The Juniper Tree by Lorrie Moore, 2005
The magic trick:
The nightmare sequence
Today we have a little bit of magical realism from Lorrie Moore. The heart of the story is a eerie sequence – Is it real? Is it a nightmare? It can’t be really happening, right? – in which our narrator visits a friend who had died the night before. It’s an arresting scene, to be sure. Like any good magical realism, the surreal serves to contextualize the other, more realistic, elements of the story. In this case, the nightmare not only emphasizes the narrator’s feelings of guilt and selfishness, it casts her entire world in a more ominous light. It reveals not just self-loathing but a contempt she feels for her friends, the town and the whole college-professor lifestyle she’s fallen into. The nightmare makes the non-nightmare portions of the story feel like nightmares too. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
“As a result?” said Robin, a bit hoarsely. She cleared her throat. “No hugs. Everything’s a little precarious, between the postmortem and the tubes in and out all week. This scarf’s the only thing holding my head on.” Though she was pale, her posture was perfect, her dark-red hair restored, her long thin arms folded across her chest. She was dressed as she was always dressed: in black jeans and a blue sweater. She simply, newly, had the imperial standoffishness that I realized only then I had always associated with the dead. We pulled up chairs and each of us sat.
“Should we make some gin rickeys?” Isabel asked, motioning toward the bags of booze and lime-juice blend.
“Oh, maybe not,” said Robin.
“We wanted to come here and each present you with something,” said Pat.
“We did?” I said. I’d brought nothing. I had asked them what to bring and they had laughed it off.