Lorrie Moore: “Referential” from The New Yorker, 5/28/12

New Yorker illustration by Matthew Bollinger

New Yorker illustration by Matthew Bollinger

Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindness and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected twist in the game. One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land in the same way, regardless. Tenderness did not enter into it, except in a damaged way.

Some stories are shorter than they look – the descriptions aren’t really necessary. Oh, they are, to make the places and people real and add depth to the events, but once you get the idea – rolling green hills, dirty city buildings, picket fences and bicycles in front lawns, Mrs. with grey hair and glasses, Mr. glancing in mirrors and tugging at his tie – the rest of the paragraphs skim by forgotten. Description is a necessary structure, like the foundation of a house, and maybe carefully constructed, but not something anyone other than a builder is going to actually look at.

This story, on the other hand, is longer than it seems. Every sentence, even the ones just describing, is loaded with images that add to the narrative. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, the way writing classes teach it should be. But it seldom is.

Look at some of these images:

The jars were arranged by color, from the brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.

The love they had for Pete was long and winding, with hidden turns but no real halts.

…her now graying hair undyed and often pinned up with strands hanging down like Spanish moss.

….she, too, had removed her necklaces, earrings, scarves – all her prosthetic devices, she said to Pete, trying to amuse – …a new widowhood on top of the old widowhood she already possessed.…and she went out into the world like an Amish woman, or perhaps, even worse, when the unforgiving light of spring hit her face, an old Amish man. If she was going to be old, let her be a full-fledged citizen of the old country!

And that’s just the first column of the first page.

Where to start with this, a story so full of stuff it’s hard to believe it’s only three pages long. Mom, the widow, has a sixteen-year-old son in a mental hospital, and she and Pete (the only named character) visit him. They have to be careful what they bring – nothing that can be used as a weapon, which is just about anything, so she settles on:

…a soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone, pulled from her own bookcase, which was allowed, even though her son would believe it contained messages for him, believe that, although it was a story about a long-ago person, it was also the story of his own sorrow and heroism in the face of every manner of wilderness, defeat, and abduction, that his own life could be draped over the book, which was simply a noble armature for the revelation of tales of him. There would be clues in the words on pages with numbers that added up to his age: 97, 88, 466. There would be other veiled references to his existence. There always were.

This is referential thinking, a symptom of various mental illnesses from personality disorders to schizophrenia. I started thinking: isn’t that the purpose of writing a book, to inspire someone, to communicate? But that’s not the same thing. That’s communication. Referential thinking is when the author writes it for you, individually, or when rain starting at 3pm on Tuesday is a message from God or the planet Zolar or the CIA that it’s time to clean your house or poke out your kitty’s eyes.

Mom connects the dots.

…the thin scars on her son’s arms sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively into an algebra of skin. In the carousel spin of the room, those white webbed lines resembled coarse, campground graffiti…Mutilation was a language. And vice versa.

And of course she’s right.

Later, on the drive home, she finds more meaning in the orchard:

She knew that the world had not been created to speak just to her, and yet, as for her son, sometimes things did. The fruit trees had bloomed early, for instance – the orchards they passed were pink – but the premature warmth precluded bees, and there would be little fruit. Most of the dangling blossoms would fall in this very storm.

This is more of a metaphor than the manipulation of the weather and the trees aimed at her. It’s normal human reaction, to see yourself, your situation, in the world. To refuse to do so is its own malignancy. We all know them, people who think nothing has anything to do with them, who think their actions are unrelated to the chaos in their lives. Mental health is a very tricky balance. It’s a wonder anyone manages it. Or as the story puts it:

“So where have you been?” her son asked Pete.
“Good question,” Pete said, as if praising the thing would make it go away. How could people be mentally well in such a world?

The real story is yet to come: this is just setting the stage, setting up Mom and Pete, boyfriend of ten years, from before Son’s illness moved from “a vaguely brooding and fearful expression” to referential thinking, cutting, and suicide attempts:

At one point, he had been poised to live with her, but her child’s deepening troubles caused him to pull back. He said that he loved her but could not find the space he needed for himself in her life or in her house. (He did not blame her son – or did he?)

At home after the hospital visit, with Pete staying for a drink or two, Mom tells him she’s bringing Son home the next week. The phone rings, and she tells him the caller-id shows it’s a call from his apartment; he doesn’t show any surprise, or denial, just prepares to leave. He evades her goodnight kiss so it falls on his ear; she remembers this happened when they first met, when “he was in a condition of romantic overlap.”

She…had invented the part about it being Pete’s number, but he had made it the truth anyway, which was the black magic of lies and good guesses, nimble bluffs.

I get the sense this is her form of self-mutilation, another way she will be a full-fledged Widow of the Old Country; similar to taking off her jewelry, she’s taking off her last chance of romance. Except she doesn’t amputate, she just stands under the blade and wonders if it would fall.

The ending is one of my favorites of all time, as the phone rings again after Pete has departed:

The black panel where the number should appear was clouded as if by a scrim, a page of onionskin over the onion – or, rather, a picture of an onion. One depiction on top of another.
“Good evening,” she said loudly. What would burst forth? A monkey’s paw. A lady. A tiger.
But there was nothing at all.

I was amazed by this story, underlining and circling something in virtually every paragraph (as you can tell from all the quotes). Which is why I thought, as I was reading, that this is a very long, very short story.

But there’s another reason it’s so long, one that I didn’t know about until I finished reading, one that adds a meaning to the title “Referential”: it’s an homage to Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” (plus the reference to WW Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw” at the end), down to the jam jars. Moore’s online interview discusses this process of creating a tribute. I’m humiliatingly unfamiliar with classic short stories beyond the standard Top 10, and that’s something I want to remedy, so I’ve printed out both stories and I’ll be looking at them next week, with an eye towards relating them to this story. But for now, I found plenty to savor here.

[Addendum: I’ve commented on Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.”]

[Addendum 2: No surprise to encounter this in Best American Short Stories 2013; it provided me with quite an education.]

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5 responses to “Lorrie Moore: “Referential” from The New Yorker, 5/28/12

  1. Pingback: Vladimir Nabokov: “Signs and Symbols” « A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: Sunday with Zin: W. W. Jacobs: “The Monkey’s Paw” (1902) « A Just Recompense

  3. Karen, this is a lovely reflection on this piece, which I just read yesterday (yes, I’m three months behind on The New Yorker). I came to your site specifically looking for a blog entry on the story & hoping it would help illuminate the piece for me.

    I have to say your observations have made me appreciate the piece more, as for all the luminous beauty of its prose, I found the story unrelentingly grim. Except for that last paragraph and its references to other short stories, which suddenly made the whole sad trip seem worthwhile. I don’t know if Moore mentions this in the interview you refer to, but the “lady” and the “tiger” of the final lines is another reference — to Frank Stockton’s 1882 story “The Lady or the Tiger?” I read the story in 8th grade English; it was one of those remarkable little stories that made me go, “Wait! You’re *allowed* to do that?! *I* want to do that!”

    (I may be back with comments intermittently as I soldier my way through the backlog of magazines!)

    • Hi Naomi – thanks, that means a lot to me, coming from you. And you’ve reminded me that I haven’t revisited this story since reading the Nabokov; I should do that, because the jars and the numbers take on a whole new significance.

      I read “The Lady or the Tiger” in jr high too – and it made me angry! 😉 I’m amazed at how we assume a writer has some mysterious control over a character’s life after the story ends – I just attended a reading during which the author (Rebecca Makkai) said she had a lot of questions about Ian, people who wanted her to assure them “he was ok” years later. I myself once asked Herman Wouk if Byron and Natalie went on to live in the US or in Palestine after WWII. I just happened across his reply from about 1988 – “every reader must decide for himself.” That taught me something,

      I’m so glad you stopped by, and I hope I’ll see more of your feedback on more TNY stories as you catch up – there’s some good stuff and some awful stuff ahead, and I’m interested in seeing where we agree and disagree.

  4. Pingback: BASS 2013: Closing the Cover | A Just Recompense

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