Courtesy of Songmuang Greer
Lorrie Moore captivated audiences at the President’s Reading Series.
The Writing Seminars department hosted author Lorrie Moore — recipient of The Irish Times International Fiction Prize and the 2005 PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in the Short Story — for the latest event in the President’s Reading Series on Tuesday, Oct. 9. Moore read excerpts from both her fiction and nonfiction pieces, both of which demonstrate not only her fantastic talent for wordplay, but also her ability to combine both the grim and the bright into captivating and beautiful storytelling.
Writing Seminars Professor Andrew Motion, who oversees the Reading Series, explained in an interview with The News-Letter why he decided to invite Moore.
“I wanted to try to create as wide a range of writing as possible,” Motion said. “It seemed that Lorrie Moore, acclaimed as she is and writing the kind of stories that she does, would contribute to that sense of variety.”
Moore opened the reading with an excerpt from ‘One Hot Summer, or a Brief History of Time,’ a nonfiction piece about Moore’s own wedding that she described as the type of story that “you can’t invent.” From the excerpt’s opening lines, (“A bride on her summer honeymoon — what could be more beguiling? Well, to start, a younger bride.”), Moore imbued the piece with a wonderfully frank and comedic tone as she peeled away the layers of sentiment to reveal the story’s grimly comedic undertones.
Her use of language was phenomenal — in one particularly funny moment, a comparison of a wedding license to a hunting license inspires a few sentences about hunters looking for a nicer rack — and she perfectly balances the lighter, more sentimental scenes with sarcastic and critical moments of wit.
For her second piece, Moore read “The Juniper Tree,” a fiction piece about a woman who doesn’t get a chance to visit a friend in the hospital before they pass away, but gets an unexpected second chance to say goodbye. She introduced the piece by saying, “Fiction is more like a dream, and seems real, but isn’t... In fact, this story came to me as a kind of dream,” and the story more than lives up to that somewhat surreal epitaph.
It almost feels like the story takes place in the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Moore’s characters never really question the dream that they find themselves in, and all of the absurdities that they encounter are presented so matter-of-factly that it almost seems normal and even inevitable. Of course, the narrator’s friends host a farewell celebration for their recently deceased friend (who turns out to be not quite as dead as previously thought). Moore makes the surreal seem commonplace, and her story perfectly bridges the gap between those two realms.
Overall, Moore excels at combining the grim and the joyful, using the two disparate halves to tease out the humor and nuance hidden within. She pairs the joy of her wedding day with a news crew looking to take a picture of the ceremony and call it a welfare marriage. In one sentence, she states that the reason that she decided to marry her husband was the same reason that she decided to divorce him. Even when the protagonist of “The Juniper Tree” gets to meet with her dead friend, she can’t help but feel awkward because she didn’t know that she was supposed to bring a farewell gift. Almost every sentence seems to capture a contradiction, and Moore takes those inconsistencies and sympathetically explores them until they make sense.
In a similar vein, Motion commented on the nature of Moore’s work.
“That very beguiling mixture of lightness and graveness in [Moore’s work] is very striking,” Motion said. “Her stories are not aggressive at all, but they are absolutely tough... and that toughness is an appraisal of what human nature is really like, the heartlessness of people and also, of course, the heart.”
All in all, the reading was an excellent demonstration of Moore’s many talents: her dry and candid sense of humor, her ear for language, and her unique ability to reconcile bleakness with hope and to create something spell-binding from the union. Furthermore, she has masterfully applied her talents to both the fiction and nonfiction genres, crafting narratives that are equal parts comedic and thought-provoking. Without a doubt, her reading was a fantastic and incredibly enjoyable addition to the legacy of the President’s Reading Series.