Through four story collections, three novels and half my life, Lorrie Moore has haunted me and made me laugh. Now she has gathered her nonfiction writing from the past three decades into the brilliant and piercing collection, “See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary.”
As Moore reviews books, TV, politics and her own life, she slams into her subjects, lands on her stories. She cuts into the souls of other artists and makes noise. She fearlessly tells the truth about hard things.
In a review of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Galapagos,” she writes, “Yes, American culture is more smart than wise. But Kurt Vonnegut, that clown-poet of homesickness and Armageddon, might be the rare American writer who is both. He dances the witty and informed dances of the literary smart, but while he does, he casts a wide eye about, and he sees.”
In a review of Don DeLillo’s “Mao II,” Moore asks, “If terrorists have seized control of the world narrative, if they have captured the historical imagination, have they become, in effect, the world’s new novelists? For sheer influence over the human mind, have they displaced a precariously placed literature? Are writers — lacking some greater if lethal faith — the new hostages?”
Often, Moore juxtaposes images in a way that marries them forever in my mind. In a review of Charles Baxter’s “Shadow Play,” she writes, “Often when short-story writers go to write novels they get jaunty. They take deep breaths and become brazen — the way shy people do on wine.”
In her essay “Star-Clinton-Lewinsky,” Moore observes, “I did not vote for Bill Clinton. (Though now I feel sorry for him, in the same way I felt sorry for Pee-Wee Herman when he was arrested in that Florida movie theater.)” She continues, “Clinton, in office, has been dismaying in predictable ways: his centrist judiciary appointments, his botched national health plan, his gays-in-the-military debacle, his generally compromised or meretricious or dithering policy-making. I have mostly thought that he was a charming shark, a user, a yuppie, a bad actor, and a sexy, lying fool. This he has in common with many people (perhaps even poor Pee-Wee Herman).”
Moore’s wit does a lot of work, especially when she’s telling us something hard, which is often. In an essay about writer Joan Silber, she states, “Perhaps religion has always been a kind of hospital.”
In an essay about writer Peter Cameron, she says, “In the book’s title Cameron slyly puts forward what turns out to be that novel’s most haunting metaphor: What idea better sums up life’s brief strain at happiness (jammed between two eternities) than the idea of the weekend?”
Moore approaches writing as a way of ruthlessly reaching toward the reader. You hope that when you reach back you won’t pull away with bloody fingers. She knows and reminds us that really, writers want to talk to other readers and especially to other writers. If only somewhat secretly, on the page, about “the way we live now and now and now.”
Erin Lewenauer writes for Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi and other publications. She lives in Milwaukee.
See What Can Be Done
By: Lorrie Moore.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 407 pages, $29.95.