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SHORT STORY HEROESLORRIE MOOREMargaret Wilkinsonanalyses the work of noted short story authors – and suggests thingsto try in your own writingIam starting my set of contributions to thisseries of Short Story Heroes with the American writer Lorrie Moore and her latest collection, Bark (2014). In Bark, Moore continues to explore the subject matter of her previous collections: the failure of most relationships. This sounds bleak, but Moore is a magnificent stylist – witty, funny, sardonic, contemporary and urbane, a master of metaphor, pun, jokes, quips and one-liners – who finds humour in the pathos she explores.The characters are smart and articulate but their awareness only heightens their predicaments. Here’s Tom in ‘Subject to search’ considering suicide: ‘If you’re suicidal, and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as wry’. The reader is uplifted, amused and disturbed all at the same time.I’d urge you to develop the habit of reading like a writer, i.e. reading specifically to see how it’s done; reading for method. Three distinct methods that reoccur in Moore’s stories are the use of news items; the manipulation of time; and the concealing (backgrounding) of the real core of a story within a compelling foreground.Set in the near past, ‘Subject to search’ is about a couple who ought to be together, but whose timing is all wrong. When one is free, the other isn’t. In this tale of true but unconsummated love, Tom arrives at a Paris café for a rendezvous. But he isn’t staying. He carries a suitcase and is unexpectedly on his way somewhere else. Moreover, assoon as he arrives he heads to the toilet, leaving the woman (who is never named and who is an uneasy traveller with no language skills) to order for him in French while ‘the suitcase stayed under the table like a bomb’.Tom, a covert CIA agent, has been summoned home to deal with an international crisis.‘In London they are reporting torture incidents involving American troops in a Baghdad prison. Someone took pictures. It’s a disaster,’ he tells her. ‘Believe me the name of this prison will be a household word.’ If the reader didn’t know better, this might sound like an elaborate excuse. The woman may have doubts too: ‘Andthen he said the name, but it sounded like nonsense to her, and perhaps it was, though her terrible ear for languages made everything that was not English sound very, well, mimsy, as if plucked from “Jabberwocky”’.Inserting references to large and disturbing news events in smaller, more intimate stories allows Moore to explore the kind of character who understands these terrible events chieflyin relation to their own predicaments. The woman, for example, believes that in anold photograph of the Iranian embassy hostages, elusive Tomis ‘the handsome blindfolded one, tall and bright haired’. The events are, however, experienced differently by the reader, who becomes powerful and prophetic, while the characters become sympathetic and doomed.Moore also uses flashbacks and flash-forwards to manipulate time in this story. There’s a poignant flash-forward, in which quick-witted playful Tom, humiliated by a future debilitating illness, refuses tosee the woman when she tries to visit him. Tom’s illness is hinted at in the café – he can’t readthe menu, his hands trembleas he drinks his wine. The meeting is, in fact, the couple’s last chance: ‘She would neverLORRIE MOORE is an award-winning US writer known primarily for her collections of short stories, which include Self Help (1985), Like Life (1990), Birds of America (1998), The Collected Stories (2008) and Bark (2014). Her publications also include the novels Who will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and A Gate at the Stairs (2009).see him smile like that again.’ With this sentence the whole vivid café scene, which feels like the story’s present, turns into a flashback. A flashback to an even earlier party, where the couple flirt hopefully, ends the story and begs the question: which is the right ending? The temporal ending (Tom’s illness) or the story’s ending (the party when anything was possible)?‘Referential’ is a skilful repurposing of a 1948 storyby Vladimir Nabokov entitled ‘Signs and symbols’. The storyis ostensibly about a middle- aged woman and her long-term partner, Pete, visiting her sonin a psychiatric hospital, butit is actually a more subtle exploration of the break-upof their relationship. Moore introduces the characters and summarises the immediate problem in the first sentence. ‘For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son.’ Typically, thisthe characters are smart and articulate but their awareness only heightens their predicamentsTRY THIS► Write a story in which an immediate crisis (a crime, a sick child, an eviction) is in the foreground, hiding another deeper situation that is developing in the background, such as the ill-advised start,or the unwanted end, of a friendship or relationship.► Set the first scene of a new story in a foreign country where one character feels at home and the other feels alien.► Add a momentous news story that resonates with the narrative, imagery, or ideas of a smaller-scale relationship story. ► Play with time by adding a flashback and a flash-forward to an existing story. Vary the positioning of these so that they work in an interesting way with the story’s present.mslexia Sep/Oct/Nov 2016 69PHOTO: MICHAEL LIONSTAR

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