Saturday, August 7, 2010

Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

When the Lorrie Moore Society eventually assembles itself, and after the euphoria of sharing your favorite of the author's puns and play on words begin to wear thin (my favorite is "throw cushions to the wind"), the inevitable factions will begin to form. There will be those who, having read her heart-wrenching story "People Like That Are the Only People Here," will be interested in uncovering the author's personal motivation for writing a story about a young couple ("whose narrator is a female writer nonetheless!") dealing with their newborn child's diagnosis with cancer vs. those who choose to read the author's many works on their own, separate from the writer's life. There will be those who see Moore's earlier works as full of life and her current endeavors as increasingly bitter vs. those who think the author has gracefully moved away from a naive but humane vision of the world to a mature and grounded observer of modern life. But by far the most vociferous groups, and those who will never see eye to eye, will be those who prefer Moore's short stories vs. those who see her novels as her towering achievements. Having published three story collections, and three novels, Moore has given her fans near equal opportunity to choose sides.

Finally, there will be those who, aware they might be thought of as too weak to choose a side but not willing to engage in a literary pillow-fight, will throw cushions to the wind and quietly hold out their dogeared copies of Anagrams, Moore's first "novel," published in 1986. I use the word novel loosely here because Anagrams is, on the surface, a short story collection disguised as a novel. The book is comprised of four glorious short stories and a beautiful and understated novella. Each of the selections revolve around the love affair of Benna and Gerard, characters who take various poses of love and confusion in the course of the novel. And while each piece could stand on its own (many have been published elsewhere previously), the works possess a unique narrative momentum that makes them a cohesive whole.

In the first story, "Escape from the Invasion of the Love-Killers," the two characters live across the hall from each other in an old apartment building. Gerard quietly loves Benna, a nightclub singer with a bit of an alcohol problem, from behind the closed doors of his apartment. He listens for her to stumble home after work and talks to her through their shared bathroom wall. He ventures over to her apartment to discuss science fiction movies and his childhood acting roles. Benna, however, has no interest in Gerard, and rebuffs his sweet-natured advances. She is careless with his feelings, and her brashness eventually places an emotional wall between them. The story ends with a heartbroken Gerard venturing back to his own apartment, alone and depressed. Moore's solemn narration in this story gives show us Gerard's tremendous heart in only 6 short pages, and we are left flipping to the next story in hopes of some kind of resolve for this character we have quickly come to love.

The second story, "String Too Short to Use," switches gears however, and we are given a different side of the story, only this time from Benna's point of view. She and Gerard still live across the hall from each other, but something has changed. In this story, it is Benna who is in love with Gerard, and seemingly not the other way around: the two are dating, but it is Gerard who suddenly is not interested in the relationship. How have these two characters found themselves in this new situation? Has time passed in between stories? Did Moore play a trick on us in the first, third-person narrated story? This jump is jarring and confusing, but before any objections can be raised, Moore reels us to this new but familiar world, which is as crisp and clear as the one we were abruptly taken away from. As the details begin to emerge, what one eventually notices is that Gerard is not even the same Gerard from the previous story. Neither, we soon see, is Benna. What we soon discover is that in each piece, while all the basic components remain the same such as the characters and setting, the larger picture has been rearranged. Much like Benna, who obsesses over rearranging the letters of the words that occupy her life to find new meaning (my favorite is bedroom/boredom), Anagrams switches up the lives of the characters to give the reader different sides of love. While this initially sounds like a parlor trick of literary showmanship, a bad MFA proposal, Moore tells her stories with such an emotional force that we embrace a concept we would normally sneer at in a less gifted writer.

And what a gifted writer she is. Moore is not just throwing her Scrabble pieces in the air and watching to see where they land. Her stories are carefully constructed rearrangements, fitting into each other in unexpected places that are both new and exciting, as well as comfortable and ultimately revealing. Threads that are left open in one section are resolved in others, even if the string that hold them together are different from place to place. Conversations are echoed from different cliffs. Characters jump from position to position, often becoming the person they least want to resemble. And we are left to marvel at Moore's precise yet emotionally flowing prose.

Why then is this work called a novel? A novel by definition is an extended work of fiction, while a short story is something to be read in a sitting. Shouldn't this be classified as a short story collections with connective ties, much like the 2008's Olive Kitterage, which consisted of linked stories involving a retired teacher, or this year's superb The Imperfectionists, which told of the lives of staffers at a failing newspaper? Is Anagrams really what we consider a novel? My initial hunch is that the book's publishers were weary of publishing a collection of short stories, which are historically low-selling, and instead decided to call the piece a novel, in hopes of not scaring off those who would pass over a story collection. A trick such as this runs the risk of not only causing confusion in the reader, but of also potentially backfiring; a reader's memory is long, and any kind of emotional forgery is not easily forgiven. And yet in the end, Anagrams reveals itself to be a novel, even if not in the traditional sense of the word. What hold it all together is neither character, nor place, nor even a few tidy, well-placed sentences that change the reader's perspective. Moore mixes up what we expect from a novel and a story collection to give us something wholly original.

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