Lorrie Moore Biography
Nationality: American. Born: Marie Lorena Moore in Glens Falls, New York, 1957. Education: St. Lawrence University, Canton, New York, 1974-78, B.A. (summa cum laude) 1978; Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, 1980-82, M.F.A. 1982. Career: Assistant professor, 1984-87, and since 1987 associate professor of English, University of Wisconsin, Madison. Awards: National Endowment for the Arts award, 1989; Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, 1989; Guggenheim fellowship, 1991; O. Henry award, 1998. Agent: Melanie Jackson Agency, 250 West 57th Street, New York, New York 10107.
Anagrams. New York, Knopf, 1986; London, Faber, 1987.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1994.
Self-Help. New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1985.
Like Life. New York, Knopf, and London, Faber, 1990.
Birds of America: Stories. New York, Knopf, 1998.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Willing," in Best American Short Stories 1991, edited by Alice Adams and Katrina Kenison. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1991.
"Community Life," in Best American Short Stories 1992. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1992.
"Terrific Mother" in Best American Short Stories 1993. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1993.
The Forgotten Helper: A Christmas Story (for children), illustrated by T. Lewis. New York, Delacorte Press, 2000.
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Lorrie Moore was a relative newcomer on the fiction scene in the late twentieth century. Her first book, Self-Help, a collection of stories, was her master's thesis at Cornell University and won her critical acclaim for its humorous parody of the popular self-help books of the time period. The collection was also well regarded for its experimentation with second-person point of view in fiction. In second person, the reader becomes the main character in the story, and it is because of this intrusion on the reader that it is usually avoided in the genre. By parodying the self-help manuals that were often more popular with general readers than fiction of the same period, Moore was able to create a collection of short pieces such as "How to Become a Writer," "The Kid's Guide to Divorce," and "How to Be an Other Woman" that did not offend readers yet at the same time held a mirror up to their experiences that reflected moments of self-recognition and insight which ironically are not found in how-to books, where many contemporary readers seek answers in negotiating life, but are revealed in good fiction.
Since this well-regarded debut, Moore's work has not garnered quite the same level of attention in literary circles and with the general reading public. She is not a particularly prolific writer and her subsequent story collections Like Life and Birds of America received more notice and acclaim than the novels, and sometimes her technical expertise wins at the expense of heart. However, the novels continue her theme of subverting readers' expectations in relation to nonfiction genres with contemporary humor, sharp wit, and increasing depth and poignancy.
The title of Moore's first novel, Anagrams, like Self-Help, suggests a very different kind of book than a work of fiction. Published between her first two collections of stories, the title suggests a book of puzzles or word plays or amusing coincidences of the anagram. Instead, Moore presents a novel of late-twentieth-century life in which the main character, Benna, a local nightclub singer, tries to "make anagrams out of words that weren't anagrams." No matter how she tries, Benna cannot seem to rearrange the letters, the details of her life, to make something meaningful out of the experience of living it. She experiments in love with Gerard, her neighbor across the hall who writes operas and reveals more secrets about himself as the novel progresses, and with one of her poetry students. The novel has a stark, urban feel of isolation as Benna tries to form lasting relationships that seem doomed and moves increasingly toward imaginary rather than real others in her life. Interestingly, Moore experiments with point of view again in this novel, as though keeping a camera moving, shifting the reader off balance as she moves from first person to third omniscient. This technique causes the reader to sense Benna's lack of identity, loss of control, inability to form secure attachments, and her deepening despair. An odd scene of Benna and her brother toward the close of the novel seems unnecessary and inappropriate to the story and speaks to Moore's difficulty in sustaining the longer fictional form at this stage of her career.
The title Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? begs for a book that will answer that question, however unlikely such an answer to such a question might be. In contrast to Benna in Anagrams, Berie Carr is a middle-aged woman who is in a more secure place in her life and her relationships and can afford the luxury of a reflective mood about lost innocence and youth. This mature stance shows a development in Moore's work away from heavy reliance on technical artifice and toward the more lasting qualities of character development and story. Instead of anagrams, here is a tapestry, like Carol King's record that Berie and her girlhood friend Sils, about whom much of the novel turns, listen to in their bedrooms while dancing and fixing their hair. The girls worked at an amusement park called Storyland, in fact, and there is much about looking back with nostalgia in this novel to a time when innocence borders knowledge, just like their upstate New York town of Horsehearts borders Canada. The novel's title, in this case, suggests perhaps a children's story, and much of the book is about Berie's childhood and adolescence. In Paris, middle-aged Berie realizes that she no longer loves her husband, or believes that kissed frogs turn into princes, but the realization is not startling to her. Instead, the insight provides a channel for her to travel back down her own literal Memory Lane to recognize a place where she once experienced true beauty in the world as a young woman, if only for a moment.
Moore lapses away from third-person point of view to first in this novel only for a brief time, in flashback. One hopes that she will increasingly trust her talent for storytelling in the more traditional sense and will develop her longer fiction further along that path.
Connie Ann Kirk
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