Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lorrie Moore and the Tragically Humorous

In Elissa Schappell’s introduction to Lorrie Moore in 3x33, she highlights the way in which Moore has the ability to take tragic, disturbing, or generally heavy situations (or a mix of all three) and bring them to life not only through startling metaphors, dialogue, and description, but also through witty, satirical humor and brilliant wordplay. In doing this, it would seem she would shift the weight from the situation, but as Schappell notes, this isn’t the case – instead, she ends up enhancing the atmosphere. In the human experience, there is little that is simple and one-sided, and even as we go through the most pain, we find ourselves laughing. As Schappell puts it, “Grief is messy and uncontainable – humor happens.” The result of Moore’s efforts are characters that are startlingly human from start to finish, and feel the full range of emotions. Would you agree?

In Moore’s “Referential”, a mother deals with her son’s struggle with mental illness. As he becomes progressively worse, her lover, Pete (the only character with a name), begins to pull away, even though he is the only one who seems to have an effect on the son. While decidedly grim, the narrative, told from a limited third person perspective of the mother, contains witty, interesting thoughts, and the son’s dialogue, while obviously disturbed, is tragically humorous. Is Moore making a statement about mental illness as a whole here, or about life? Are the characters believable in their humor, especially when it comes to the mother’s sharp, insightful wit? What do you think of her idea of “mutilation as a language”, and is it meant to be darkly humorous – and, in this, is there truth? Is the mother’s narration reliable, or perhaps a sign that she is also mentally unstable? How well was this executed?

Do you think you could create characters that echo Moore’s and feel many emotions but often deflect with wit? Does Moore do it believably herself? 


  1. "Mutilation was a language. And vice versa." This line really stood out to me as I read "Referential." It actually completely stopped me, and not in a way that it pulled me out of the flow of the story. It stopped me, not only because I thought the phrasing was fantastic, but also because I thought it sounded so true. I actually didn't view this as a humorous line, even in a dark sense, but maybe that's because it's so dark that I didn't even consider that it could be meant humorously. I did reflect on it's truthfulness though. It just sounds like a good metaphor for the human world. Not only are people literally scratching words in their skin, but I think there is a lot of sickness in the human race. It's a wonder we're not all in a mental hospital with the terrors we live with today, such as beheadings, bombings, etc.

    But Moore's words really sum up how in a way pain has become a link, or a language, that connects all humans. In anthropology, we question what being human means and what it is. The one thing I can think of that has really served as a link between all humans, despite culture or language, is the experience of pain or suffering. No one has lived without it or without witnessing it in the news and in their everyday lives. Videos, news stories, social media, the way technology spreads these stories of suffering, of human mutilation, has formed a language that we can all speak, the language of pain.

    Then Moore adds "And vice versa," and the statement just holds more true to me. Because how often have humans used language to mutilate? "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Yeah, we all know true THAT is. Seriously, how many times has pain, suffering, conflict been caused because of something someone said? Language becomes a mutilation in the way humans use it to harm and mutilate each other with words. So yeah, for me, this wasn't dark humor, it was just straight up truth.

    In "Referential," humor, for me, was the fact that her son's cutting made him attractive to the girls because it was so rare for a boy to cut. It's a dark, twisted idea, but yet it's funny when we picture the son "reading" the feet of the girls in the support group. I think the humor works well, in that it's funny because it seems true. I can see a bunch of girls having a crush on the one boy in their group. They may be in a mental hospital, but they're still teenage girls. The truth in the humor made it really believable for me. I know that even when bad things happen to me, I still find myself joking about them. At first, I think I'm a bad person, but the laughter makes me feel better about the situation. Laughter heals. Maybe we were given humor to get through the pain that ties us all together. Pain may link us to each other, but so can our humor. I feel like I'm being overly philosophical, but I think the fact that these stories are making me think so much about human nature speaks to how human Moore's characters are. Not only are they suffering through life, as we all are, but they're also trying to lighten their load, again, as we all are, through humor.

    I think it's a hard thing to pull off. It gets to the more twisted and complex sides of the human experience. I think unless it was a situation I went through, unless I was writing about my own suffering in a humorless slant, I don't think I could pull it off. I just wouldn't know if I'd crossed a boundary, or whether someone in that situation would really find it funny or not. I only know what is and is not okay to say in the bad situations I've been in myself.

    But then again, isn't dark humor about crossing boundaries?

  2. Lorrie Moore handles subjects that are so dark, so serious, that they have the potential of becoming overbearing, too emotional to comprehend. Greif isn’t something that we’re well-equipped to deal with. We can’t pin it down and control it, can’t hold it back once it starts to spill out of us. And we have no control about how that raw emotion comes out, whether it be tears or laughter. This is what makes Lorrie Moore’s characters so realistic or “startlingly human.” It’s very difficult to portray such a raw emotion in written characters without becoming melodramatic. Her use of humor to counteract the darkness of the subject. For example, in Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” the Mother fixates on the sweatpants of the other mothers, which seems humorous to us but it’s dark humor. This kind of sarcastic wit is something that Moore excels at throughout the rest of her stories.
    In the story, “Referential,” I don’t think that Moore is trying to make statement about mental illness, but isn’t the whole point of writing to say something about life? The mother’s life, complicated by her distanced lover Pete and her mentally deranged son, is a statement in and of itself. Life is difficult, she is saying, life is not what you expect. Life will change and will change you for every curveball it throws.
    When she says, “Mutilation was a language,” I’m not sure if she means it to be darkly humorous, but it was at the very least ironic and sarcastic. This is especially clear from the previous lines when she mentions “the thin scars on her son’s arms” almost spelling out words and then relates them into the carved swear words. It’s a very clever parallel and very relatable since we’ve all seen words carved somewhere: benches, walls, stalls in public bathrooms, and so much more. It’s such a small part of a larger whole, but there’s definitely truth in this.
    Since it’s a third person narrative, while it is focused on the mother, we should be able to expect the narration to be reliable. But there are instances where we see the mother’s own personal bias come through, not directly, but rather in the things that she doesn’t say. Pete, who is clearly distancing himself from the family, is never criticized. This, I think, is the influence of the mother’s perspective. She seems to be holding on to the past so strongly that she refuses to acknowledge Pete’s emotional distance. Thus, the narrative follows, skirting around the issue, never offering concrete facts, just little details that allow the reader to see past the illusion into the true reality. I think this is very well done, and Moore proves yet again her mastery of the craft.

  3. The Mother in “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” says, “The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler’s mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say.” We tend to think of language as alive, as a breathing force that will shape our world, our perspectives, our lives. But it is only through us, the reader, that language lives. As the mother explains, language can never be that moment. All language, regardless of execution, is told from a distance. Neither is it objective; the mouth says says says all with a purpose.

    Elissa Schappel writes of Moore’s world, “Language functions as a shield.” The narrator’s deranged son in “Referential” mutilates his skin until the scars seem to the narrator to be her lover’s name. His self-harm is its own communication, with himself, with the secret codes in the world around him, and with his mother. All of Moore’s characters use language for their own means. Francie in “How to Become a Writer” struggles to structure those words in a conventional plot. All she knows is the impulse and need to write. She is controlled by her urge to compose language as she fails again and again. Zoe actively uses her wit as a defense mechanism in “You’re Ugly Too” when nervous or bored.

    Psychologists have posed that when overwhelmed by tragic events, and unable to change reality, we use humor as a defense mechanism. Erma Bombeck said that there is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. Simply put, tragedy and comedy often have a symbiotic relationship. Therefore, Moore’s use of dark humor is appropriate and even expected. Inappropriate laughter is such a human response. Everyone has been in those situations where all they can do is laugh. Her characters are all the more believable to me for their dark, sly humor. Where language is mutilated by its own death, so is tragedy mutilated by comedy.

    I would love to mimic Moore’s style, though that might be too high an aspiration. To write convincing dialogue in such complex circumstances takes years to master. Once done correctly, however, it is a powerful tool.

  4. Referential is a truly interesting piece and I find myself wondering how far Lorrie Moore is able to go with this kind of writing. Despite the wit shown by the mother, I can practically feel the tension seeping off of her and the true oddness of her son. I fail to see how this could be a story about anything other than life. The concept of a mental illness is addressed from the way it impacts the mother and we only see the mother's thoughts as they swirl through her head. If anything, the son acts as both a plot device and a very unusual character. I can safely say that I was both amused and slightly disturbed by him. And I like it. The term tragically humorous is disturbingly accurate when describing such a character. The mother is little better off, and when I read I found myself wondering why we were asked to question her mental state as well. There was nothing that led me to immediately believe that she was unstable in her own way. Then I saw her at home, with the phone calls and the strange desperation she displays and quickly found myself beginning to question her sanity. It's utterly fascinating and page turning. Moore's style keeps you glued to a book, not just in Referential, but in every piece I read from her.

    The characters come across as believable, if only because you find yourself wondering how much they believe their own wit and humor. Are they really so able to throw off their problems, or are they falling into their own denial deeply enough that no one, not even themselves, can see quiet what they're feeling. The phrase 'beautiful madness' springs to mind, though I have no idea where the idea comes from myself. I have always held the belief that we are all mad in a way, but Moore somehow manages to express this in a truly breath-taking fashion, yet remain grounded in reality so that we might believe that every one of her characters could be a person who we see walking down the street. The thoughts of mutilation of language is a bit more complex, but I feel that I have some grasp of what it can mean. Or perhaps I don't. That's the beauty of language. Words have countless meanings, always coming apart and back together to mean something else. One can 'butcher' the English language, yet still say something profound, or put together an entirely different meaning from the obvious definitions of words. The son even has his own methods, as disturbed as they may be, to communicate his thoughts through this 'mutilation'. Each interpretation can change and further savage or mend a meaning, until the message can be utterly destroyed or recreated into something else.

    I love this kind of character. They can be witty and humorous, yet dark and depressing, leaving me laughing softly while feeling distinctly chilled and uncomfortable. I would love to take a shot at imitating Moore's style, trying to create a character that can show true emotion, but still remain in such a state. How much success I would face would greatly vary based on both context and amount of work though. I feel very uncertain that I would be able to match Moore's skill in such a way.

  5. In “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” one of the parents brings up “collateral beauty” and the Mother says that if a child is sick, “No one is entitled to any collateral beauty.” Amanda S’s comments keep bringing me back to this line—are we entitled to lighten our load with humor when we talk about death and illness? As Amanda says, the humor will be there anyway. Do we get to laugh?
    In “Referential,” the boy asks Pete, “Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?” Pete replies without hesitation, in what I can only read as an emotionless voice, “I suppose I do.” This reminds me again of “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” in which the parents talk about the idea that families of cancer patients are brave—what other options do they have, they ask. They argue whether giving up and losing their heads was an option in the first place, anything to be overcome. Someone says they’ve never actually seen anyone do that. “Referential” opens with the crazy things the mother has to do just to give her son a birthday present. She never complains about any of it because she can’t—there’s no other way to do things.
    Pete, meanwhile, has a choice. He can stay with the mother and help her with her son, or he can leave and lead a normal life. We see he is halfway out the door. I think that Pete alone has a name because he is not really anything to the family and must have his own name—he’s not a son or a husband, so he gets to be have his own identity and think about whether this is worth it. The mother is disappointed but not surprised when he leaves.
    We learn that the doctor has described the son’s latest suicide attempt as “morbidly ingenious” just after we see the son’s disturbed commentary on birthday cake which could earn the same description. It’s pretty accurate. The boy’s dialogue is not really literally believable, but it also doesn’t read like it’s supposed to be. The reactions, though, are realistic and I think they are not just a commentary on mental illness, but on coping. What do you do when your son goes off on a “morbidly ingenious” poetic rant about birthday cake? Seems like Moore is saying you do what you have to do to stay sane yourself—even if it means getting your hair washed at a salon to remember what human touch is like.

  6. Someone once said that tragedy is universal – perhaps then mutilation is the common language of tragedy. Mutilation, whether it is self mutilation or mutilation of the world around us, speaks of pain and anger and loss. It is a plea for attention and for understanding, for someone to reach out and help. Maybe this language is part of what draws the girl’s in “Referential” to the mother’s son – they are able to communicate through their shared mutilations. If language itself is a mutilation, it may also help to explain why the son sees clues to his own life in the world around him. In each of Moore’s stories, it is apparent that she understands this language of tragedy. She does not just reveal the pain inherent in this form of communication, but also the ironies inherent in pain and the black humor of despair. In “Referential” Moore isn’t commenting just on mental illness. It seems more like she is saying that maybe we all have a little insanity inside of us. Maybe we all need a “red star on the back of a menu” to tell us where we are. As Francie muses in “How to Become a Writer,” “these are questions that you keep in your wallet, like calling cards.”
    Moore’s characters are all human in their messiness – in their edges “crusty…brittle and pointed.” Francie struggles with the overwhelming need to write that drives her life and drives people out of it. Zoë is strangely off-kilter, with her house that is always shedding “like a womb” and the furniture she returns because it looks like “children’s coffins.” In the end of the story she almost pushes a man off a terrace, but shrugs it off as only joking – “These jokes will kill you,” as the mother in “People Like That Are the Only People Here” says.
    I don’t think I would be able to write characters like Moore, although I wish I could. The line she walks between tragedy and humor is less like a line and more like an impossibly miniscule chain of subatomic particles. Her characters are entirely believable, which is one of the elements that makes her stories so compelling.

  7. What has led to our culture becoming so numb to things like death and violence is somewhat encapsulated within this story; how that becomes different when the threat of death and violence is right in your own home, your own life, it changes. And how people come to cope with those shocking turns in their lives is to each their own.

    "For the third time in three years, they talked about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son" (138). This introduction to the story not only gives a clue to what's going on, but also reveals the acceptance of this unforeseen occurrence by the mother and Pete. Just the action of them trying to find a birthday present was them (or at least, her) grasping for some sense of normalcy, where normalcy is thrown out the window with the jars of jam. Maybe this is her seeing an invisible line of progress in her son, that he is perhaps getting better, and will continue to get better if she makes the situation feel normal.

    His own sense of normal is shrouded in other cutters and hand-eaten cake, and from an outside perspective we can see how far he has gone into this regression, but for the mother's sake, with her optimism, we hope that she is right. We hope that she is right because everything else in her life has gone wrong because of her son losing it, Pete is on the way out, or has been out already (with his own apartment now) and not only did he lose his job but it is not mentioned whether or not she had a job either. I think that detail is important, because with nothing else to tie her to normalcy, she is always caught up in her problems and her son's problems.

    And by the end of the story, she starts to talk to no one on the other line of the phone. This, and the fact that she just let Pete walk out the door and had done so long before, shows that maybe she doesn't have an outlet for all of this going on in her life, the only thing she has is her odd sense of humor and her ability to not be phased by yet another one of her son's suicide attempts. She believes in him getting better and she seems to refuse seeing anything else.

  8. I really enjoyed this story the most out of the four Moore stories, probably because I really like stories that have characters (either main or secondary) that have mental illnesses. They just seem so fascinating to me and I would love to be able to write a decent crazy person someday.
    Anyway, two things really stuck with me: the conversation with the son, and when the mother makes up the fact that someone was calling from Pete’s apartment just to see his reaction. Both have a sense of subtle, dark humor, especially with the mother’s lie – it’s the kind of humor that is only funny to the person telling the joke.
    Something else important – I think I’ve read somewhere about how the people who are crazy are the ones who know too much. It makes sense, since I know there are mentally ill characters who seem to catch the things that “normal” people miss. So it is in “Referential.” The son asks questions that don’t make a lot of sense, yet somehow ring true: “Do you ever think about how, at that moment of the candles, time stands still, even as the moments carry away the smoke? It’s like the fire of burning love. Do you ever wonder why so many people have things they don’t really deserve but how absurd all those things are to begin with?” Not only that, the son seems to realize that Pete is pulling away from his mother and probes him with “Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?... Do you think of my mom when you stare up at the clouds and all they hold?” (Interestingly, the questions about candles and people not deserving things also seem to hint about the dying love.)
    And then the mother “invented the part about its being Pete’s number, but he had made it the truth anyway, which was the black magic of lies and good guesses, nimble bluffs.” She could have just straight-up confronted him about his distance, but she chooses to go the roundabout way. I get the feeling that she thinks herself clever for tricking him like she does and that such trickery is funny. I know I would.
    So it seems in this story (and Moore’s other stories) that humor is used as a coping mechanism. We have characters that are just a little (or a lot) crazy in a “normal” world trying to deal with personal problems – the mentally ill son and the distant lover in “Referential,” the discouragement in “How to Become a Writer,” and the loneliness and fears of aging in “You’re Ugly, Too,” for example – and the only solution is to laugh about it, even if nobody else finds the joke funny.
    That’s what makes these characters realistic, because at heart we all have problems, we are all a little crazy, and at some point we have all used humor to cope with a difficult situation – just maybe not to the same level of darkness that Moore’s fictional characters do.

  9. In "Referential", Lorrie Moore uses humor and incredible language to describe a horrible situation and give the reader conflicted feeling of humor and grief. She also uses the treatment of language itself to focus attention of the fear and immense sadness of mental disorders and self harm.
    The narrator's son focuses on language as a consequence of his mental state. He looks for meaning in page numbers and word choice in books, in order to find out the meaning of his life or feelings or behavior, based on his idea that some sort of fate or destiny is communicating with him. This reminds me of the stereotypical "crazy person" or "paranoid person", which is a character that most people laugh at and do not take seriously. Yet, in this story, you can't help but take the son seriously, because his theories have led him to hospitalization and serious self harm. That being said, the reader has a serious conflict between the humor of his ideas and the tragedy of his behavior.
    Finally, not only does Lorrie Moore stress the importance of language for the boy, but for all of the cutters. The narrator brings up a time "when young people used to stiffly carve the words PEACE and FUCK into picnic tables and trees". This imagery is an easy segue to the idea of carving these words into one's own body, which is seen when the narrator says that "mutilation was a language and vice versa." The beauty of this idea that the words that the "cutters" carve into their skin, the symbols the make, the letters they scratch out, all have a meaning, like the definition of words, or the sounds of letters. There is a story behind each mark that they make.

  10. One of the first things I noticed about Lorrie Moor’s writing was the poetic language she uses. She uses imagery so well throughout her stories, especially in Referential. “The thin scars on her son’s arms seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively in an algebra of skin.” On page 139, or “For a time, her son had wanted only a distracting pain, but eventually he had wanted to tear a whole in himself and flee through it.” On page 141. Both of these lines really stuck out to me as vivid imagery and wonderfully utilized language. Also despite the poetic and vivid descriptions, she also manages to keep us very grounded in the story and never at a loss through her use of very concrete and specific details such as “The Radio Shack wall phone”. I really admire her ability to use beautiful language in a concrete way.
    As for the darkness of humor in this piece, I’ll admit that most of it went over my head. To me, the story felt very serious, and after reading the stories in 3x33 first, I thought to myself, wow, she’s being way more serious in this story. Maybe it’s the realness of it that made me miss the humor. The way people rationalize and try to circumvent their grief with wit. The place I saw the most humor was in the dialogue with the Son. The line how there’s no forks or candles for the birthday cake, and that “We’ll just have to grab the frosting and mash it into our eyes for blinding.” Underlined how even the son could see how ridiculous some of the precautions of the institution were. I also liked the way his seemingly crazy ideas about candles and love were excellent setup for Pete’s drifting apart from the mother and the revelation of his affair at the end.
    Overall I think my favorite part about Lorrie Moore is her expert use of language and the way she can create such real characters who like us, use humor as a shield against grief and tragedy.