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Guest blog: Ed Hogan on The Genius of Lorrie Moore

Posted on 4th March 2011
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If you haven't read Lorrie Moore, well, where have you been? She's a genius short story writer - funny and dark and, well, just brilliant. Her Collected Short Stories, published by Faber, are a great place to start. In this guest blog Ed Hogan, author of Blackmoor and now The Hunger Trace (just out) tell us why he loves Moore so much.

Sidra stuffed her mouth full of feta cheese and onions, and looked up. ‘Well, all I can say is, I’m glad to be back.’ A piece of feta dropped from her lips.
 Charlotte looked down at it and smiled. ‘I know what you mean,’ she said. She opened her mouth wide and let all the food inside fall out onto the table.
‘Willing’ by Lorrie Moore.

When I like a writer, I try to rip them off, occasionally changing the proper nouns to make it less obvious. But I don’t even try copying Lorrie Moore, because she’s really, really funny. Stylistically, I think I can do a fair old copy of grand prose, or elegiac prose, or minimal prose, but I can’t do funny like she does.

It’s not a straightforward funniness, either. It hurts a bit, too. It’s full of desperation and futility and longing.

The story ‘You’re Ugly, Too’ begins like this: ‘You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal. Once, when the Dow-Jones dipped two hundred points, the Paris paper boasted a banner headline: NORMAL MAN MARRIES OBLONG WOMAN. They knew what was important. They did!’ The central character in this story, Zoe Hendricks, has an odd relationship with humour, and as the title – a punch line – suggests, the whole thing is about jokes. Zoe uses jokes for comfort; to express superiority and longing; to sabotage herself, and as the only reaction to staring into oblivion. You start off laughing, but by the end, you are not.

On a creative writing course I took, our lecturer gave us a pep talk. He said we were funny, jovial people in class, and when we wrote spontaneously in the workshop, we made each other laugh. But as soon as we went home to our longer works of fiction, we put on our ‘novelists’ coats’ and tried to be earnest and profound. He found it frustrating. Maybe the short story lends itself to humour, although every year the judges of the Bridport Prize bemoan the misery of the majority of entries. It’s easier, I suppose, to do downbeat. If you load up the tragedy, a reader is unlikely to say, ‘that wasn’t sad’, but they might let you know if you fail at being funny, and that’s crushing. It takes guts to even try.

A while ago, I was reading Moore’s Collected Stories. It was after 1 a.m., and I had to be up early. I laughed so hard at a line in the story ‘Debarking’ that I began to cry. It’s a rare joy when fiction produces that sort of physical helplessness. After a few minutes, when the tears had ceased, I tried to read on. I needed to read on! It was late! But every time I turned back to the page, I saw the funny line, and then started laughing again, and then crying, and then I couldn’t see the page anymore. I won’t reveal the exact line, but there are plenty of others in that story - Ira, a divorcee, tries to regulate his feelings towards a new sexual partner: ‘He decided that in a case such as this he could feel a chaste and sanctifying distance. It wasn’t he who was having sex. The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it.’ Ira’s young daughter, when asked to name her five favourite people, lists four dogs and her bicycle.

Perhaps the most significant point about my helpless laughter over ‘Debarking’ was the absolute need to finish it before sleeping. Many of the characters in Moore’s stories are middle-class people trying – and failing – to have relationships, and she makes you really care. She is rarely cruel to them. At the same time, in ‘Debarking’, your concern for Ira is complicated and thrown into a jarring perspective by the fact that the war in Iraq is beginning as his relationship falters.
You often find Moore’s touches of humour relating to illness and death, and to more subtle issues, like a man’s slight disappointment with his daughter when she names her cats Fireball and Fireflake. The laughs are never simple, and neither should they be.

Ed Hogan's first novel, Blackmoor, was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Young Writer of the Year Award, the Dylan Thomas Prize and won the Desmond Elliot Prize. His second novel, The Hunger Trace, is out now, published by Simon & Schuster. Shortfire Press will be publishing a story by Ed soon so watch this sapce!

This is the first in a series of guest blogs. If you would like to submit a guest blog, please email info@shortfirepress.com.

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