Saturday, March 25, 2006

Buy Lisa Moore's Book Now

Like most literature fans, I don't read a lot of short story collections, and once I do, I don't re-read many of them. This is partly a pragmatic decision (who has the time to re-read everything?); but not many deserve re-reading, either. Then again, those that do deserve it don't necessarily inspire it: Dubliners, for example, is arguably the most famous short story collection ever, but I've not cracked its spine since I first read it 23 years ago. Compare that with my experience with Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son: I tore through it in an afternoon, but I could never really put it down, so to speak, until I finally gave in and re-read it over a year later.

Which brings me to Lisa Moore's 2002 collection, Open, which was a bestseller in Canada and a finalist for the Giller Prize there, but was largely unnoticed here in the States. (I have my public library to thank for bringing it to my attention: thank you, thank you, Multnomah County.) One could say that my decision to re-read Johnson and Moore and not Joyce says more about my reading tastes than their relative merits -- and you'd have a strong case. Moore's collection, at any rate, appears at first glance to be disappointingly homogeneous. Almost all of the ten stories are first-person (and those that aren't may as well be), the main character is always a woman, usually middle-aged with a child or step-child and an emotionally remote husband to whom she is nevertheless almost helplessly attracted. Even the stories' greatest strengths -- their sensuous, room-wrecking imagery and their odd fusion of past and present -- are unvarying from story to story, which is the sort of thing that usually causes my heart to sink.

With all that said, though, I found myself re-reading Open within a week of finishing it, and suggest you get started on her too. If you're a fan of the monotonously sequential or you're deaf to imagery (so to speak), then skip it. But if you've got an ear for voice and like stories that appear to be relentlessly allusive and indirect, than Moore should be on your bedside table by nightfall.

The stories in Open are fragmentary, non-sequential, unpredictable, and rely heavily on repeated imagery to convey their emotional undercurrents. Here's the section I found when browsing the book at the library that convinced me to check it out:

I guess I should read the Manifesto. The literary critic who spoke before you at the conference said it was an authorless tract. That Marx repeatedly tried to make it sound as though it came from thin air, or rose by itself from the people, spontaneously. He was willing to claim the bad poetry of his youth that even Penguin didn't want to publish. But the Manifesto just was. Just passed through his pen.

Tell me what happened? Did you meet somebody? (from "Mouths, Open," p. 29)

You don't need to know that the narrator and her partner (the "you" mentioned in the second sentence) are in a relationship, and that the narrator's partner is turning away from her -- it's abundantly clear. The longing in the second paragraph, the abrupt juxtaposition, is poignant. Marx's delusion, his attempt to remove his fingerprints from his own work, suggests fertile parallels: perhaps the narrator's partner is attempting to dissociate himself from his own work (the life he's built with the narrator, or his responsibility for breaking them up); or perhaps the narrator is trying to remove herself from the pain of his rejection by accepting that it "just is," that it's historically inevitable.

Much of Moore's fiction works like this, by suggestion and juxtaposition. In this way, she is able to dramatize how memory can radically impinge upon the present - many of her characters seem to live in an unstable storm of past and present, a cinematic montage of moments flashing by. In some stories, like "The Way the Light Is," she makes her debts to the cinema explicit; in others, like "Mouths, Open," she uses the technique and expects her readers to follow. She can pull this off because of the sheer sensuousness of her imagery and the sharp turns she takes to pull the reader through the story.

Like a poet, she is prodigal with her images: at an outdoor party, "a paper napkin flutters off the table and dips, like a dove shot out of the sky, a gash of lipstick on its breast" (154). Or this:

Melody comes out with a bottle of orange juice. It has stopped raining. Steam lifts off the asphalt and floats into the trees. Sky, Canadian flag, child with red shirt -- all mirrored in the glossy water on the pavement at our feet. A car passes and the child's reflection is a crazy red flame breaking apart under the tires. The juice in Melody's hand has an orange halo. A brief rainbow arcs over the wet forest behind the Irving station (8).

She can stumble, too, as she does here, when the narrator of "Craving" describes a childhood friend's dexterity in handling adolescent boys:

She could suss out the swift-forming passions of the gang of boys we knew, and make them heel. She knew the circuit of their collective synaptic skittering and played it like pinball (62).

I have trouble imagining "passions" coming to "heel," but more than that, "circuit of their collective synaptic skittering" isn't nearly as concrete as her imagery usually is - it's abstractly interesting, but works better for its sound than its sense. (Nor can I imagine playing a "skittering" like "pinball," but that's comparatively minor.) Sure, I'd've liked to see her edit this sort of thing out, but it's a mark of the sheer fertility of imagery that her stories don't suffer from lapses like this one - she knows her next one will be better, and so does the reader.

Her opening story, "Melody," is impressive because it tells four stories in one, almost all indirectly: the narrator, a teenager, slowly awakens to desire, sexual and otherwise, as she carelessly betrays her friends, including Melody, who has an abortion after getting pregnant by an older man; the narrator's subsequent marriage and five years of grief after her husband dies; the mistake of her second marriage to a rich dentist; and the wrenching power of Melody's reappearance in her life at 40. (Actually, the piece may contain fewer than four stories or it could be more; like all of Moore's work, it's hell to summarize.)

Other pieces are weaker -- "Grace," for example, the novella that closes the collection, is wonderful but shows the weakness of applying her technique to longer fiction: it's exhausting, after a while. One stops taking in the imagery and the connections and begins longing for closure. But there are many standouts here. "Craving" is about an old theme - the destruction of romantic illusion - but does it well. The narrator is at the dinner table with two old friends she hasn't seen since her teens, and their respective men:

She's thinking, Remember the guy on the surboard in Hawaii? I felt total abandon. An evanescing of self, my zest uncorked.

Yes, but if you had kept going, it wouldn't have been abandon. He wouldn't be a man swathed in the nimbus of an incandescent wave, muzzling the snarling lip of that bone-crushing maw of ocean with a flexed calf muscle. He would be one of these guys at the table, half drunk and full of mild love (62-3).

Perhaps the best story of all is "The Way the Light Is," in which the narrator is making a short film inspired by a poem by John Steffler. She describes the poem as being about "the elusive," and tries to do this by filming her friend Mina, who affects nonchalance that her husband sleeps with other women but unintentionally keeps revealing her pain. The narrator describes the video her own husband took of their son's birth, a series of jumpcuts of the contractions (the camera was shut off during all the peaceful, happy moments in between) and then the bloody, terrifying complication that follows. She and her son survive, and then she writes, ostensibly about Steffler's poem, "Everyone knows what it means to want something with such intensity you crush it in your haste to have it. " But of course she's talking about giving birth, and her friend Mina's longing for her husband, and even the way in which artists always fail to entirely grasp what they're reaching for, and so for that story alone, the book is worth your while.

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