Thursday, September 10, 2009

It's Like I Remembered It


We knew to look for humor and darkness all at once, and it was there in the first sentence. "Winter came early, catching the songbirds off guard." Since Lorrie Moore's reading in 2005 at the Vermont Studio Center where I spent a month, I've been quoting that first line to people. If I recall correctly, her new novel was past deadline then. Now it's over four years later than that, and finally it has come out. I've read some portions on Amazon and found the first sentence to be the same. And the business about 9/11 in the first chapter, which was not mentioned by the NPR reviewer (making me fear it had been taken out) was still there. So it is as I remembered it . . . the part she read, at least.

I was funny back at art colony. I hung with the abstract painters on the porch of the Wolf Kahn building, and they called me a writer. Fours years later I'm still working on the same story I was working on then. I've lost inspiration for it. I just need to get past it to do something else. I do some other random writing and the occasional blog entry and I have this sci-fi idea for something else I'd like to write, but I know that I run out of gas pretty quickly in sci-fi so I have not started.

I was in touch back then. I, and others, ate meals with Lorrie Moore. I have a story that she critiqued, with her notes in the margins. She said it was a real story and it was "almost ready" (to publish). I still don't know what to do with it to make it completely ready. I just don't know.

I like thinking about that summer. On the occasion of her new novel coming out, I'm reprinting an email I sent to friends about the first night Moore showed up at art colony.

The painters and sculptors are wondering what the big deal is. All the writers are leaning close to each other and talking about her. “I went through a phase where I was like, ‘Lorrie Moore, Loorie Moore,’”one says, waving her hands as if in Pentecostal prayer. “And then I was like, ‘Oh, she’s clever, she’s just so clever.’ But then I’ve been reading her again, and I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, this is good. This is fantastic.’”

“She’s really a dark writer,” says a tall, skinheaded Jewish writer from Boston, the first deep Lorrie Moore fan I really talked to here.

Yes, indeed. One of the very darkest.

“That story with that word repeated for three pages? What is it? ‘Stop’?” he said.

I reminded him that the word is “Ha!” and the story is “Real Estate.”

He went on, “In that story, the guy who lives in the attic, who’s not supposed to be there? His name is Tod. Which is German for death. Death has moved into the house with them.”

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Frank is a gray-bearded writer, a teacher at a prep school in Connecticut. He always sits at the head of a long table at meal times and holds court. As you carry your tray in, you can see him there and decide whether you want to sit near him for that meal, or far from him. He actually is not much of a Lorrie Moore fan. It’s not that he’s uptight -- he could qualify as “hippie,” in my estimation. It’s just that she is, well, post-hippie -- the generation wallowing in the hippies’ wake, “masturbating and doomed like outlaws,” as she put it.

Frank can’t remember the name of the Moore collection he started reading and did not finish, and he makes fun of my infatuation.

“Are you stalking her?” he said. “I’m going to come to your studio. And if you have enlarged pictures of her tacked up all over, I’m going to be very worried.”

I said I have copies of her books all over my studio which is, by my request, also my bedroom.

“That’s even stranger,” said Frank.

(Lots of the writers here have their studios as their bedrooms. But more than half, by their request, are corralled in little offices surrounding a central room with a laser printer.)

This morning, at breakfast, Frank said to me, “I heard the weatherman on the radio today. He said Lorrie Moore’s sleigh was sighted flying over the Midwest. Ho Ho Ho Ho Ho.”

I said, “No, it’s Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! . . . .”

Frank said, “When she’s around, [Elrond] will have to wear his Depends.”

At mid-afternoon, I was alone in the dining room getting tea. Frank wandered in. “Is she here yet?” he said, looking around.

As some of you know, they have no trays here, so you have to get your plate with your entree, and maybe your drink, set that down, and then go to the salad bar and get that and go back to your seat. And about half the time, the salad bar is more substantial than the gourmet, often vegetarian, entree. (I have done something I never do. I have bought potato chips and onion dip for my room, for Chrissakes) So, at dinner, I was in the stage of fetching my salad, when I saw a newcomer just then taking her seat. There are lots of newcomers each mealtime. Staff members come back from vacations, other residents arrive late. As my gaze passed by this one, I felt a sting like a knife stabbing up my ass. Jesus Lord Mercy. Finish taking that step, yes, that’s right, now take another and continue on your way.

I went back to my seat, which, by chance, was at the head of the long table parallel to Frank’s. So he and I were looking down our respective tables. And directly in my line of sight, facing me at the next table, was this particular newcomer.

I ducked so that another diner was between me and her, and whispered to Courtney “See Lorrie Moore over there? Don’t look.” Courtney was craning her neck all around. She saw, and ducked suddenly, putting her hand over her mouth.

“I have to tell somebody,” she said. “Where’s Elisa?”

Elisa is about half my age and has a published short story collection and a novel contract with Simon and Schuster. I learned this from her, without probing, in the first 4 minutes of knowing her. Later that day, my very cool housemate Daniel said to me, “I met someone with a published short story collection and a novel contract-”

“Elisa” I said, cutting him off. “I know.”

Anyway, Elisa gets kudos for knowing her Lorrie Moore stuff deeply. But she was not in the room right then. I said to Courtney, “You can tell Frank.”

So she got up and went and told Frank. He rose slightly to look over the heads down his table. Courtney and I redoubled our ducking as if to compensate for his indiscretion.

Frank looked at me and nodded, giving somber approval.

Word got around the room. One writer after another was twisting in their chair, looking. We all wanted to talk to her, and nobody did. Courtney, all during the meal, was breathing deeply and fanning herself. She’s dramatic like that.

Elisa finally came in. I wanted us to watch her and see how long it took her to notice. But Courtney went to her, and they were gabbing right behind Lorrie Moore’s back.

Meanwhile, what’s up with the real Lorrie Moore these days?

Her hair is not black, as it appears to be in the black and white photo, but brown. Or maybe it’s colored nowadays. It still swings gayly from the central part, just like in the black and white photo. Her eyes seem bigger in real life, but still slant downward ,sympathetically, toward their outer corners, as if even the most scathing critique she could deliver would not really be so bad. Her eyebrows are thicker than in the photo, “a holdover from the fur trade,” as she wrote of her first person narrator in “Frog Hospital.”

She is older than in the photo, sure, but to use her own words, “In this neck of the woods, she is still the neck of the woods.” She smiled at her tablemates the whole meal, or at least, all the few seconds total I allowed myself to look directly at her. She had the Center director on one side, wearing his bicycle outfit.

“Do you think he came in all sweaty, in his bicycle outfit, on purpose?” said Courtney.

Frank said the same thing later. Later still, we were to learn from her some of what was said at the table. The Center director was telling her about his collection, in his office, of framed quotes from famous people.

"What," Moore said. "No Judy Garland?"

Just as if she were one of us, Moore bussed her own dishes.

More to follow in the blog . . .

1 comment:

svetx said...

Oh, I think this blog entry may be my new favorite short story. How I wish I'd been there, and I treasure getting to glimpse that secret part of your world and personal history. And to learn that Lorrie Moore busses her own dishes. I really thought she would.