by Marion Winik
Most Sundays I set eyes on The New York Times bestseller list and I just want to scream about how pathetic we are and how rigged the whole thing is. Do not say the words "Celestine Prophecy" to me. Avoid also "Spiritual Abundance,"Madison County," and even "Jimmy Buffett." This is why, when Lorrie Moore's new short story collection, Birds of America (Alfred A. Knopf, $22.50 hard), hit the list a few weeks ago at number 14, it was one of the more heartening literary events of the year.
Lorrie Moore is on the bestseller list for the only right reasons: She is a viciously good writer with something important to say. She is funny, easy to read, and profound -- with this collection, more so than ever. A connoisseur of both silliness and pathos, her fondness for the potent pun is seen in this passage from the story "Real Estate," about a divorced man dating a younger woman:
Albert has been kinder, more delicate, in tone if not in substance. "Some people might consider your involvement with this girl a misuse of your charm," he said slowly.
"But I've worked hard for this charm," said Bill. "Believe me, I earned it from scratch. Can't I do with it what I want?"
Albert sized up Bill's weight loss and slight tan, the sprinkle of freckles like berry seeds across Bill's arms, the summer whites worn way past Labor Day in the law school's cavernous, crowded lecture halls, and he said, "Well then, some people might think it a mishandling of your position." He paused, put his arm around Bill. "But hey, I think it has made you look very tennisy."
Bill shoved his hands in his pockets. "You mean the whole kindness of strangers thing?"
Albert took his arm back. "What are you talking about?" he asked, and then his face fell in a kind of melting, concerned way. "Oh, you poor thing," he said. "You poor poor thing."
Moore has been adored by fans for effects like this ("tennisy" for "Tennessee," as in Williams) since her first collection, Self Help. What is new in Birds of America is a change in magnitude, in heft, in the size and weight of the stories. The best-known piece in the collection, "People Like This Are the Only People Here," is a stunning, heart-wrenching story about a mother who finds a blood clot in her baby's diaper: about the circle of hell known as the Pediatric Oncology Ward, and about the process of writing about one's own tragedies. When it was first published last year in the New Yorker, three people tried to fax me the whole thing in one day. I went on to fax it to several others. So when I had the chance to talk to Lorrie Moore -- who is married to an attorney and is the mother of a little boy now four years old -- I had to ask her about it.
Austin Chronicle:I guess everyone wants to know if "People Like This" is autobiographical, despite the fact that it appeared in the New Yorker with a banner saying "FICTION" across the top. But the character called the Mother is a writer, and Father keeps urging her to make money for Baby's treatment by "taking notes," by writing about their situation.
Lorrie Moore: Well, everyone knows you can't make money writing short stories, so that proves it's fiction right there. But you're right: They ask. With fiction, if you have any questions, you refer to the story, while with nonfiction there's an invitation to inquire further. This piece of fiction talks about itself as being autobiographical -- but in fact, it's a work of fiction concerning, among other things, the subject of the transformation of life materials into fiction.
People have always had the tendency to read autobiographically. It's a natural thing. A vulgarity we all commit. I do it myself, even though I'm opposed to it when it happens to me. I think you have to accept that even if some details are autobiographical, some are not, and if you tried to guess which are which you'd probably be wrong. The point is that the writer has successfully imagined the situation onto the page. If the art of narrative isn't there, you can't even make real life seem real.
I came up with this story in the course of a year when I was helpless before its subject matter. It is not "emotion recollected in tranquility." The rawness, bitterness, and anger are about a woman who is ostensibly resisting writing about it, and in the end it's revealed that she has done so, in a bitter and helpless way.
AC:Do you think it has something to do with being a woman? People don't read a Robert Stone story, for example, and say, "Oh that poor man, his child fell through the ice while skating and died."
LM: I've heard women say the death of a child is something they could never explore in fiction, so maybe there's a perception that you would only do it if you had to. Perhaps men are seen as having more freedom with that subject matter. But right here in Wisconsin, we have Jacquelyn Mitchard and Jane Hamilton, both of whom have written novels about the loss of children.
AC:What about this so-called resurgence of the short story?
LM: I think the form is in constant renaissance, constantly coming back to life. While the novel is constantly being proclaimed dead. Actually, sometime between Henry James and the dawn of television, the story had a brief moment of viability with writers like Hemingway and Fitzgerald, and ever since then people have decided to declare their renewed interest.
As a form, it is less cluttered with commercial endeavors, stronger artistically. It's a beautiful genre: the shape, rhythm, and boundaries of it. It's where writers learn their craft.
AC:Have you visited Austin before?
LM: Yes, last time I was down, the weather had just turned chilly for the first time, and coming from Wisconsin I was quite charmed by the look of ecstasy and delight people had on their faces just about digging out a sweater.
(Lorrie Moore reads from Birds of America at Book People, Thursday, November 19, 7pm.)
It was merely a speck, if that, on the immeasurable expanse of time, but from September 1961 to January 1962, the esteemed writer and scholar Jorge Luis Borges came to live in Austin as a visiting professor at the University of Texas. Borges, the fabulist renowned for his taut, metaphysically mind-twisting fiction, taught classes on Leopoldo Lugones, the Argentine Modernist poet, and delivered lectures on literature to receptive students and an appreciative faculty, excited to have among them a literary icon and the winner that year of the first International Publisher's Prize (which he shared with Samuel Beckett).
Borges' presence for those few months touched everyone who came near him, according to Miguel Enguidanos in his introduction to Dreamtigers, the translation of El Haceador that grew out of the writer's brief association with the university. "How can I express the accents of a voice grave and sweet, the flights of an extraordinary intelligence and imagination, the candor of a good and innocent soul, the quiet ache of a darkness and loneliness we sensed, the magic of a poet who makes dreams come to life?" wrote Enguidanos. "To walk beside Borges, the great peripatetic conversationalist, was to enter and live in his world. The guide soon discovered, by the light that matters, that he himself was the blind one, and not the poet leaning on his arm."
Now we have Borges with us again. His fictions are comparable to Faberge eggs -- small in stature, few in number, meticulously wrought. Like Faberge's famous confections, they have never been collected in one place. That situation has been remedied with the recent publication by Viking Press of Jorge Luis Borges: Collected Fictions, in a new translation by Andrew Hurley.
To describe Borges' stories, one might use one of his favorite adjectives: vertiginous. However, the particular sense of vertigo the reader encounters is not achieved through surmounting physical heights, but rather metaphysical ones. The stories unfold in the space created between the confrontation of opposites, where the infinite meets the infinitesimal, where totality amounts to nothingness, where immortality means nonexistence. Stretching concepts to their philosophical snapping points, Borges crafted plots that display the limitations of perception and posit that Truth amounts finally to just a word.
Often Borges' fictions don't even read as stories. As William Gass wrote in A Temple of Texts, "he revolutionized our conception of both the story and the essay by blending and bewildering them." A representative Borges piece is "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote," which begins in this decidedly unusual fashion: "The visible oeuvre left by this novelist can be easily and briefly enumerated; unpardonable, therefore, are the omissions and additions perpetrated by Mme. Henri Bachelier in a deceitful catalog. ... Most decidedly, a brief rectification is imperative."
Borges' "rectification" of the omissions in Menard's catalog initially comprise a lengthy list of obscure items such as "a foreword to the catalog of an exhibit of the lithographs by Carolous Hourcade." Finally, he reveals Menard's other endeavor: "the subterranean, the interminably heroic production" consisting of "the ninth and thirty-eighth chapters of Part I of Don Quixote and a fragment of Chapter XXII." Borges admits the absurdity of such a claim, assuring the reader that Menard did not want to compose another Quixote or create a mechanical transcription of the original. "His admirable ambition was to produce a number of pages which coincided -- word for word and line for line -- with those of Miguel de Cervantes." Here, Borges' compositional style and intellectual playfulness are wonderfully displayed.
Menard's method of producing Don Quixote was at first to be "relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 to 1918 -- be Miguel de Cervantes." This tack Menard ultimately rejects as too easy. Instead, he chooses "continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard." Implicit are all basic questions pertaining to authorship: If a text can be re-created by someone other than its author, what exactly is an author and how are we to understand his connection to his text? The death of the fictional author, Pierre Menard, comes to mean the theoretical death of the Author, or more precisely, authorship. Michel Foucault would have been proud.
Though Borges had an affinity for the scholarly, indeed pedantic, style, he was equally influenced by the suspense, adventure, and romance that he found in Kipling, Poe, and Icelandic sagas. Out of his stew of influence we get relatively simple tales of revenge like "Emma Zunz" as well as the wonderful academic, philosophical, and adventurous stories like "The Garden of Forking Paths" and "Death and the Compass" in which the key to our detective's pursuit of his criminal is the Tetragrammaton, the ineffable name of God.
All of the stories mentioned above were written between 1940 and 1960, the period during which Borges produced his best and most lasting work. The value of this new collection is in seeing both the attempts at the more conventional fiction -- like the early "Man on Pink Corner" -- which came before Borges produced his signature writings, and his later work, when he was less interested in breaking new ground -- which amounts mostly to a repackaging of the ideas which had animated his earlier work.
The translations in this volume are superbly readable but occasionally lose the poetry that other translators found in Borges. This seems to me not to suggest a deficit of skill in Hurley, but rather the pressure of producing in a new translation something different from the preexisting and satisfactory translations that had been standard. In such situations, the title of the story which had been formerly translated as "Funes the Memorious" -- about a man who is given perfect perception and perfect memory -- becomes the less poetic "Funes, His Memory." Or "The God's Script" becomes Hurley's stiffer "The Writing of the God." These are minor complaints, though, compared to the pleasure of having all of Borges collected into one volume.
In Pierre Menard, we find the fictional writer writing to Borges that he thinks that "every man should be capable of all ideas, and I believe that in the future he shall be." So Borges' fiction liberates our minds, inviting them to briefly sustain paradoxical, vertigo-inducing concepts, gently and humorously reminding us that to have all ideas is also to have none. -- Jordan Mackay