‘Subject To Search’ by Lorrie Moore

Moore, Lorrie 2014

Subject To Search by Lorrie Moore, 2014

The magic trick:

Exploring the notion that just because you assume someone would understand you it doesn’t mean they will

In a book of very sad stories, this one takes the biscuit as the saddest. It seems to grow from such hope. A man and a woman connected long before the action opens. They were married at the time, and likely thought, oh if only I was with that person, things would be better. And now, as the story begins, they are together; they are both single; and yet, things aren’t so much better at all.

The key theme behind the sadness is the inability to communicate, to connect with another person. Moore outlines the theme in a similar manner to yesterday’s SSMT feature, “Debarking.” That is to say, she does so simply and with excellent show-don’t-tell detail. Our protagonist literally can’t speak the same languages as Tom. Tom, meanwhile, can’t give her the attention and love she craves because he’s too emotionally wrecked by an incident in the war years earlier in which men died because he failed to properly communicate instructions.

Speaking of the war, Moore is far more successful here – again, I write with the opinion of an idiot amateur – than in “Debarking” at incorporating 21st-century current events and political malaise into fractured personal relationships. Probably because Tom’s line of work directly connects to foreign relations, the use of war in the story feels far less forced than it did in “Debarking” or even “Foes.”

Regardless, it’s another masterpiece of sadness and stagnation. It’s a perfectly communicated picture of communication breakdown. And that’s quite a trick on Moore’s part.

The selection:

“Merci.” He smiled. She knew that he liked it when she said anything in French. His specialty was languages, including Urdu and Arabic, although only an hour and a half of Urdu, he declared, and then his mind turned into a blank blue screen. “And actually only four hours of Arabic,” he said. “And maybe even only five of English: five hours is a long time to keep talking.”


‘Debarking’ by Lorrie Moore

Moore, Lorrie 2003

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.

The selection:

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.