfriends, and of how she waits for them. The conversation leads to other conversations, and by the end of the story, Mary follows the girl home a little way. They stop by a market and the girl points to sausages in the windows. “There they are. All our old boyfriends,” she says. (19) Through the voyage to the park, through the voyage of unusual conversation, Mary has arrived at a place in herself she did not know existed: she has had a true journey to a new place within. Her nervous collapse could be at its height at this point as she sees she is standing in a pool of blood outside the meat market. But she has reached a new station in her journey that must be gone through if she is to recover, and which will be gone through at some point even if she does not recover.
         Also, Mary takes a trip to Ottawa. Here she is seeking a physical voyage as therapy for her depression. She returns from Ottawa, but her trips to the park become more and more frequent. Having trips enable her to understand herself, get her past the confines she must endure.
         Riva in “To Fill,” takes a trip to the woods.

The trail down from the woods into the gorge is veined with large knobby roots, and as I make my way down along them, it occurs to me that I should be thinking I am too old for this. (148)

Nevertheless, she continues until she reaches the far stream. She strips off her clothes and runs naked from rock to rock “whooping like a cowgirl.” (149) Her depression gives her permission to rebel against the constraints of society, peel away her inhibitions. Her voyage into the gorge is veined with roots…veins and roots and gorge—all stringy paths opening up to her psychically, calling her on.
         A double psychic voyage is found in “What Is Seized.” Lynnie’s mother gives herself permission to think, rebel, formulate, and express aloud what she concludes. She allows herself the luxury of philosophically stating her opinions about her husband and his ways. Lynnie takes up her mother’s feelings of hatred and distrust of men and decides to pattern her life according to those feelings, and thus in this context, voyage becomes an intergenerational concept. What the mother has learned will be put into effect by the daughter and so passed down. Lynnie thinks of her father “casually parting my mother’s legs with the mechanical indifference of someone opening a cupboard. And I say to myself: I will leave every cold man…” (46) Lynnie will teach other men what her mother learned and then told her. Her mother’s internal voyage has given Lynnie permission to take a voyage as well, permission to isolate herself from human society, permission to acknowledge bitterness.

Forgiveness lives alone and far off down the road, but bitterness and art are close, gossipy neighbors, sharing the same clothesline, hanging out their things, getting the laundry confused. (46)

Her voyage to her own isolation within strengthens her for her return to life after her mother’s death.
         In “Like Life,” Mamie’s precancer gives her permission to seek isolation and a room of her own. In her interior voyage, she relives parts of her marriage, admits she does not love, but rather recognizes her marriage is a habit and that sometimes she may convince herself she loves. She acknowledges finally that she hates her life with Rudy, hates the place she lives in with him.

But you could live with a hate. She had. It was so powerful, it had manners; it moved to one side…most of the time to let you pass. It was mere dislike that clouded and nagged and stepped in front of your spirit…(162)

Her voyage within has helped her acknowledge hatred and its facets; it has helped her realize she requires a voyage without, requires a lot more of life. “Would you settle for a room?” the realtor asks Mamie (163) when Mamie realizes she can not afford an apartment on her own. “I’m not sure,” Mamie answers. When the transitory nature of life is brought into focus by illness, Moore characters try to experience, through voyage, the lives they have been denied.
         In “Go Like This,” cancer gives Elizabeth the chance to plan the journey of her suicide. It gives her spouse the freedom to agree that she should embark on her suicidal journey. It opens up new psychic spaces for both of them. “Then we’ll discuss it further,” (70) Elizabeth says to her husband. “'Yes,' he said.”
         Cancer gives Elizabeth permission to isolate and pity herself. Her unheld body—she longs for her husband to make love to her, but he is afraid…he masturbates instead… "I heard Elliott last night. He thought I was asleep, but I could see his motions under the covers and the tense drop of his jaw,"(71) —is the new vessel she steers along the passages of her suicidal journey.
        Cancer allows Elizabeth to tell her friends of her suicidal plans. "I look around…A miracle ... There appears to be no dissent." (72) Even her friends are given permission to contemplate new views on life and living and death, to take a journey within and discover their moral opinions, previously unknown to themselves.
         With cancer and depression, "the metaphor of the psychic voyage is an extension of the romantic idea of travel that was associated with tuberculosis. To be cured, the patient has to be taken out of his or her daily routine,” states Sontag in Illness as Metaphor. The psychic voyage is undertaken by Moore's characters not necessarily to be cured in all cases, but to be reborn, to be able to come to terms with one's old life, and replace it with a new (and sometimes philosophical) outlook. It is a shedding of the old self for someone entirely new. It does not matter if life or death is the outcome. The voyage as journey in itself is vital.

It is early December, 1996. My mother lies in her isolation room on the top floor of Saint Anne’s Hospital. This is her voice, not her voice. Sometimes she sounds like the woman I knew; more often, she sounds like a girl I never met but would have loved as well if not as fully. I hold her hand. She speaks: “ I was glad to be engulfed again. I was glad to be shown other people’s lives. Andrew and I knew, really knew, everybody who came into the store. Some were the children of my parents’ customers; and some were their grandchildren; some were the original customers themselves. Many were new to the neighborhood, too. They were all our friends. We gave them individual attention. We gave them the personal touch. Human nature responds to this treatment. We did it honestly. And it kept them from walking two blocks over to the supermarkets on Pleasant Street.
          “The war ended for the good of all. We slackened our pace. Life became a little more normal, a little more leisurely. The day came when my brother wanted an even more normal life than he had. We talked over his making it into a one-man business. The outcome: I married. He is now operating the business alone.
         “His young sons run in and out; my little daughters cannot keep away from its enchantment. Will there be a third generation to take over the corner grocery?”
          She stops to draw a long breath. Her eyes grow lazy, but she invests herself in me. I will never forget how she stares. “ I wanted you to nod your head,” she says, “I wanted you to say, ’Yes.’”

Anti-Expansion

Cancer and depression are illnesses that curb the appetite for spending or expanding in a normal way. People stop investing in their futures. They stop spending (even literally) on their growth. (They lose interest in cultural pursuits, clothes, work, proper eating habits.) According to Sontag, they choose narrow, psychic paths within; they no longer speculate on the material world, no longer "buy on credit.”14 They have decreased mobility in society as functioning and expanding human beings. Intelligence diminishes and self-esteem lowers. They turn away from the city. The middle-class characters in Moore's stories who are mostly educated people and products of the city's culture, become grotesques. They refuse to associate with the city (and its symbolism) any longer; they even regard the city as a cancer. "The city was seen as itself a cancer—a place of abnormal, unnatural growth and extravagant, devouring armored passions.”15 If the city is the place where culture grows, where civilization flowers, then a character's rejection of the city along with his definition of the city as a cancer transforms him into a grotesque.
         In "Go Like This," the renunciation of expansion, of city as culture, produces grotesques: "I think it is beautiful she is doing this (planning suicide) for me," (73) says Elizabeth's husband to their friends. Most of their friends agree that Elizabeth’s contemplated suicide is the correct course. They have become deviations of the civilized human race; they are turning into Nazis and condoning eradication of anything that hinders their ideas of perfection of the human race. When Elizabeth tells her daughter of her illness, her daughter shrinks, lies in bed "like a spurned and dying lover." (78) Her daughter turns within, rejects the world, stops spending interest in it, even if only temporarily. Elizabeth longs for physical love from her husband; yet if he tries to make love to her, she feels he is trying to make love to a dead person. "He has no taste for necrophilia," she says. (79) He makes her feel she has unnatural sexual desires in her present condition. At the close of the story, the text loses punctuation when Elizabeth speaks ... a rejection of city, culture, and writing (Elizabeth is a writer) ... and Elizabeth sees droughted trees and wildebeests (the latter an image from her storybook writing perhaps); she does not see city or a future but rather her now empty saucer, empty of Seconal.
         In "What is Seized," Lynnie's mother laments (37) "they want to take things and destroy them." Her house had been purchased and torn down by the government for undefined military purposes (anti-culture, anti-expansion). "They want my hair," (37) her mother complains another day. A nurse comes by with scissors and suggests a haircut most days. This is redolent of the Nazis and their lust for their captives' hair...again, it is indicative of anti-civilization, of the grotesque. The attempt to create grotesques by grotesques.
         In "Like Life," Mamie says (178) "'There was only this world, this looted, ventriloquized earth," when she returns to her home and her spouse after spending an afternoon out in the city alone. "If one were to look for a place to die, mightn't it be here?" She considers the possibility of curbing her expansion, her interest in finding a place of her own for her last segment of life allotted to her. Yet we hope she will change her mind, hope she is afraid only for a few days and then will find the strength to pursue her dream for time of her own in the city. Perhaps she has not yet become a grotesque, as she defines her repressed home life, not the city, as looted and ventriloquized.
         In "Two Boys," Mary's creation of the imaginary Boy Number 3 is a version of the grotesque as he takes over her mind and time and causes her to lose her real boyfriends. A blending of only all good qualities is a fantastic and unnatural idea. Mary empties her room and makes everything in it white. Here is a turning away from society and civilization ... things that stain and make messes and are of various colors. Her search for such pureness is an overexposure. The city lights have lowered Mary's perception in contrasts. Mary calls boys One and Two "honey".(8) Not being able to give each boy a name of his own touches of the grotesque because it signifies her loss of sensitivity in recognizing the differences in each boy.
         In "To Fill," Riva becomes an eating machine. And she continues stealing (140): "I am stealing more and more money. I keep it in my top drawer beneath my underwear, along with my diaphragm and lipstick and switchblade—these are things a woman needs." By eating, stealing, using a diaphragm, and keeping a switchblade, Riva is keeping expansion at a halt. She overfeeds herself and takes from the world; she steals, so does not spend her own money but her employers' money; she uses a diaphragm to limit the population, and her switchblade signifies what she thinks of her surrounding population. "I think: Everyone is thinking bigger thoughts than I, everyone is thinking thoughts. Sometimes it scares me, this bone box of a head of mine, this clean, shiny ashtray." (141) Again, this is a revolt from the city where everyone thinks, and where it is scary. Riva is an outsider, a grotesque: A nonthinker, an eating machine, a thief.

Revolution

In her interview in The Writing Self, Moore states that memory is part of her work as a writer. She uses it both "as a strategy and as a subject ... the subject of time is always at the heart of any (writing).”16 Through memory Moore's characters revolt. By revolting, they often experience compassion and, sometimes, rebirth.
         In "To Fill," the reader is given hope that Riva will recover from her psychiatric stay when we see she has the potential to change because of her child. When her son visits her finally in the hospital, she 'remembers' life and what it was like with him. Through memory of her love for her child, she suddenly goes outside herself, she plants the seed of expansion ... she is going to try to get well she tells her son so she and he can take a trip to the circus. Riva finally revolts against her illness.
         In "Two Boys," Mary takes an interest in the young dislocated woman who shows up in the park regularly and talks of lost boyfriends. The young woman forces Mary to draw parallels between themselves, to go back in time and remember boyfriends. By showing compassion, by listening ... listening is the first step to making new memories, listening is a passage of time, listening is a recognition of someone else ... Mary takes a step out of herself.
         In "Like Life," Mamie remembers what her goals had been in life before her precancer was detected, and she sets out to reestablish those goals. She begins by looking for a room of her own. Although one afternoon she mistakes another suicide for her husband, she endeavors to keep her world open. By endeavoring to keep it open, and through memory, she finds compassion and rebirth. Her dream of her own room is a rebirth; and when she asks Rudy if he's ever lonely (163), we see a woman revolting against a closed future. In her dead end life with him, Mamie still has the compassion to remember what she had loved about Rudy and to wonder if he's lonely. Although at the end of the story Mamie still has not gotten a place of her own and considers dying in her home with Rudy, she realizes it is fear that is shutting her off from the world. When she overcomes fear she will be brave. She knows she will revolt.
         In "What is Seized," (43) it is through memory that the narrator's mother comes to terms with her husband. By spinning out all of her memories of him to her daughter ... all of his ways, she becomes compassionate.

What is beautiful is seized," ... she said my father had been destroyed by too many women, a heart picked over, scratched at, taken, lost ... "It came to me in bulky bandages, seeming much larger, much more than it really was.”

Here Lynnie's mother revolts against the claustrophobia of her illness; (44) and she feels empty and light and grateful because life did not grant her a man with a big, unused heart ... Having had a man with a used heart gave her a different way of seeing, a more painful way of loving, perhaps. But because she is grateful for having loved such a great deal, the reader finds she experiences a rebirth.
        In "Go Like This," Elizabeth revolts against the jail of her illness through the deepening of her love for her friends, Joanie and William, who are appalled at her concept of an aesthetic suicide. Later in the story, her friend, Olga, tells her she has other things to offer: her life as a mother and a writer ... don't they count? "The dissent left early," Elizabeth tells Olga, and Olga replies, "I ... am dissenting." (76) Elizabeth is working on her fourth picture storybook at the end of the story ... at the beginning she had not started it, wasn't going to. Therefore, revolt is shown by Elizabeth's return to the 'city', to her art. Although she completes her suicidal voyage, Elizabeth shows further compassion by asking Joan to look out for her daughter for her. She hands to Joan her own cherished role of motherhood, and Elizabeth's killing herself in this context can be viewed as a return to culture, for she is killing off the creature (cancer) that is keeping her from being with family, friends, work, and civilization.

“I want you to write the opening of my book,” my mother says quietly, as though this is a thing she can only ask once. “ I’ve been wanting to write it all of my life.”
        It is early December, 1996. My mother lies in her isolation room on the top floor of Saint Anne’s Hospital. The sides of her bed are up. Pillows cradle her. She is blind in some lights and at some distances. The calves of her legs have been partially amputated. Her coccyx, too, has become infected. Her belly and chest are swollen; her arms are bruised. She’s hooked up to kidney support. Most days she suffers from a loss of handwriting, memory, and speech. She is enduring cancer and has been diagnosed with advanced heart disease. She is a Balzacian grotesque. But three days before her death, she gains control over her faculties. She experiences rebirth.
        I sit on her windowsill in her hospital room all night long, each of her last three nights. The lighted spires of Saint Anne’s church are behind me.
         She talks. I listen. I write in my notebook.
         We voyage away from her barbarian within. We dock in her young adulthood.

Illness and its consequences are an intrinsic part of these selected Moore stories. The characters use their cancer and depression as metaphors of repression, self- discovery, voyage, compassion. The illnesses cause them to think, to close up, to investigate, and to reopen. "Disease is what opposes life," says Sontag.17
         Moore's characters seek to balance a life suddenly invaded by disease. Sontag states that language about cancer (and depression) will change as cures evolve.18 "One day cancer and depression as metaphors will be used to signify situations that are not fatalistic. Perhaps then it will be "morally permissible, as it is not now, to use cancer as a metaphor.”
         For now cancer is an enemy, a scourge. Like depression, it is "the barbarian within.”19

 

Bibliography

Aristotle. Poetics. Ed. Francis Fergusson. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.

Coleman, Emily Holmes. The Shutter of Snow. New York: Penguin Books, 1982.

Lodge, David. The Art of Fiction. New York: Penguin Books, 1992.

Moore, Lorrie. Like Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990.

Moore, Lorrie. Self-Help. New York: Warner Books, 1985.

Nourok, Scott. "A Conversation With Lorrie Moore." The Writing Self Vol. 5, No. 1 (1996): 6-9,13.

Sand, George. George Sand in Her Own Words. Ed. Joseph Barry. New York: Anchor Books, 1979.

Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor. New York: Anchor, Books, 1990.


Allegra Wong has a BA in English Literature from Wheaton College (Norton), and has done extensive graduate work in English and American literature and language at Harvard University. Her poetry and prose have been published in numerous journals including The Montserrat Review, 3rd Bed, Modern Haiku, Brevity, The Paumanok Review, Writer Online, and Oyster Boy Review. She teaches at Writers on the Net, is creative writing moderator at SayStuff.com, lives in Boston, and has one son.
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