Beautiful Grade by Lorrie Moore, 1995
The magic trick:
Giving us a protagonist who feels like a side-act in his own story
I’m not sure what to make of this one.
It feels somewhat like a Lorrie Moore B-side. Some interesting ideas; some clever lines; but ultimately a mostly hollow feeling.
And yet, days later, I also seem to remember the New Year’s party the story describes as something I actually attended; the characters so vivid they feel like actual acquaintances.
Those are characteristics of an excellent story, not to be written off as a quote-unquote B-side. Then again, technically speaking, “Strawberry Fields Forever” was a B-side too.
Let’s just say this story probably lands somewhere shy of classic Lorrie Moore but still well worth your time.
Bill is our main character. We attend the party with him, through his eyes and inside his thoughts. He works very hard to hold everyone’s attention too (beyond just the reader). Funny, witty, talkative, more than a little conceited.
So it’s a neat thing to get to the end of the story and feel like all the action has happened around him. He is a lonely side-act in his own story – a fact that he seems to realize by story’s end just as the reader does. The result is depressingly real.
And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.
“Jack here gets paid by the word,” says Bill, “and that word is Next?” Perhaps Bill could adroitly switch the subject away from nuclear devastation and steer it toward national health plans. Would that be an improvement? He remembers once asking Lina what kind of medicine Jack practiced. “Oh, he’s a gynecological surgeon,” she said dismissively.
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