Debarking by Lorrie Moore, 2003
The magic trick:
Portraying a lifeless relationship based more on boredom than passion
It’s rare that you find art that successfully portrays a boring relationship. Why? Probably because it’s kind of boring. But that is so true to life, as we all know. So many romantic relationships aren’t forged from passion or even carnal desire; they just kind of happen because people are lonely or scared or bored. This story describes that kind of relationship perfectly. So what’s the magic trick then? How does Moore accomplish such a true portrayal? Well…
She pretty much just tells the story as the relationship develops. It is clear from the beginning that Zora isn’t that into this romance – whether it’s the non-effort effort of her initial postcard or her bored behavior on their dates. It is clear that she is far more interested and excited about making sure her son, Bruno, is happy than she is worried about Ira. Moore is a master of using details to show the relationship’s state, instead of describing the stagnation simply with the omniscient narrator. So we see Zora give Ira nothing for his birthday. We see her prank him on April Fools Day with a fake break-up and, tellingly, Ira (and the reader, I would suspect) fall for it 100 percent. This is not a stable, happy relationship.
Moore works the Iraq War into the story, and I would argue its presence falls flat. It serves as a reminder of the real-world horrors outside of these two people’s small relationship. It also represents the rationale for these kind of lifeless relationships. Ira’s fear of war and aging and dying and everything going wrong is a big reason for hiding in whatever happiness he can wrest from his relationship with Zora. The war stuff feels awkward, though, in my opinion, and more than a little heavy-handed. More on that topic in tomorrow’s SSMT story.
Anyway, Iraq War stuff aside, the story is a remarkably rich portrayal of the sadness of American middle age. I’m not a 40-something divorcee with children, but having read this story, I certainly have much better insight into the situation than I did yesterday. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
He received a postcard from Zora in return. It was of van Gogh’s room in Arles. Beneath the clock face of the local postmark her handwriting was big but careful, some curlicuing in the “g”s and “f”s. It read, Had such fun meeting you at Mike’s. Wasn’t that precisely, word for word, what he had written to her? There was no “too,” no emphasized you, just exactly the same words thrown back at him like some lunatic postal Ping-Pong. Either she was stupid or crazy or he was already being too hard on her. Not being hard on people—“You bark at them,” Marilyn used to say—was something he was trying to work on. When he pictured Zora’s lovely face, it helped his tenuous affections. She had written her phone number and signed off with a swashbuckling “Z”—as in Zorro. That was cute, he supposed. He guessed. Who knew? He had to lie down.