Anagrams by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore has long been known to me as one of the “name” authors of American fiction, one of a very select group of fiction writers who could probably live off her writing alone, a fixture of major anthologies, the likes of The New Yorker, and major American awards. So, in other words, everything that would scream out to me “mediocrity” or at least “careerist” (it generally amounts to the same thing). In the case of Moore, however, I know that she is very esteemed by some critics whose opinions I take very seriously, so I’ve always meant to read her. And of course, there are authors like Marilynne Robinson or Don DeLillo who have managed to produce extraordinary writing from within the confines of enormous mainstream success.

Lorrie Moore’s first novel, Anagrams, mixes aspects of experimental and realist fiction. It is composed of five self-contained sections of fairly conventional storytelling. The experimental aspect of this book is in the fact that these five sections are “anagrams” of each other. The names of the three main characters are always the same, but their various traits, afflictions, hopes, and failures are shuffled around so that each time we are presented with three distinct, not-previously seen, people.

The five parts of this book are thus related in the sense of words that are anagrams for one another. Already an implicit question is raised: is there any deeper relationship between “refer” and “freer” than between two random words, just because they happen to contain the same letters? Might we imagine reasons why some anagrams have stronger connections than others? Similarly, is there some deeper relevance between the five parts of Anagrams? Are all solitary, lonely, depressed lives connected to some extent? Or is each middling life painful in ways that have nothing to do with the others?

There is another stylistic quirk to this book. It is broken into two sections, the first of which contains four separate pieces that look and feel like short stories. With a little imagination they might even fit together in certain ways to tell a whole story. These 4 comprise about 60 pages of Anagrams. Then, section two (it is separated from section one by its own epigraphs) is made up of one long narrative of approximately 150 pages, and which feels like a novella. No explanation is ever given for the relative lengths of the parts or why they are presented as they are, although the individual pieces are numbered 1 through 5, giving some impression that we are to take the book as a whole.

Anagrams is always narrated from the first-person perspective of Benna, a wry, single, mid-thirties woman beginning to feel adrift in life and starting to worry that she will have to live through her middle age—and probably her whole life—alone. She has friends Gerard and Eleanor who are similarly rudderless in their thirties. They all work the degrading, dead-end jobs of the over-educated, underemployed lower-middle-class, and they generally have artistic inclinations, sometimes nurturing false and fragile beliefs that they will one day graduate into an artistic career.

Benna, Gerald, and Eleanor remind me of something F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in Tender Is the Night (and which Moore either paraphrases or re-discovers in Anagrams): essentially, Fitzgerald said that his two protagonists, Dick and Nicole Diver, had all the sensitivity of great artists but none of the talent. So they were essentially stuck in a “neither here nor there” of emotion—capable of experiencing profound sentiments, but incapable of ever articulating them in a satisfying way. They even have pretensions to being artists, but of course they fail.

It is this ever-present theme in Benna’s own fresh voice that gives the most continuity and originality to this book. Her narration is cynical and clenched, there are lots of wry observations on the nature of mainstays of bourgeois American life, like yard sales, telemarketers, diners, lounge acts in budget hotels. Benna’s voice seems committed to assaulting a reader with the general tawdriness of people who lead empty lives but try to convince themselves that things are really richer and more exciting than they are. On the other hand, Benna’s voice shows a softer side in its bemusement with bad puns, stale jokes, and the like, plus its occasional sentimental observations on life. Benna has a kind of everywoman wisdom about her—she speaks lofty truths, but they are always couched in the down-to-earth language of the everyday. In the hands of a weaker writer this might easily be condemned as cleverness, but Moore manages to strike the right balance between the high and the low, creating something that feels authentic: “‘It’s not that men fear intimacy,’ I said to Eleanor. ‘It’s that they’re hypochondriacs of intimacy: They always think they have it when they don’t.'”

Each individual Benna—as well as the cumulative Benna across the book’s five sections—is complex and interesting as a narrator. You can never quite trust her. In one story Benna observes that Eleanor “took our mutual mediocrity harder than I did,” although it’s not clear that this is true. Benna seems to take it pretty hard herself, and she seems to disdain Eleanor’s efforts to have some kind of artistic breakthrough in the way that bespeaks self-hatred. Later in that same story Benna tells herself, “It’s not that I wanted to be married. It’s that I wanted a Marriage Equivalent, although I never knew exactly what that was, and often suspected that there was really no such thing.” Much of the tension of this story comes from the fact that Benna may in fact want a marriage (not just a Marriage Equivalent), and is just unable to let herself know that—after all, she lives in an apartment across the hall from a man she seems to be in love with yet whom she never honestly communicates with.

“The Nun of That” is obviously Anagrams’ showpiece. It is the only part of the book where Moore breaks from first-person: Benna is an adjunct professor at a California college, and most of the activity in her classes is told from the third-person, albeit with plenty of free indirect discourse into Benna’s head. This is a satisfying and fairly subtle way to break up Benna’s first-person narration, which might have otherwise gotten a little onerous over 150 pages. Notably, Benna narrates “The Nun of That” in the present tense, which gives her narration a sort of breathless, optimistic quality, whereas the teaching sections are in the past tense, making them read as much darker and more pessimistic.

The most interesting device in “The Nun of That” is that Eleanor is now Benna’s imaginary friend, and Benna also has an imaginary daughter named Georgianne (these aren’t spoilers, as these facts are revealed very early on). However, their imaginary nature is referenced so seldom that a reader is lulled into thinking they are real people, which makes it all the more damning when something happens to remind a reader of the fact that they are figments of Benna’s immense loneliness. Also the fact that Benna may be mentally ill is completely downplayed throughout “The Nun of That,” which seems far more poignant and interesting of a way to do it than to make this aspect of her more clearly defined. The overall effect of “The Nun of That” is tragicomedy on virtually every page: Benna’s voice is irrepressible and often very funny and entertaining, but it’s impossible to get away from the fact of the situation of her life, which is chronically depressing in the extreme. It’s a very schizoid kind of narrative consciousness, one where two powerful and irreconcilable personalities are present sentence-to-sentence, paragraph-to-paragraph.

In the end, I have a hard time saying what exactly Anagrams is about, other than disintegrating relationships and lonely people. I think it’s perhaps a sort of hymn to bourgeois America—its ugly beauty—as well as an examination of why people reach a guarded sort of adulthood from which they are inherently incapable of making the kinds of deep connections that are easier to come by in one’s more naïve 20s. It always seems like the right elements are present for a happy ending in Anagrams, but things never manage to turn out that way—its letters can spell out words, they just always end up combining in ways that refuse one another.

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