Lorrie Moore: “Referential”

06/01/2012 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, May 28, 2012.

All this had to be accepted. Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected twist in the game. One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land the same way, regardless. Tenderness did not enter into it, except in a damaged way.

I was always a little skeptical of depression and especially unsympathetic to the result, suicide, until David Foster Wallace, after years of punctuating forms of suffering from and wrestling with the indescribable on the printed page, killed himself. Surely, if a man I respected and admired so much — as a genius, more or less — could be driven to cessation, there had to be a just cause. Stories like Moore’s, however, keep my guard up. They’re almost too beautifully written, as with that extended metaphor above, in which the mother attempts to understand her institutionalized sixteen-year-old son’s viewpoint of life. They’re also a little irrelevant: what do cards or games have to do with this extremely short story? Far better is another brief segment, which is at least sparked by something the son says earlier about burning candles and messages written in the darkness of the sky: “There was a storm looming, and lightning did its quick, purposeful zigzag among the clouds. She did not need such stark illustration that horizons could be shattered, filled with messages and broken codes, yet there it was.” The point here, is the same as what’s in the cards, which leads me to conclude that while Moore is bravely, poetically struggling, her repetitions prove that she doesn’t quite have a reason for writing (she does ends the story with nothingness, so maybe that’s the reason: to reach, after struggle, an emptiness, to realize, after all, that language is inadequate, “a mutilation”).

But I digress. The story isn’t, after all, about the suicidal son: it’s about the mother and the last moments of her relationship with Pete. It’s easy to get confused, but look at what’s really important about that first sentence (“For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son”). Yes, it’s the “deranged” part that’s catchy, but the subject, what’s at stake, is the fact that this is the third time in three years that she needs to remind Pete what’s appropriate for her son. (No glass, duh.) Pete’s been around for ten years — six of which were happier ones, when the son “was still smiling and hamming it up, his arms and legs shooting out like starbursts” — but ever since the mother’s been dressing, out of solidarity with what her son’s allowed to have, like an Amish woman (“or perhaps, even worse, when the unforgiving light of spring hit her face, an Amish man”), Pete’s been growing distant. Losing his job in the economic downturn is perhaps the final diminishment, and while he’s a good man not to overtly blame the son, to still visit him “like a kind of stepfather,” there’s also this wonderfully telling line: “‘To me, you always look so beautiful,'” Pete no longer said. At the story’s end, the mother is receiving phone calls from a person who keeps hanging up (the constant tension being that the institution is calling to report a suicide), and she uses this as an opportunity to connect the dots and find Pete in a “condition of romantic overlap.” Now the mother, herself so desperate for contact that she pays to have her hair washed, that she chooses the pat-downs and wands over the airport scanning machine, has nothing, and in this context, the last line of the story resonates: “But there was nothing at all.”

In conclusion, then; the mother’s plight is powerful — and yet it’s almost entirely absorbed (as Moore tells us her life has been) by information about the son. The result is a story gamely at odds with itself, masterfully salvaged by Moore’s writing, and galvanized by a variety of interpretations on those “referential” symbols in the sky. Language that cuts, cuts that are written, a record of pain attempting to drown out a more frightening record of nothingness — words bravely covering a frightfully blank page — that’s good stuff.

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