A mid-30s woman, childless, told repeatedly what a “terrific mother” she would be but beginning to doubt it and even growing awkward and unsure around babies, has one thrust into her hands at a backyard Labor Day party by a solicitous mother, whereupon the picnic bench she is sitting down to with the infant cracks and the baby flies out of her arms and smashes its head on the cement, dying a short while later. Our protagonist, Adrienne, then retreats to hole up in her attic apartment for seven months, too dark and deranged to even feign an interest in living.
This is the setup for a short story, Terrific Mother, that rarely goes a page without a laugh-out loud moment of insight about the foibles of human beings, followed by profound, sometimes tender but always incisive probing into the behavior and compensations that keep us psychically afloat amidst the need for near constant forgiveness of both self and others.
Fusing all these elements into a compact 40 pages as the concluding story in her volume, Birds of America, is the genius of Lorrie Moore, long- and deservedly considered one of our finest practitioners of this much-harder-than-it-looks art of the quickly told tale.
Short story writers are the sprinters of literature, with no time for stretching the muscles of a story and working the kinks out in the early laps like a long distance runner. They have to draw quick sketches of what are usually multiple characters, weaving in plot lines and themes in a way that makes us want to care and carry the story with us, however brief a time we spend with it compared to say, War and Peace. The latter is more like a year-long run across a continent that we amble through in all its highs and lows, mountains to deserts.
Adrienne had a suitor before the horrific incident with the infant. He’s a divorced research economist who continues to show up for her afterwards, gently cracking and holding open a door to the land of the living. He is her only real contact with the world outside the darkness that is woven through her psyche like a tumor gone metastatic in the brain.
A page and a half into the story (Moore is out of the blocks now and accelerating…), Adrienne consents to marry and accompany Martin to an academic conference in Italy, where she will have “spousal” rights such as access to a hillside painting studio and dinners seated next to other academics from around the world. She playfully tries to make social chitchat with these characters, most all men, who regard her as just this side of vermin unless she shows intense and sustained interest in matters such as The Canterbury Tales, about which her seatmate one night has just completed his sixth book.
“Sixth,” repeated Adrienne.
“There’s a lot there,” he said, defensively.
This skewering of academia’s pretensions is both hilarious and a call for understanding from those of us outside their cloistered, often venomous world. “We are not good advertisements for this life. Are we?” observes an expert on the Ottoman Empire after he has begun to regale Adrienne, at least in his mind, with the backstory of its rise and fall before acknowledging how ridiculous he sounds.
If Moore limited herself to these kinds of send-ups, she would be worth an occasional read for sheer comic relief, a kind of literary cousin to moviemaker Christopher Guest and his ”mockumentaries,” with their camp-clownish inroads into the world of dog shows, heavy metal music and the like. But Moore is after far bigger fish than human pretension and foolishness.
Adrienne, despite the ballast afforded by her devoted though hardly all-wise husband, is hanging onto her sanity and sense of self by the slenderest of threads. Paradoxically, she maintains an acute sensitivity to her surroundings and other people that would be the envy of meditators the world over and could be all of ours, were we to stop distracting ourselves with ephemera and instead live with intention and openness to the complexity and need of our inner lives.
She begins seeing an American expat masseuse regularly in town, whose wise experienced hands recognize Adrienne’s pain. Moore writes:
“Adrienne began quietly to cry, the deep touching of her body melting her down to some equation of animal sadness, shoe leather, and brine. She began to understand why people would want to live in these dusky nether zones, the meltdown brought on by sleep or drink or this. It seemed truer, more familiar to the soul than was the busy, complicated flash that was normal life.”
In a later session, the masseuse observes,
“You have a knot here in your trapezius. I can feel the belly of the knot right here. Let go. Let go all the way, of everything.”
“I might die,” said Adrienne.
This bit of insight is a product both of Adrienne’s self-torture and her acute awareness that feelings come with a cost, and feeling fully into all the pain, tragedy and longing that undergirds so much of life requires a doubling or quadrupling of that cost. But like laying down $2 on the favorite to show at the race track in order to win back $2.10, those too timid to accept that cost stay knotted and stiff, their range of motion—physical, emotional, spiritual—limited and then more limited still the next day and month and year, the vicious circle of repression having its way with yet another story of a life.
As Terrific Mother winds down, Adrienne is suddenly inspired to shed her clothes and lie on a hillside below her studio in the mid-day sun. As she stares up at a passing jet she entertains a cascade of visions—the dead baby, her husband “furiously swimming in a pool,” and “the strewn beads of her own fertility, all the eggs within her, leap away like a box of tapioca off a cliff.”
“It seemed to her that everything she had ever needed to know in her life she had known at one time or another, but she had just not known all those things at once, at the same time, at a single moment. They were scattered through and she had to leave and forget one in order to get to another.”
This is a heady and profound insight, these scattered bits of our own wholeness that we pick up in moments of love or rapture or deep immersion in the quotidian. “Yes, that’s it, finally! Now I understand, now I see, this is what’s it’s actually all about, I get it now, how could I have been so blind?”
Then the moment fades. Life and its recurrent temptation to retreat, to lapse again our self-imposed myopia, combine to obscure our vision, like a horse blurred in the distant sunset, upon whose back we could swear we had just been riding.
Nothing will ever be easy or passed off as inconsequential in the life that remains for Adrienne. She must discover and rediscover her reason for living every day, but the only thing that makes it even remotely possible are the notes of redemption with which the story concludes.
Not an easy or breezy redemption, and not the final plea for its need.
But good, and necessary, for today.
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