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A Self-Help Idea

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Seconal.jpgAlthough I previously characterized Lorrie Moore's Self-Help as a "wasteland of ideas," in fact one of the stories contains one idea.  The story is "Go Like This," and the idea is the disturbing concept of "aesthetic suicide"  (p. 73).

The story's protagonist, Liz, has breast cancer that has spread.  Although her doctor advises her that "women have survived much greater damage than you have suffered, much worse odds, worse pain than this" (p. 68), Liz decides to kill herself on Bastille Day with an overdose of Seconal.  "[S]uicide [is] the most rational and humane alternative to my cancer, an act not so much of self-sacrifice as of beauty, of sparing" (p. 71), she tells her friends.

Some of her friends protest, but her husband, Elliot - who won't sleep with her after her mastectomies, despite her continuing sexual desire for him - thinks that "[suicide] will possibly be the most creative act Liz has ever accomplished," and adds, "I think it is beautiful she is doing this for me"  (p. 73).

Elliot's attitude is a pity because his stance deprives the story of an opportunity to explore seriously the idea it raises.  Despite the fact that luminaries like Martha Gellhorn have agreed with Liz's assertion that "intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to the stupid lingering of a graceless death" (p. 72), "Go Like This" reduces Liz's thinking to a pathetic rationalization.  With her husband rebuffing her sexual desires, masturbating after she goes to sleep and expressing relief and gratitude for her exit strategy, Liz's suicide cannot be "the culmination of a life philosophy, the triumph of the artist over the mortal, physical world" (p. 72-73); rather, it is a demoralized accession to her husband's will.

In "Go Like This," Moore does more than "focus[] on the visceral."  Whether consciously or not, she seems to cast aspersions on the cerebral.  Not content to ignore ideas completely, in "Go Like This," Moore suggests that ideas - "big ideas," "existential" ideas ("It's Hemingway" (p. 69)) - are devices for self-deceit.

Of course, Moore's suspicion of "big ideas," and her insistence on the primacy of the visceral, emotional and irrational in women's lives, is itself a big idea - and not a new one: it's the idea that when women try to think, they get themselves into a muddle. 

Far from condemning this message as sexist, Moore's stories seem to argue that this banishment of women to the Irrationality Reserve is true-to-life and aesthetically-liberating.  My own perspective is that this argument is no less deceptive than Liz's contorted rationalizing and no less of an amputation than Liz's mastectomies. 

An aesthetic without ideas is not "female": it's amoral.  And glorifying such an approach as essentially female isn't "women's art": it's aesthetic suicide.   

(Image of barbituates from Healthmad.com)

What do women want (from an author)?

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In Self-Help, Lorrie Moore's first short story collection, she seems to know that plot is not her strong suit.  In the story "How to Become a Writer," the narrator's high school teacher comments, "you have no sense of plot."  (p. 119.)  In her college creative writing seminar, the narrator's teacher comments, "You have, however, a ludicrous notion of plot."  (p. 121.)  Later, her classmates urge her to "think about what is happening.  Where is the story here?"  (p. 123.)  

For my own part, I wish she would've taken their advice.  I read for plot, and I don't buy that "character is plot."  Character is character and plot is plot, and the two are no more interchangeable than a spark plug and a carburator.  Still, I accept authors as I find them:  if Self-Help is any example, Lorrie Moore isn't an author you read for plot.

And I wonder if this characteristic, too - like her lack of ideas - is part of the explanation of her popularity with readers, particularly women readers.  Plot = action = men, just as much as ideas = intellect = men (which is to say, those are false equations from my perspective, but mine may be the minority).  Could it be - this many years after universal education, feminism and Madeline Albright - that NO plot + NO ideas = massive popularity with women?

Penny for your . . . well, feelings?

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Lorrie_Moore.jpgI have a sinking feeling that Lorrie Moore's popularity is connected with her lack of ideas.

Maybe I'm being unfair.  I've only read Self-Help, her first story collection.  But it's a wasteland of ideas.

"How to Be an Other Woman," the opening story, contains some memorable writing, but in terms of ideas - being a mistress is a position short on dignity; the guy is in it for the sex - the story offers nothing new.

"The Kid's Guide to Divorce," the third story, isn't even well written (it's a pointless interlude included in the collection on the basis of deeply questionable judgment) and makes the entirely unenlightened point that talking to your mom about your visit with your dad and his girlfriend isn't easy.

"How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)" doesn't even qualify as a story from my perspective.  A list of half-page recountings of significant events over the years (in reverse chronological order), "How to Talk to Your Mother" is animated by the idea that communication with your mom is a challenge, and that the inevitable failures on both sides will infiltrate your life in elliptical and poetic ways.

"How to Become a Writer" is a tiresome hit piece about the inanity of creative writing classes.  Hardly a fresh take on the process of training writers.

If this collection is any example, Lorrie Moore is a kind of anti-Joan Didion.  Whereas Joan Didion is a "brain in a box," Lorrie Moore is a body in search of a brain.  Her writing - which (although it's obviously not to my taste) is (equally) obviously good - focuses on the visceral: the creeping way a "cold man" can crater your enjoyment of life ("What Is Seized"), the persistence of sexual desire in the throes of cancer ("Go Like This"), the physical and emotional suffering caused by a husband's infidelity ("To Fill").  In Self-Help, Moore is interested in portraying a state or condition - if it's a familiar state or condition, easily recognizable and accessible for the reader, all the better.

For this reason, Lorrie Moore is a "serious" writer who is nonetheless easy to read.  Her prose can be enjoyed without any troubling cerebral engagement to spoil the escapism and, in light of the ubiquitous female protagonists, women can nod agreeably at the way Moore's scenarios resonate with their own experiences.  Female readers needn't appreciate the quality of Moore's writing to appreciate that the stories make them feel part of a community - "heard" - as if they'd been gossiping with a sympathetic friend.

This audience response doesn't diminish Moore's stature as a good writer.  But it reflects a poor use of a good writer by a reading public that probably doesn't know what to do with her.  Perhaps Moore should have written a story about "How to Become a Reader."

(Image courtesy of The Telegraph)

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Self-Help category.

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