Community Life by Lorrie Moore, 1991
The magic trick:
Expanding a basic premise by starting with the story of the protagonist’s childhood
We’re off to Wisconsin this week. This story never specifies its Midwestern location, but given Lorrie Moore’s many years spent there, I’ll go ahead and call it Madison.
The more I read of Lorrie Moore’s earlier work, the more I realize that the only collection of hers I’ve read – 2014’s Bark – was probably the worst place to start. I hate to be that guy, but it would seem pretty clear here that the earlier stuff is just better.
Take “Community Life” as a great example. It has so much going on. So many layers. So much metaphor. So many callbacks later in the story, referencing ideas mentioned in the first half.
It takes a very standard central premise – a woman feeling lonely and dissatisfied as the relationship she’s in fails slowly – and makes it fresh with all those aforementioned layers. The stories in Bark? Well, I think a lot of them maybe stop at the premise-level and never really add that extra stack of ideas.
But let’s leave the Bark complaints for another day. “Community Life” is excellent, and I think the most important layer it adds is the background we get about our protagonist’s parents and childhood. In fact, the story begins with that background. It’s not information that is filtered into the plot as we go. It’s there from the start, so we have a pretty rich biographical picture of this woman before the story’s central relationship even begins. That allows us to better understand the perspective she’s bringing into the situation. It also allows us to better place the relationship into the context of her life. It’s not the most important thing. If the story adhered to a tighter timeline of just the relationship, it would risk blowing the relationship out of proportion within her life.
Because we get the larger context of her childhood and life before the relationship, we can focus more on her immigrant parents and their desperate desire to see their daughter acclimate into American society. With that in mind, the story becomes much bigger than one failed relationship. It becomes much sadder too. Her loneliness is a generational kind of loneliness.
And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
She had loved the librarian.
And when Olena’s Romanian began to recede altogether, and in its stead bloomed a slow, rich, English-speaking voice, not unlike the librarian’s, too womanly for a little girl, the other children on her street became even more afraid of her. “Dracula!” they shouted. “Transylvaniess!” they shrieked, and ran.
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