See What Can Be Done review: delicious morsels
Lorrie Moore’s essays are brilliantly written, brimming with energy
Lorrie Moore, ‘a generous reader of other writers’. Photograph: Lane Christiansen/Chicago Tribune/Getty
See What Can Be Done
Reading a collection of old reviews feels a bit like reading an ancient magazine you’ve happened upon as a guest in the spare room of someone else’s house. There is the slightly cobwebby feeling of coming across something that was produced as a contemporary account of a moment in the culture but reading it several decades after the fact. For it to be interesting – for it to be relevant – it needs to be good.
This collection of Lorrie Moore’s non-fiction starts with her 1983 review of Nora Ephron’s novel Heartburn and goes on to include dozens of pieces she wrote for The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review, among others. The writers she tackles include many of the towering figures of North American literature: Philip Roth, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood and Richard Ford. But she also turns her attention to the wider culture, mounting a spirited defence of the film Titanic and putting Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You in the frame for best love song of the millennium, alongside the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier by Strauss. More recently, she writes about television, from The Wire to Making a Murderer.
A generous reader of other writers, Moore is always smart, never snooty, and as in her novels and short stories, there’s a bold streak of humour. Shakespeare is “Washington, Dickens, Puccini and Tim Burton somehow merged into one: there’s your genius. Or the bare bones of him. Add a dash – of Ogden Nash.”
The short stories of Alice Munro, who she reviews three times in this collection, contain “a novel’s breadth and satisfactions, in miniature, fitted in like a ship in a bottle, or a beautiful bonsai tree”. Moore is also a good ad for books and writers that may have been forgotten, such as Claudia Roth Pierpont’s multiple biography of women writers, Passionate Minds, described by Moore as “a ceaselessly interesting book”.
In reviewing the biographies of writers, Moore is at once a collector of delicious morsels and a creator of them. She tells us that Edna St Vincent Millay wrote of her publishers that “although I reject their proposals, I welcome their advances”. The pairing of Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller is described by her as “something like the Ali-Frazier match of literary sex,” although later in the same review Moore notes that “Nin grew discomfited by Miller’s sponging of her money and by his spending it on prostitutes”. Moore’s restraint in avoiding an exclamation mark in this case is admirable.
What’s interesting here is not just the reviews themselves but Moore’s reasons for undertaking them in the first place, an endeavour she sees as “jury duty”, and “a difficult but obligatory citizenship”. She makes a compelling contribution to the argument for writers to act as critic. She is also a champion of deceptive simplicity, and she understands the power of brevity. In her foreword she suggests that Bette Davis should have been awarded a Nobel prize for the line “old age is no place for sissies”.
Moore has a gift for brevity herself, and she brings to her non-fiction a fiction writer’s insight into the craft. “Ideas are no good without stories,” she says, “Stories are no good without characters.”
In the 1994 essay On Writing, she says “one has to give to one’s work like a lover. One must give of oneself and try not to pick fights”. A writer “should also live with someone who can cook and who will both be with one and leave one alone”. (I could add that a politician should be married to a hairdresser, like Australia’s Julia Gillard.)
Moore’s reviews showcase her own gifts as a writer, but it’s when she is untethered by the constraints of reviewing that she really lets fly. Her brilliant, and brilliantly short essay on the 1992 US election hones in on the fact that all three candidates – Bill Clinton, George Bush and Ross Perot – were left-handed, resulting in the eerie sense that “in watching the candidates it seemed we were viewing a reflection in the mirror”. Try her description of Bill Clinton as “the etchings man”, who during a TV debate “rose like a torch singer when it was his turn, microphone in hand, giving himself in the style of Piaf or Garland to each questioner”. A later piece for The New Yorker on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 draws a line from the Twin Towers to Harry Potter, suggesting that by “feeling a generation’s bolt-of-lightning scar” JK Rowling “may have outwritten everyone.”
Whether she’s writing about current affairs or literature, or indeed her own honeymoon – “love went without saying, so we didn’t say it” – Lorrie Moore’s essays are brilliantly written, brimming with energy, and never for a moment dull. Brought together in a collection, they form a great doll’s house of a book, offering a glimpse through tiny windows into other worlds, and as such they are undiminished by the passage of time.