‘Referential’ by Lorrie Moore

Moore, Lorrie 2012

Referential by Lorrie Moore, 2012

The magic trick:

Turning an homage into a Lorrie Moore story

Developing your own writer’s voice is a real pain in the neck. You’re taught to read, read, read in order to learn how to write (hence this little blog you’re reading right now), but you’re still probably not good enough to really write very well, so now you’re just churning out copy that reads exactly like which ever author you’ve been reading in the last month. Like how I used the pronoun “you” through all of that? I realize this might only be my problem, but I suspect I’m not alone.

Anyway, it’s remarkable, if slightly infuriating, to see Lorrie Moore mimic not just an author but an exact story – Vladimir Nabokov’s “Symbols And Signs” – and still manage to make the final product a story with only her stamp on it.

What she does is take the bookends of “Symbols.” She starts with the premise of a fairly elderly couple visiting a mentally unstable son in the hospital. And she brings the plot to a boil, just as Nabokov did, with a mysterious phone call. But in between she twists the plot to focus on the collapsing relationship of the elderly couple. This, of course, is common ground for Lorrie Moore. The focus becomes the fidelity of the woman’s lover; not the health of the woman’s son.

What’s really interesting, though, is that the two stories, inspiration and homage, do line up in a lot of thematic ways too. Both stories explore the ways children can disrupt adult romantic relationships. Both stories explore the way life strips any sense of control away from us. The story stands on its own, referential as it might be to “Symbols And Signs.” And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.

The selection:

On the ride home, she and Pete did not exchange a word, and every time she looked at his aging hands, arthritically clasping the steering wheel, the familiar thumbs slung low in their slightly simian way, she understood anew the desperate place they both were in, though their desperations were separate, not shared, and her eyes then felt the stabbing pressure of tears.

The last time her son had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, morbidly ingenious. He might have succeeded, but a fellow-patient, a girl from group, had stopped him at the last minute. There had been blood to be mopped. For a time, her son had wanted only a distracting pain, but eventually he had wanted to tear a hole in himself and flee through it. Life, for him, was full of spies and preoccupying espionage. Yet sometimes the spies would flee as well, and someone might have to go after them, over the rolling fields of dream, into the early-morning mountains of dawning signification, in order, paradoxically, to escape them altogether.


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