The Friday before last, after weeks of anticipation, I saw Lorrie Moore and ZZ Packer read at this year’s New Yorker Festival.
Moore read first. As I’ve mentioned, in college I worshipped her hilarious and terribly depressing short stories (e.g., “How to Become a Writer” and the one from Like Life about the Halloween party with the sexy witches), but I was less moved by her most recent collection, Birds of America.
(I should confess that I was given that collection in November, 1998, just minutes before being wheeled into surgery for a biopsy. So I first read the stories — aside from those like “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” that had already appeared in The New Yorker — through a post-surgery Vicodin haze. Although I’ve revisited the collection many times since then, it’s possible that the narcotics made later, more objective readings impossible.)
I’m in the minority here. Most people believe Moore’s last book is her best.
So, in its place, Moore read a story she’d written so long before “that it feels like it was written by someone else.” And then she launched into one of the stronger stories from Birds of America, “Community Life,” which contains this striking passage:
She had, without realizing it at the time, learned to follow Nick’s gaze, learned to learn his lust, and when she did go out, to work at least, his desires remained memorized within her. She looked at the attractive women he would look at. She turned to inspect the face of every pageboy haircut she saw from behind and passed in her car. She looked at them furtively or squarely — it didn’t matter. She appraised their eyes and mouths and wondered about their bodies. She had become him: she longed for these women. But she was also herself, and so she despised them. She lusted after them, but she also wanted to beat them up.
Moore’s delivery was crisp and evocative, and at one point she interrupted herself to mention that she’d found an audience member’s ring in the bathroom, but I’d expected her to be a little more droll, a little less mannered. Still, at least one member of our group thought Moore was “lovely.” (Please note that “lovely,” here, should be read as it was delivered: in a delightful English accent. So what the hell do I know?)
Packer was warm and frank and funny. “Don’t be annoyed if I mark on the story while I’m reading,” she said. And throughout her reading of “The Ant of the Self” (from Drinking Coffee Elsewhere), she managed to read as she marked (in the margins? through full sentences?) the story with a pencil (or was it a pen? I was at the back of the room, but it sounded like a pencil). It might have distracted some people, but it didn’t bother me. It made me like her even more.
(Whenever I have to read my own stories, especially older ones, inevitably I stumble over a minimum of ten sentences that make me think, “Jesus, what idiot wrote that?” And then I realize I did. And then I want to die. A quick cut with a pencil might solve everything.)
Here’s one of my favorite sections from the Packer story:
I feel a twinge of childishness mentioning my mother, like she’s beside me, worrying the jacket hem, smoothing down the sleeves. I make myself feel better by recalling that when I went to post bail, the woman behind the bulletproof glass asked if I was a reporter.
“You keep getting money from debate, we could invest.”
When most people talk about investing, they mean stocks or bonds or mutual funds. What my father means is his friend Splo’s cockfighting arena, or some dude who goes door to door selling exercise equipment that does all the exercise for you. He’d invested in a woman who tried selling African Cichlids to pet shops, but all she’d done was dye ordinary goldfish so that they looked tropical. “Didn’t you just win some cash?” he asks. “From debate?”
“Bail,” I say. “I used it to pay your bail.”
He’s quiet for a while. I wait for him to stumble out a thanks. I wait for him to promise to pay me back with money he knows he’ll never have. Finally he sighs and says, “Most investors buy low and sell high. Know why they do that?”