Sunday, 16 March 2014

How to talk to your mother and how to die

'Self-Help' by Lorrie Moore came from my library list; I think I went searching for 'Who will run the frog hospital' but this was what they had. Then just the other day I read someone reviewing something by her and realised that it was what I was reading.

These stories are probably the most unusual I have read. The most striking thing about the first is that it is written in second person, addressing 'you' in the story, as if she is telling a story about the reader, or answering a request for advice. It is slightly disconcerting, and titled 'How to be an Other Woman' it is almost instructional. A couple of the others do the same thing and it gives a vague sense of continuity that it probably not intentional. The book's title is quite apposite, many of the stories have characters who are coping with life's difficulties, though the advice offered is definitely a little tongue-in-cheek. 

I liked 'How to talk to your mother' which is a relationship related in reverse, from 1982 back to 1939, and takes us through grief to ageing and forgetfulness, through attempts at independence, back to the teenage years and finally the intensity of early childhood and infancy:

"1968. Do not resent her. Think about the situation, for instance, when you take the last trash bag from its box: you must throw out the box by putting it in that very trash bag. What was once contained, now must contain. The container, then, becomes the contained, the enveloped, the held. Find more and more that you like to muse over things like this." (p.90)

In 'Go Like This' a woman plans her suicide to escape the inevitable death from cancer. It dances cleverly around the idea that these 'educated' people do manage to talk about it, but still somehow don't manage to communicate. This metaphor is striking:

"It is already July. The fireflies will soon be out. My death flashes across my afternoon like a nun in white, hurrying, evanescing, apparitional as the rise of heat off boulevards, the parched white of sails across cement, around the corner, fleeing the sun." (p.77)

One of several stories that feature a needy elderly mother, 'To Fill' has another young woman who is trying to distract herself from the fact of her husband's unfaithfulness and to sustain her relationship with her son in the face of what can only be a descent into total breakdown:

"I grow so incomprehensible.
I am stealing more and more money. I keep it in my top drawer beneath my underwear, along with my diaphragm and my lipstick and my switchblade these are things a woman needs." (p.140)

Then at the end of this story she finds herself in the same institution, a couple of floors below her elderly mother. This is a very evocative image, quite scary even:

"Orderlies roll the days by me like carts.
Mr Fernandez visits, but only him. My husband and son are off someplace, walking and trying not to cry. 
Ageing flowers, daisies when they die look like hopeful hags, their sunny, hatless faces, their shrivelled limp hair. Tulips wither into birdcages, six black stamens inside, each dried to a dim chirp." (p.161)

I was left a little disturbed, that the title is almost prophetic, that you must help yourself, in fact that is likely to be the only help you get.

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