THE FRONTISPIECE ofSelf Helpis adorned with, among other bizarre items, a quote from Sex Lives of Animals Without Backbones which provides a metaphor for relationships that's as apt (and unromantic) as they come. The excerpted passage notes that certain invertebrates "lose an arm while mating," and is immediately followed by a ghoulish bit of advice from The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette: "If you start to shake hands with someone who has lost an arm, shake his other hand."
Like most everything else about Lorrie Moore's collection of short stories from the title on, this subversively weird choice of quotes (the third one comes from Butchering Livestock at Home) is at once whimsically ironic and bitterly true. Moore's basic here and throughout is that can be as radical radical and ridiculous as the globular mollusk's loss of a tentacle during sex. The stories deal with pain of the most banal and yet terrible sort--the pain of relationships and marriages gone bad, of broken families,
The "self-help of the title refers only very tangentially to the mass-market platitudes of the subgenere whose parameters are delimited by the disparate likes of Normal Vincent Peale and Alex (joy of sex) Comfort The idea of the self-help manual provides Moore with her most potent and original stylistic device: six of the nine stories in the book are cast in that least-employed from of narrative, yhe second person, The irony, of course, is that this form of address comes not by way of advice and is not at all directed towards the reader Far from being a merely clever manipulation of narrative voice, it is a form of distancing for the narrators, an inner monologue which help to hold the pain and anxiety at arm's length, Moore's characters are often acutely self-aware ans the same time utterly unable to help themselves.
All of this does not by any means imply that Moore's stories are grim tragedies or soggy domestic confessionals, however much her plots be the stuff of such woeful fiction. What makes this remarkably self-assured first collection so interesting is the tough bitingly funny humor of the narrative voice. the protagonists, with the exception of the child narrator of The Kid's Guide to Divorce," are all young, college-educated. But this is a protective device, as the husband of the protagonist in another story. "To Fill" says "Everything's a joke. You're always flip-flopping words, only listening to the edge of things. It's like you're always, constantly, on the edge."
Though Self-Help is consistently informed by this ironic tone, Moore deals with a variety of situations and shadings of moods. The first story of the collection and one of the best, "How to Be Other Woman," traces the tha arc of semi-clandestine relationship between a married man a woman: "After four moves, three concerts, and two and a half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events," How and "Amahl and the Night Visitors A Guide to the Tenor of Love" both deal with the slow death of relationships, from the point of view respectively of the departing one and the one who's left behind. "A kind's Guide o Devote",a short seconds-person sketch told from the point of view of a young child, is a compressed marvel of story telling.
Those stories which are cast in the first person, while never quite losing the ironic tone, are darker and less distanced from their own pain. "What is Seized" is a fragmented account of a mother-daughter relationship (one of Moore's recurrent obsessions) in which both characters attempt to come to terms with the painful legacy of a bad husband and father: 'Cold men destroy women,' my mother wrote to me years later. They woo them with something personable that they bring out for show, something annexed to their souls like a fake greenhouse, lead you in, and you think you see life and vitality and sun and greenness, and then when you love them, they lead you out into their real soul, a drafty, cavernous, empty ballroom, inexorably arched and vaulted and mocking you with its echoes--you hear all you have sacrificed, all you have given, landing with a loud clunk.'
The most harrowing story of the collection is "Go Like This," about a woman's decision to commit suicide when she learns that she has terminal cancer. The only story which falls somewhat below the otherwise very high standards of this collection is the last one, "To Fill," in which Moore's sense of economy and structure fails her and her prose lapses into self-indulgence.
"How to Become a Writer" stands slightly apart from these stories, a hilarious account of a writer's development, which ranks as a small comic masterpiece: "First try to be something, anything else... Fail miserably. It is best if you fail at an early age--say, fourteen. Early, critical disillusionment is necessary so that at fifteen you can write long haiku sequences about thwarted desire." But in the middle of all the wisecracking remain passages that ring out with such truth that they communicate directly to the reader the pleasure of literary creation, "those brief, fragile, untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius." On the basis of her first collection, Lorrie Moore clearly qualifies.
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