Insight delivered in snappy prose

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Photo: Supplied
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Photo: Supplied
Peter Stupples reviews See What Can Be Done, by Lorrie Moore. Published by Faber & Faber.

Lorrie Moore is an American novelist, short-story writer and reviewer for prestigious American journals. See What Can Be Done is a selection of these reviews, and other short pieces, including a couple of autobiographical essays. The title of the collection repeats a phrase used by the late co-founding editor of the New York Review of Books, Roberts Silver.

"He would propose I consider writing about something ... and then he would offer a polite inquiry as to my interest ... ‘See what can be done’, he would invariably close."

Moore’s essays are just right: short, snappy, penetrating, witty prose; introducing the work of writers we may not have read, giving new insights on those more familiar, exploring the significance and context of notable TV series,  reminding us of one liners from America’s most perceptive actors/writers: "I believe Bette Davis should have won the Nobel Prize for ‘Old age is no place for sissies’."

Moore runs themes important to her from one review to another, such as the relationship between an author’s writing and their life experience: "because literature has always functioned as a means to figure out what is happening to us, as well as what we think about it, fiction writers do get asked: ‘What is the relationship of this story/novel/play to the events of your own life (whatever that may be)? I do think that the proper relationship of a writer to his or her own life is similar to a cook with a cupboard. What the cook makes from what’s in the cupboard is not the same as what’s in the cupboard — and, of course, everyone understands that."

She is particularly interested in the art of writing itself, structure and language, dialogue and character. She highlights the virtues of the short story (V. S. Pritchett, Anne Beattie, Alice Munro, Eudora Welty) but also the work of, generally North American, novelists (Vonnegut, DeLillo, Atwood, Philip Roth, Peter Cameron). She is repeatedly interested in the way life can conspire to cut people off from their roots, from relationships, with the consequent need to confront the demands of unfamiliar cultural spaces, new lovers, friends, neighbourhoods. As Nathan Zuckerman puts it in Roth’s Human Stain: "To become a new being. To bifurcate. The drama that underlies America’s story, the high drama that is upping and leaving — and the energy and cruelty that rapturous  drive demands"; or what Caryl Phillips has called more positively "the gift of displacement".

This "upping and leaving" is not dissimilar to the severing pain of political catastrophe, as described in what Moore calls "the subtlest September 11 novel yet written", Peter Cameron’s Some Day This Pain Will Be Useful to You: "What happens to children when they witness terrible violence? ... Who do these children become when they are grown, and what faith is no longer possible for them as they continue to live in an anarchic world that still somehow brims with pleasure, beauty and love?"

In more recent years, Moore has turned her attention to the cinema (Titanic: "Has there been a movie that so rhythmically and succinctly joins the smashing up of a great groaning ship with the astonishing range of brutish panic and altruistic courtesy with which our species greets catastrophe?") and television series (The Wire, Homeland, True Detective). She also comments on American politics, with amused astonishment at the Clintons and Primaries, but finds Barack Obama’s early memoir Dreams of My Father spellbinding writing.

Moore as a reviewer and commentator has a refreshing take on the literature of her time and is always generous in her assessments of her fellow writers.

- Peter Stupples, now living in Wellington, used to teach at the University of Otago.


Win a copy

The Weekend Mix has three copies of See What Can Be Done, by Lorrie Moore, courtesy of Faber & Faber, to give away. For your chance to win a copy, email with your name and postal address in the body of the email and "See What Can Be Done" in the subject line by Tuesday, July 10.

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