It is early December, 1996. My
mother lies in her isolation room on the top floor of Saint Annes
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
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 todays traveling market. From this completely
stocked Parnassus on wheels (stocked not like Roger Miflinswith
booksbut with steaks, chops, dry groceries, green groceries,
and baked goods), my father hawked his specialties of corned beef and
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 Moores 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
must die or triumph.1
love exceptional beings
I give their deformities frightening, grotesque
things which might give you nightmares,2
said Balzac. Some of Moores characters may be
called Balzacian grotesques, the types of psychologically unstable characters
the gentleman reader cannot fairly be expected to work up a professional
states Carmen Callil and Mary Siepmann in their 1980 essay on the mental
breakdowns of female characters in literature.
Most of Moores characters,
like many well-crafted ones, unfold a bit at a time in a Jamesian manner,
a scenic method of characterization. A character emergesclothes,
speech, behaviour, literary nuance (image, symbol), suggestion of appearancethese
qualities constitute a character,4
David Lodge paraphrases Henry James in The Art of Fiction. But
it is Moores 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, its 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 doesnt do that, then youve
chosen the wrong one.6
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
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 societys 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 readers contact with
a character in these selected stories by Lorrie Moore?
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 ones
career, friendships, and love life. Cancer and depression take time to
heal. Sometimes there is no healing. In literature, cancer and depression
replace last centurys tuberculosis and melancholy, but unlike last
centurys tuberculosis and melancholy, they are not regarded as lyrical
and aesthetic. Tuberculosis afflicted the reckless and the sensual; melancholy
was the artists personalityrefined, 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 mothers 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 childrens 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.
Mamie had reapeated quietly, for she was a quiet woman. Isnt
[The doctor] took her
wrist and briefly squeezed. Its like life, but its
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 ones 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 depressions
new stage. She acknowledges that her depression of a month ago was better,
fashionable. It is likened to last centurys 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
havent been able to stop eating (145), I slather heavy
peach makeup over the rash by my mouth
(155) Riva recognizes
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
In What is Seized, the narrators
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
Recent research (2001)
by Robert A. Weinberg,11
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 narrators 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
The narrators mother dies as she made lovein
Mamie in Like Life
is a freelance historical illustrator for childrens books. Her precancer
is in her throat; she regularly drops off throat samples at her doctors
office, prepares herself for the pain she is due in the future.
Mamie studied the realtors 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)
Mamies 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 husbands, and their daughters.
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 havent 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
by marriage, love, or inability to free the mind from set patternsRiva
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
It is early December, 1996.
My mother lies in her isolation room on the top floor of Saint Annes
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
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 Ive 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.
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
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
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 characters life, states Moore in her interview with Nourok
in The Writing Self.
Cancer and depression
are metaphors that enable Moores 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
Manns The Magic Mountain, that trip would include the avenues
of stimulating conversations with other residents. Last centurys
treatment for consumption and melancholy parallels this centurys
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 Moores 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 gorgeall
stringy paths opening up to her psychically, calling her on.
A double psychic voyage
is found in What Is Seized. Lynnies 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 mothers 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 mothers 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 mothers 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 mothers death.
In Like Life,
Mamies 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
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
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. Im 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
well discuss it further, (70) Elizabeth says to her husband.
'Yes,' he said.
Cancer gives Elizabeth
permission to isolate and pity herself. Her unheld bodyshe longs
for her husband to make love to her, but he is afraid
"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
... 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
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 Annes
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 peoples
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
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.
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 cancera 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 Elizabeths 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
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 switchbladethese
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.
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
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
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. Ive 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 Annes
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. Shes 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 Annes 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,"
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
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
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.
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.