Notes in the Bardo

I’m happy to report that I have a long review of the George Saunders novel Lincoln in the Bardo in the latest issues of the Quarterly Conversation. In it I express many thoughts and feelings, not just about Bardo in particular but about the demilitarized zone between writing short stories and writing novels. I had so many thoughts and feelings that here are some fragments that didn’t make it into the review.


It’s an American cultural truth universally acknowledged that you can spend a lifetime writing brilliant short stories and be all but ignored—by publishers, critics, readers—while one mediocre novel with more soft spots than a week-old pear will make people’s heads turn. It takes a short story writer 40 years of highly praised work and an 800-page collection to garner the same level of attention that a garden-variety, 400-page, family melodrama receives. It makes no sense. Pile it upon the pyre of garbage that makes no sense.

The Novel is the Stanley Tape Measure of literary categories—the measurement by which all forms are measured.

Even books that are thrown together and simply labeled novels garner more acclaim than prose classified as anything else. It’s essentially neurotic. For example, you can see the yearning grasp for status in the label “nonfiction novel” that Truman Capote applied to his book-length reportage In Cold Blood (though, to be sure, that alleged work of nonfiction contains plenty of fictional wiggle)—this from a writer who never wrote a successful novel.* Of course I’m not counting Breakfast at Tiffany’s, at most a novella, which can be otherwise defined as a piece of literature publishers won’t publish as a stand-alone book.

Often what’s missing in these story-writer novels is the crucial ingredient of time; not enough of it passes. Whereas stories distill moments from a life, which is why they are hard to remember afterward and harder yet to use in larger cultural conversations, novels gain strength as they gain pages, enough time passing to show the gears of fate or character grinding out its pattern. Think of how the multiple generational narratives in Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! overlap in a way that feels accidental and yet utterly unavoidable. This might be one of my favorite feelings a novel can generate. Obviously, there are many others. But the expansive treatment of time helps the novel work its magic, or a type of magic. Novels end up creating their inhabitable worlds not so much by overbuilding them with characters and information, as the short story writer is wont to do, but just by letting time pass. Think of One Hundred Year’s Of Solitude, and how that town feels like a known place simply because so many fictional feet have trod through it as the pages pass by. It’s a kind of sleight of hand. Think of Lolita, when the word “waterproof” is uttered at the end, and the reader’s attention-over-time is either rewarded or tested, and the unseen pattern emerges. Maybe a novel is just a prose work that contains more than one season. As I write this list, exceptions fly toward my face like asteroids.

Why do story writers feel pressured to write novels? Why is the novel so dominant? I don’t know, but I suspect the reasons are fairly plain: money, for starters. There is a splinter of a chance that people will actually buy your novel. After all, people once read them! And they still might turn them into movies, or an extended Netflix series, or whatever new entertainment package they’ve invented before I publish this. Second, and relatedly, it was the genre of the heyday of mass literacy, a historical coincidence we will never be able to forget. They didn’t line up on the docks of New York to hear about the death of Bulbasaur. Finally, novels are like milk jugs; if they reach a certain size, they contain their own handles; novels are simply easier to talk about, can be picked up and passed around a culture, can be used for all manner of misunderstanding. Meanwhile the short story sits inert, implacable, and glowing. The novel’s trickster shadow, never to be fully caught and sown back on.

I’m mixing my metaphors. And I sound like an old man.

It’s a little weird that our most popular shorter contemporary literary genres are the graduation speech and the advice column. The former has now become how we recognize deep thinking writers and the latter is now a legitimate way to build a body of work. It’s like a more soulful op-ed column. All of which is fine, I guess. What do I know? But are we that starved for love and instruction that these are the greatest hits of the age? Have we been that abandoned by our parents, figurative or otherwise? Rather than another novel, it seems like what we all really need is a big hug.

They won’t publish a novella as a standalone book but they’ll publish a graduation speech, each sentence blown up like a billboard slogan.

These thoughts are just practice swings before stepping to the plate. Overworked but underbaked taken as a personal aesthetic.

All of these fragments come from a short story writer who’s been thrashing within his own drafty, overbuilt novel for longer than he’s willing to admit, and who has become desperate for explanation as to why novel-writing is so consistently defeating. He’s hoping it’s not simply a failure of imagination.

*Other Voices, Other Rooms is a mess. Sorry! The Grass Harp is too much a book for children, and Answered Prayers is unfinished. There’s nothing more judgmental than a novelist working on his novel.

Note on Advent

Parishioners at my church were asked for Advent reflections, which are being emailed around each morning as we march toward Christmas. The following is my contribution for week three, and in the internet-driven and slightly self-indulgent desire to log every piece of writing published in any way, no matter how tiny, I am posting it here.

We’ve entered the season of paradoxes. It’s the time of year when we celebrate everything shutting down, the long grey trek before springtime renewal. And though in the South all of our reactions to a potential change in temperature are mostly gestural, the leaves still turn. The change still happens. It’s the time of year when we bring a green tree inside our house and light it up to compensate for the growing darkness outside; it’s the time of year when we celebrate nature’s impending hibernation by talking about a baby being born in a barn; it’s the time of year when we pretend an obese lush breaks into our houses to give presents to our children. It’s beloved but absurd, holy but chintzy, overwhelmed with sacredness and alcohol, equal parts childish greedy joy and adulthood’s cultivated disappointment, an annual season of overdoing it in every direction. And this excess of meaning is embedded within the Christmas holiday itself; it both means too much and not enough. It’s spiritual and materialistic, pagan and Christian. And it annually tests our capacity for ambivalence and contradiction.
And I personally am not looking forward to it. This year has already outdone itself in the paradox department, as far as I am concerned. We live in a Bizarro World, where friends you know and love behave in ways totally antithetical to human decency. Where a third of the population isn’t paying attention and the other third has lost its ability to discern good from evil, even in the most cartoonish of forms. This fall I’ve made a harvest of being appalled at my fellow man, and now look at my overflowing cornucopia: rage, disappointment, vague loss of faith in our shared decency, doubt at my ability to effectuate change. These ingredients don’t make much of a meal, or make me much fun to be around.
And yet, the paradox of society — of living in semi-steady cordiality with large groups of people who annoy you to no end — must continue. How do I live through not just the paradox of changing seasons but the paradox of this particular season? How do I meet the seasonal obligation to love everyone with my whole mind and my whole heart and not yell at them like the traffic I think they are? Aren’t these people the least in the kingdom of heaven? Or is that me?
I can recognize the oncoming paradox of our shared existence, but that doesn’t make it any easier to live through. But live through it I must, because the days are getting shorter no matter how I feel about them. Days are like that. We’re all about to be stuck inside this winter darkness together. Who’s going to plug in the lights?

In hindsight, my contribution seems a little strained, overdetermined with unseen expository baggage. But rather than re-write it for this blog post, I’m just going to riff a little more, try to aerate the waters a bit.
One of the guiding texts of this small bit, and of my thoughts about Christmas these past few years, has been Adam Gopnik’s book Winter: Five Windows on the Season. It’s a collection of speeches he gave for the 2011 Massey Lectures put on by the CBC.
The guiding light here is of course the lecture on Christmas, where Gopnik details its modern transformation over the past 150 years. Before reading this book, and generally before having children, I was steadily growing to despise Christmas. I won’t list the reasons. They were not particularly original; feel free to supply your own. This dam of cynicism was broken first by children, whose enthusiasm is irrepressible and contagious. Their enthusiasm is not just for the annual raining down of presents but also for the high theatricality of the whole season. To them, Thanksgiving is fine, family and a big meal and a TV parade, but Christmas is fun. It accrues excitement as it moves along, like a giant snowball of wonder, and the theatricality pervades every aspect of their lives. This moves in contradistinction to my own holiday feeling that Thanksgiving is the grown-up holiday, the logical, rational, mature holiday. If we can dispense with the grade-school Puritan Thanksgiving origin myth and culinarily outmoded turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce, then Thanksgiving is great. A couple of days to stop time and attempt to appreciate one’s historically absurd first-world bounty. No prayers, no religion to fight about, above all no gifts to contaminate the symbolism, just a shared meal, a brief respite of community.
(Of course, if we really want to improve Thanksgiving, we should introduce some restrictions: no stuffing, no travel, and your nuclear family must eat with strangers. No extended sub-family reunions, and you must make the meal with these strangers. The main problem with Thanksgiving, as with all holidays, is the encrusting of tradition, which always kills the germ of fun in the end.)
But what Gopnik’s book taught me was how the children were onto something, namely that Christmas feels fun to them in part because it’s such an emotional and symbolic mess. Gopnik unpacks the mess: Santa is a clear descendent of the Saturn figure in Saturnalia festivals from ancient Rome; cultures throughout history (especially in cold climates) marked the winter solstice with trees and lights; our modern conception of Santa Claus primarily derives from Thomas Nast cartoons. Coincidentally, and interesting given our current historical situation, Gopnik points out that the Nast cartoons of Santa were quite similar to his caricatures of Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall infamy. So, our contemporary notion of Santa is also at the same time a caricature of unrestrained capitalistic corruption. Stick that in your war on Christmas.
The other bit that bothers me about Christmas is the desperate yoking together of the Christian birth of Jesus narrative with the elf-driven night of debauchery. (One might call this the fundamental bipolar quality of our contemporary Christmas.) This yoking together manifests itself via the relentless literalization of Jesus, which begins with Christmas and reaches its apotheosis with Easter, with people acting out the Stations of the Cross, and passion plays, and extreme, Mel Gibson-style sadistic descriptions of violence. Forget the presents under the tree; this is the childish part of Christmas, this blind heedless baby talk. At times it feels like everyone needs to go back to school: the surface stuff is not what the Bible is about, or not only what the Bible is about. It’s like a quality quiche: the good stuff is what’s on the inside. There are layers of meaning, for pete’s sake. Getting caught up in the literal surface details, in the quality of the hay in the manger, in aspects that are completely unverifiable in terms of history, misses the point. Perhaps my Unitarian slip is showing too forcefully here, but God talk makes me queasy.
My other main beef with Christianity — you’ll have noticed by now that I am not a deep religious thinker — is the relentless Protestant emphasis on belief. So much time is spent trying to coerce people into believing all of this stuff. What about the old-fashioned utilitarian value of showing up and doing good? Or just actively avoiding doing bad? Let’s save fewer souls and fill more sandbags.

Anyway, that’s the religious disposition I was coming from when writing this bit, moving away from hating Christmas by recognizing its culturally mongrel and incoherent nature. And then, of course, the Disaster occurred, and you see the result. About that Disaster, I don’t have anything else yet to say, nothing worth printing at least. I’m still looking for someone to plug in the lights, or hoping to acquire the ability to see in the dark.
I’m not sure if any of this rambling has clarified my Advent reflection. But nonetheless it feels good to blog about it. Worth remembering, that: blog’s an ugly word but a good feeling.

Bass guitars & Barry Hannah

Update #1
It’s summer. It’s hot. It’s time for a new essay. Consequently, I’ve got a new essay out (or is it “up”?) at The Collapsar. It’s called “The Bass Guitar as a Mode of Being,” and it’s about that wonderful activity of playing the bass guitar. You might think there’s not much to say about playing the bass, but you would be wrong.

After the essay went up, a friend notified me of this old Kids in the Hall bit, which I hadn’t seen before (which is probably for the best; their jokes are better than mine).

And then, last week New Yorker writer Matthew Trammell had a piece about the musician Thundercat, and Trammell has some interesting things to say about the bass as well.

And finally, finally, though I am not in the market to acquire a new bass (sadly), if I were, and if I were dishing out bass-buying advice, I would first watch this video and then I would buy one of those Sire basses.

Update #2
I’ve also got a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation. It covers Michael Bible’s novel Sophia, which I enjoyed, and which I sorted into the long line of literature that trails Barry Hannah. As a premise for the review, I argue that there is a Hannah tradition now. Hannah seems like one of those writers whose large, almost overbearing influence isn’t acknowledged in current literary criticism, while being constantly acknowledged among writers. Though perhaps there’s tons of discussion of this and I’m just not reading in the right places.

There wasn’t room in the review to mention Padgett Powell, but he is the preeminent Hannah writing today, perhaps even eclipsing Hannah himself. His sentences are beautifully ugly and create their own vernacular; he manages to write eloquently without slipping into a fussy, overly self-aware mode of high writing. I don’t know how he does it. It sounds like someone speaking but not in any way anyone has spoken before.

Another stray thought: the original Hannah was probably Beckett.

P.S. Adam Dorn is awesome.

Mirrors, carried down roads

I’m happy to report that I have a new essay up at Open Letters Monthly. It’s called “My Disappearance” and it’s about teaching creative writing, David Foster Wallace, the idea of mentors, being turned into a fictional character, and John Barth. And so much more!

Well, not really: that’s actually what it’s about, but you know, spooled out into many more words and riveting anecdotes. Anyway, please go check it out. I can’t think of any pithy, meta angle to take on this piece; it’s already fairly meta as it is.

Okay, I lied: here are two meta-bits. In the essay, there’s some stuff about funhouse mirrors, à la Barth’s Lost in the Funhouse, and this has gotten me thinking about weird mirror effects. I’ve only taken a few selfies thus far in my life, which probably tells you more about my age and disposition than I care to admit, but one of them was in an elevator, alone, just as the doors closed. It was one of those elevators whose door interior was all reflective, and I had two competing reflections of myself sliding toward each other on each half, except that when they met and sealed me in, my head disappeared. The rest of my wide body reflected, but my noggin was erased. And that’s the photo I got. I’m not sure where that photo is at the moment, or I would post it. It’s lost somewhere in the ever-expanding junk drawer of digital documentation. Someone should become the Marie Kondo of data storage.

Second, Graceland. Everyone should visit Graceland, not just because Elvis lived there but because the combination of irony and sentiment and kitsch whirs together into something that ends up feeling like pathos. But one of the many great moments in Graceland, when you take the tour, is when you walk down the stairs into Elvis’s basement. The walls and the ceiling of the stairwell are completely covered in mirrors, and the panoramic reflection of yourself and the rest of the tourists is overwhelming. If there is a heaven, Elvis is there, giggling.

Note on Marilynne Robinson

I’m happy to report that I have a review in the latest issue of The Quarterly Conversation, this time of Marilynne Robinson’s new collection of essays The Givenness of Things.

And now here is a little thought fragment that did not make it into the review: In the review I joke briefly about the idea of Robinson running for president and dicuss the interview/conversation between her and President Obama that appeared recently in the New York Review of Books. In that talk, which is more than anything a chance for Obama to interview a writer he admires, Robinson discusses her parents:

The President: Were your parents into books, or did they just kind of encourage you or tolerate your quirkiness?

Robinson: There was great tolerance in the house for quirkiness. No, it’s a funny thing because on the one hand, I’m absolutely indebted to my origins, whatever they are, whatever that means. On the other hand, with all love and respect, my parents were not particularly bookish people.

The President: Well, that’s why you have good sense along with sort of an overlay of books on top of good sense. What did your mom and dad do?

Robinson: My mother was a stay-at-home mother. My father was a sort of middle-management lumber company guy.

The President: But they encouraged it.

Robinson: You know what, they were the adults and we were the kids, you know what I mean? Sort of like two species. But if they noticed we were doing something — drawing or painting or whatever we were doing — then they would get us what we needed to do that, and silently go on with it. One of the things that I think is very liberating is that if I had lived any honest life, my parents would have been equally happy. I was under no pressure.

Now, compare this parental residue to a real-life presidential candidate, whose parents are a known entity: Jeb Bush. A few weeks ago, Jeb! had this exchange:

The next morning in Manchester, after a child asked what it was like to grow up the son of a president, Bush told a room full of kids that his father’s approval weighed on him.

“All he had to do was say, ‘I’m disappointed in you,’ and it would send me in a deep, spiraling depression,” he said.

I’m struck by the overwhelming sadness of that statement — how haunted and trapped he must feel. Think of having to run for president in order to alleviate your father’s disappointment in you, or perhaps to preempt it.

And then think, on the other side, the Robinson side, of the freedom that she received instead, a freedom that comes from a kind of love, almost a careless love, almost a form of inattention. As someone who is now a parent myself, I am haunted by these two anecdotes. It could be argued that Jeb is the much more successful adult in many contemporary, measurable ways, and yet one doesn’t have to pay much attention to perceive who the more seemingly content figure is, spiritually or otherwise. In that race, Robinson wins by a landslide.

Can walk, chew gum

When I was in fifth grade and about to join middle school band, the band director at the time was trying to dissuade me from being a percussionist. “Anyone who can walk and chew bubble gum at the same time can play drums,” he said.

Now, being the son of a drummer, this was like being told you came from a blighted people — a hunchback-and-boil–type people. The band director needed trombonists, and I admittedly didn’t have the lip fortitude to handle the trumpet, which I’d been eyeing. I stuck with drums.

But these many years later I still have a hard time walking and chewing gum simultaneously, which is my roundabout explanation for why I haven’t posted any writing here on this international website of text for months and months. I didn’t intend to stop posting (at too long a length, somewhat monthly); it’s just that I’ve been over here chewing on some Wrigley with great intensity.*

I realize no one cares about this. At all. That was one of the painful yet freeing discoveries recently, made in private, worth nothing to no one. No one cares if you don’t update your blog. Consequently, no one cares if you start updating your blog again. You don’t even need a reason!

So here I am, again.

*And by chewing Wrigley I of course mean working on a novel.

Beefier hands and more of them

All of the Moore–Updike ping pong from last week has me thinking of Moore’s descriptive powers. Updike is rightly praised for his indefatigable eye. Moore is praised for her “zingers,” her jokes, her unseen sideswipes into the absurd. And yes, she does have those (and great paragraphs, too!), but she also has great descriptive powers. Her descriptions are not of the pointillist nature of Updike’s, but they are metaphorically richer. Here is an example from A Gate at the Stairs:

I began working in my father’s baby greens field that very week. My job was to run in front of the shaver, a special attachment on the thresher, which he had contrived himself and which he was amused by and drove proudly like a car, though our field was so small that it was hard for him to make the turn-arounds. I ran ahead of it with fake feather and plastic hawk-wing extensions on my arms, whacking at the greens to scare the mice so they would not get into the mix. (If we had to take the greens to the triple-wash facility, it ate into the profit.) My father had actually designed my outfit for this, partially from a kite we had once brought to the Dellacrosse Kites on Ice festival. The costume had an aquiline-beaked mask and long wings I slipped my arms through, dipping them as I ran, brushing near the ground, beating the leaves, to resemble an actual predator and to encourage rodents to run from the shaver: nobody wanted sliced mice in their salads. At least not this decade.

[. . .]

Sometimes in the afternoon, upstairs in my room and still with my hawk outfit on, I would get out Ole Upright Bob, the double bass, dust him off, his bow quiver clipped at the tail beneath the bridge, like a scrotum, and we would rustle up a tune. There was a kind of buoyancy in making these four low strings sing something that was not a dirge. It was a demanding instrument, the stand-up bass — by comparison, my guitar, with its buttery, mushy fingerings, was a toy — and sometimes I just played it with open strings, Miles’s “Nardis,” which was basic, and which spelled starry backwards in Latin, or something, and which I loved, and which didn’t take a lot out of me. I had once, in the state music tryouts, played a solo from a double bass concerto by Sergei Koussevitzky, who in 1930 had been on the cover of Time magazine. That’s about all I knew about him. But either I wasn’t that good or the sight of a girl standing beside this huge wooden creature, grabbing its neck and stroking its gut, pulling the music out of the strings by force, made them ill at ease, and I was not selected. The faces of the panel listening were the very embodiment of skepticism made flesh, as if they were all saying Get a load of this!, and I had never experienced the weaponry of such expressions before. Subsequently, I drifted away from classical entirely, needing to leave behind the memory of that event. It was an aspect of childhood adults forgot to think about when they encouraged their children to try new things.

My mother came to the doorway once, seeing me winged and wrapped around my bass, one hand moving squidlike down the neck of him, the other bouncing the bow in a kind of staccato, and she said, “No wonder I couldn’t sleep. Look at you. What a sight.” There I was, I supposed, a bass-faced bird, embracing the sloped shoulders of another bird whose long-necked wooden crested head, like a knight in chess, hovered over my head as if it were a fellow creature advising me what to do. Still, she smiled. I was playing “Bye Bye Blackbird.” She thought that it was my own arrangement, but it was one I had copied, or tried to copy — if only I’d had beefier hands and more of them — from Christian McBride.

“Your grandmother used to sing that song!” she exclaimed, and then went back to her room to rest.

I’m sure that with a little digging, I could come up with an equally metaphorically interesting string of paragraphs in Updike’s work; it’s not so much that as how Moore gently ladles her absurdities so that they somehow reharmonize into touching evocations of character. I’m mixing my metaphors terribly; my thoughts are all aflux. Moore is able, in her best moments, to be both absurd and terribly sympathetic.

Perhaps another way to cast this would be to think of Updike as a musical virtuoso, and like a virtuoso, he is sometimes unbearable; he never relents from being a virtuoso, in reminding you of his talents, whereas Moore is the type of singer (go with me) who is someone you actually want to listen to.

Yet another way of saying this is that I have often thought — and this is a point that James Wood has made in a much more substantive way — that part of Updike’s “problem” was his eloquence. He could never not be eloquent, and his irrepressible verbal felicity was a handicap, especially in some (some!) of his fiction. You, as a reader, were never allowed to forget that you were being dazzled by Updike’s brilliant prose. Of course, whether or not this is “good” or “bad” for fiction depends on the kinds of effects one is after, whether you want the reader to forget the author for a while, etc. But, to continue a mental comparison with Nabokov that I’ve got continually running in my head, Nabokov encountered this same problem, and he seemed to tame it somewhat by always conspicuously positioning his narrators or framing them in some way so that their eloquence was a feature of the narrative itself, rather than just there in the air like water vapor.

To put it even another way (aphoristically, reductively), to become a virtuoso is to deny taste.

Review of Adam Begley’s ‘Updike’

I’m happy to announce that I have a review of Adam Begley’s biography of John Updike in the new issue of Open Letters Monthly. The Begley bio recently came out in paperback. My take on the book was . . . oh, I don’t know. It’s complicated. I can’t come up with a pithy re-cap. Just go read the review.

Anyway, as with all reviews, there were scraps of thoughts I couldn’t include. Here are some of them:

Updike as great compartmentalizer
It’s difficult to read a biography of a writer and not come at it with a self-help kit. There is always the banal but necessary question of how did he get the work done? Aside from the talent, from the special blend of circumstance, and the capacity for endless hard work, was there some special “trick” that this writer used?

I feel like this whole line of inquiry is shameful, like I should know better than to read a biography in this vampiric way, but I can’t seem to help it.

Anyway, Updike’s trick, if it can even be called that, was that he had a talent for compartmentalizing his life from his work — this in addition to all of the other myriad talents he possessed. He seemingly could work anywhere, under any circumstance, with no sense of procrastination or doubt.

While writing the review, I was tipped off about this video of Philip Roth, who briefly muses on Updike’s greatness. He says Updike “could find the sentences for anything.” And he’s right, I think. The one thing that’s missing in Updike is any real sense of doubt, or fear, or insecurity, or exhaustion, or mute perplexity, or cosmic paralysis that he was wasting his life amidst a pile of empty signification, that maybe he should have taken up something — anything — else, or any of the other routine gales of doubt that the contemporary writer is heir to. (Not me, not me, naturally.) Whatever doubt he felt, he filed it away and got to work, and this lifelong ruthlessness seems extraordinary.

Lorrie Moore as the anti-John Updike
Or the sequel to John Updike, or the contra-Updike, or Updike from the other side of the marital bed. In the review I muse about the possibility of a biography of Mary Updike, the author’s first wife and seemingly the true hero of his writing career. But in the meantime, while that book (hopefully) gets written, we will have to make do with the stories of Lorrie Moore, who I was re-reading coincidentally while working on the review.

If Nicholson Baker, in his inimitable way, continued the diamond-cutting progress of Updike’s prose, Moore continued the subject of his stories — the ruination of the modern American marriage, especially when its victims are well-educated and employed, that is, on the surface, winners in the lottery of first-world experience. (Call it “The Postwar Ruins of Prosperity and The Pill.”) Except the difference is that Moore creates the opposite protagonists, stories told from the point of view of the wry female who’s been sentenced to the domestic hell of dealing with men who are emotional terrorists.

Moore also, interestingly, even daringly, has not written any autobiography. Though many of her stories smell faintly of veiled memoir, and though she has one brilliant, famous story about a baby diagnosed with cancer that mirrors her own son’s diagnosis with cancer, she has not rushed into the contemporary trend of memoir writing, confessional essay penning, or “autofiction,” to use a term I read about just yesterday. (Why, sweet lord of the library, we must come up with yet more idiotic nonce words to re-decorate the endeavor of literature I’ll never know.) After first reading her latest book of stories, Bark, I toyed with the idea of writing an essay about Moore called “The Lost Memoirs of Lorrie Moore,” because though she had been through various “life material” (to use a crude phrase) that seemed ideal for memoir (a pediatric cancer fight, a subsequent divorce, a long-in-the-making but ultimately great novel), she chose to keep writing fiction, albeit fiction that dealt with some of the biographical ingredients that were easily visible from her author interviews and other bits of promotional flotsam. That is, she kept at the old Updike strategy of re-translating her lived experience into fiction.

Obviously, I haven’t worked all of this thought-soup out yet, but the point I’m moonwalking toward is that through this commitment to fiction, and the short story in particular, Moore’s work provides a rebuttal to many of Updike’s stories, not in a point/counterpoint way, but in a way that let’s the Mary Updike–like figures have their say against the blind, reckless, and remorseless force of the male ego-libido.

Postscript: I can’t bring all of this up without linking to this fascinating review she wrote for the New York Review of Books a few years ago.

Note on Paragraphs

It was Virginia Woolf who said (I think) that instead of paying attention to a writer’s sentences (all those little marginal checkmarks of affirmation) we should pay attention to their chapters. I think this is a good idea but would offer one more metric of appreciation: the paragraph. I don’t think you should focus on one to the exclusion of the other lengths, but they are all different ways to appreciate what a writer is up to or the different speeds at which they excel.

Enter Lorrie Moore, whom I love essentially without reservation. Without going into a full defense or promotion of her work, I just want to note how wonderful she is at writing paragraphs. Normally she’s known for her sharp one-liners, slicing you unaware, and it’s true she’s got great lines and an amazing sense of rhythm. But it’s how these elements combine into whole paragraphs, where they all coalesce that I think is the mark of true excellence.

Here’s an examples from her story “Debarking”:

“You can’t imagine the daily dreariness of routine pediatrics,” said Zora, not touching her wine. “Ear infection, ear infection, ear infection. Whoa. Here’s an exciting one: juvenile onset diabetes. Day after day you just have to look into the parents’ eyes and repeat the same exciting thing: ‘There are a lot of viruses going around.’ I had thought about going into pediatric oncology, because when I asked other doctors why they’d gone into such a seemingly depressing thing, they said, ‘Because the kids don’t get depressed.’ That seemed interesting to me. And hopeful. But then when I asked doctors in the same field why they were retiring early, they said they were sick of seeing kids die. The kids don’t get depressed, they just die! These were my choices in med school. As an undergraduate I took a lot of art classes and did sculpture, which I still do a little, to keep those creative juices flowing! But what I would really like to do now is write children’s books. I look at some of those books out in the waiting room and I want to throw them in the fish tank. I think, I could do better than that. I started one about a hedgehog.”

This has all the characteristics of a classic Moore paragraph: the monologue that rapidly unspools a character, the desperate exclamation points, the swerving between emotional registers. Just look at how far the paragraph travels.

And here’s a bonus example, this one illustrating her impeccable sense of rhythm. It’s from the essay “Better and Sicker,” which appeared in Issue 4, Volume 2 of PEN America back in 2002.

I often think of an acquaintance of mine who is also a writer and whom I ran into once in a bookstore. We exchanged hellos, and when I asked her what she was working on these days, she said, “Well, I was working on a long comic novel, but then in the middle of the summer my husband had a terrible accident with an electric saw and lost three of his fingers. It left us so sad and shaken that when I returned to writing, my comic novel kept getting droopier, darker and sadder and depressing. So I scrapped it, and started writing a novel about a man who loses three fingers in an accident with a saw, and that,” she said, “that’s turning out to be really funny.”

Note on Streaming

So I was reading various think-pieces about the latest Apple press event when I ran across this article at The New Republic:

In these companies’ push to be the fabled Everything, interoperability is waning. Weeks after Facebook announced its acquisition of Instagram, Twitter cut off access to a feature allowing users to discover people on Instagram based on their Twitter “following” list. Months later, Instagram disabled Twitter Cards integration for Instagram content. Streaming music services, as is, are unfortunately siloed — one cannot, for instance, make a universal playlist that supports Rdio, Spotify, and Apple Music. It’s a situation without an analog equivalent: mixtapes work on any brand of cassette player.

But this “situation without an analog equivalent” is not in fact true. Greg Milner in his book Perfecting Sound Forever details the early years of the phonograph industry, which used to be “siloed” in just this way. Certain records would only play on their corresponding players. The technology progressed toward a world where playback devices played any kind of music.

(I don’t have the Milner in front of me; I lent it to a friend and without going over there midday and breaking and entering, I can’t give you an exact quotation. But I can feel it, man, that Milner details this somewhere in the first couple of chapters.)

So you can see today’s deliberate in-operability of current music streaming services as either a return to recorded music’s primordial warfare of formats or as another unfortunate but seemingly necessary evolutionary step of technological change, but you can’t say that it’s unprecedented. Instead, you could say that ever since music became a recorded artifact, we’ve wrestled with the format that record takes and how it gets controlled. The only escape from the headache of format would be a pure and total return to live music.