Lorrie Moore’s Gallows Humor

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Not having read Lorrie Moore in a while (too long!), I forgot how uncanny her stories are. Or perhaps I never knew. I mistook the first short story of hers that I ever encountered, “You’re Ugly, Too,” for how-we-live-now fiction—dark and mordant, but not particularly spooky. Zoë is the token female in the history department of a liberal-arts college in Illinois. Her East Coast sarcasm has a bite that confuses midwesterners, or so she thinks: “What is your perfume? a student once asked her. Room freshener, she said. She smiled, but he looked at her, unnerved.” She has a mysterious growth in her abdomen; avoiding a phone call with test results, she visits her sister in Manhattan and attends her god-awful Halloween party. I’ve been to that party, I thought: the women in the sexy-witch costumes; people saying “the usual things”; the guy on the balcony interrupting Zoë’s joke to tell his.

Rereading Moore’s story, however, I see that I hadn’t understood it, especially not the ending. Spoiler alert: Zoë comes up behind the obnoxious guy on the balcony, who is decked out in an insufferable naked-woman costume. He leans on the railing, 20 stories above the street. She shoves him, hard. His arms slip forward; beer sloshes out of its bottle. Moore winds down with a cryptic exchange:

He gazed at her, appalled and frightened, his Magic Marker buttocks turned away now toward all of downtown, a naked pseudo-woman with a blue bracelet at the wrist, trapped out on a balcony with—with what? “Really, I was just kidding!” Zoë shouted. The wind lifted the hair off her head, skyward in spines behind the bone. If there were a lake, the moonlight would dance across it in conniptions. She smiled at him, and wondered how she looked.

With what was he trapped? Given the eerie ascension of hair, the vision of manic moonlight, the wildly inappropriate smile, I’d say a witch. Terrified and angry, with a caustic edge that is not quite under her control, Zoë—what a witch!—has become the real thing, at least in comparison with the impostors in the apartment.

The weird, in the weird-sisters sense of the word, has a discernible place in Moore’s fiction, albeit in the margins. The membrane between this world and the other is permeable; unearthly beings ooze through. Sometimes they stay in thoughts or dreams, but occasionally they materialize. Who, or what, is the little girl who keeps spitting at Mary in the short story “Two Boys”? She seems to have no home, never goes to school, and compares sausages hanging in a shop window to dead boyfriends; when she lopes away, Mary sees “a bird rarely seen unless believed in, wretchedly, like a moonward thought”—some sort of dark angel, or so I take her to be. Tessie, the protagonist of A Gate at the Stairs (2009), Moore’s third novel, is visited by the silent apparitions of her brother and an ex-boyfriend, “neither vaporous nor cadaverous, but wordless and turning and walking away,” at around the same time that the brother dies while serving in Afghanistan. In the story “Terrific Mother,” Adrienne, racked by guilt over having accidentally dropped and killed a friend’s baby, senses the child behind her, “a little older now, a toddler,” walking “in a ghostly way,” accompanied by Adrienne’s dead parents.

[From the 2011 Fiction issue: Don’t write what you know]

In her new novel, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, Moore puts the supernatural front and center. The publicity material calls the book a ghost story, but that doesn’t quite capture the nature of its paranormality. Ghost stories defamiliarize the known world; this novel is off-kilter from the beginning.

Its very structure disorients. The novel toggles between two seemingly unrelated narratives, separated in time by roughly 150 years. Each echoes the other, but atmospherically, not in terms of the plot; it’s as if two pieces of music were exchanging motifs. They share a down-and-out ambience, an obsession with President Abraham Lincoln, a peculiar relationship to corpses. When the stories finally intersect two-thirds of the way in, some mysteries are solved but more are created. You will not understand this novel if you read it only once.

One part of I Am Homeless belongs to Elizabeth, the eccentric owner of a boardinghouse in an unspecified southern state shortly after the Civil War, who writes letters to her sister. With macabre cheerfulness and a 19th-century indirection to her storytelling, Elizabeth describes her questionable innkeeping: “I can hardly tell you what I do with the squirrels,” she writes. “Well, all right: I drown them with a contraption like a see-saw that dumps them” in water also used for the laundry. The poor creatures show up in the lodgers’ stew. The boarders are a sundry lot—card sharps, magicians, Jews, Shawnees—caught up in excitements of the modern age, like electricity, railroads, the West and its gold. Elizabeth tells her sister that a gentleman lodger, a handsome and crafty roving actor in straitened circumstances, is “keen to relieve me of my spinsterhood.” Only later will we understand why she compares him to Lucifer.

[From the March 2014 issue: Lorrie Moore’s aliens next door]

The other part of the novel describes a period in the life of Finn, a high-school history teacher in late middle age. It’s October 2016, a few weeks before the election. He has driven from somewhere in Illinois to a Manhattan steaming in Indian summer; he’s come to visit his brother, Max, who lies dying in a hospice in Riverdale. The city assaults Finn with jackhammering and stinking trash bags. Schizophrenic people lie next to pieces of paper scrawled with phrases like “I am not homeless. This is my home.” Moore intimates where Finn really is: the mouth of the inferno. “Sulfurous sewage” exhales “from the hard open mouth of the Broadway local.” The hospice parking lot is “a concrete descent that seemed endless but purposeful—a preparation for hell.”

When Finn leaves the hospice, Moore makes clear that he has been in purgatory: Finn refers to it as a “bardo,” a Buddhist term for a transitional state, usually between death and rebirth. (Readers may hear echoes of George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo.) Elizabeth and Finn both qualify for a life beyond life as we understand it, their ties to the humdrum having all but snapped. Elizabeth is on her way to becoming a “bitter old recluse.” Finn has been suspended from his job and bounced from his condo by his suicidal ex-girlfriend, Lily, who works as a therapy clown and has left him for another man; she needs “time to think.” Humiliation follows Finn around like a bad joke. He is literally a chauffeur of shit: Sliding around on the floor of his car is a cat litter box his landlord asked him to dispose of, an act he has yet to perform.

Moore even seems to insinuate that Finn is dead without knowing it—like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense—and that Elizabeth may never have died. As Finn navigates nightmarish highways on his way to the hospice, a truck, “reaping and grim,” looms in his rearview mirror, and a flash of light makes him veer and almost crash. Finn does have an accident later on, spinning out of control and landing in a field. His car’s wheels are “stopped dead,” the engine likewise “dead.” A “huge and toothless and grimy” tow-truck operator gets him on his way. The engine inexplicably starts right up. I couldn’t help thinking of Charon, the ferryman of Hades. As for Elizabeth, Moore leaves open the possibility that this disquieting creature has survived long enough to meet Finn.

Death and life are not easy to tease apart in Moore’s work. What I mean is not that characters die (people are always dying in fiction) but that many of them are dead even in life. Women ghost-walk through existences that are more “like life” (the title of one of Moore’s story collections) than actually lived. “A life could rhyme with a life—it could be a jostling close call that one mistook for the thing itself,” a young woman muses in “Wings.” Husbands are simulacra of themselves. In “Paper Losses,” Kit’s husband grows remote, his smile “a careless yawn,” or was it “just stuck carelessly on?” He must have a brain tumor, Kit thinks, or else he’s a space alien. “All husbands are space aliens,” a friend says.

But the commingling of life and death need not be deadening. Death can open a door to uncharted states of being—or rather, not-being. In A Gate at the Stairs, Tessie watches two toddlers play a game in which one pretends to be dead and the other tickles her back to life. Children aren’t afraid of death, Tessie thinks, because they see that “death occurred in different forms” and “in varying degrees, and that it intersected with life in all kinds of ways that were unofficial.”

Death in its unofficial forms and varying degrees is the curiously euphoric theme of I Am Homeless. If adults are afraid of death and children are not, perhaps that’s because adults think in obsolete categories. “Do you know about Schrödinger’s cat?” Lily asks Finn. He does: “He knew that it was about the dead and the living lying side by side.” Lily is Finn’s Eurydice. After many attempts, she finally succeeds in killing herself. Finn still loves her, desperately, and has come to the realm of the dead to find her. The cemetery in which she lies is “green,” however, meaning that it doesn’t have headstones, and he wanders, lost. And then Lily rises up behind him, begrimed and splotchy, already decomposing, “with a mouth full of dirt, her face still possessed of her particular radiant turbulence.” They banter in what appears to be their usual emotion-deflecting repartee. “You’re in fine fucking fettle for a dead lady,” he says. She shrugs. “I suppose death’s a kind of spectrum,” she says. “So—you aren’t deeply dead,” he says a few moments later. “I guess I’m death-adjacent,” she says. And “the unbearable, agonizing joy of it” bursts on Finn “like hot lights within him.”

“Death is the new life.” Finn made that joke to himself at the hospice, after one of Max’s young Ghanaian aides told him that in his country death is seen as a part of life. And indeed, death turns out to be life-giving. Lily’s skin bruises as if she were an old piece of fruit destined for the compost heap—Finn actually refers to her at one point as compost. The imagery of putrefying vegetation in which Moore wreathes Lily gives her the tipsy air of a goddess at a bacchanal. Clutching her shroud, silverfish in her hair, she could be a figure in a Frans Hals painting parodying fertility myths. Lily is Eve in an orchard past peak harvest: A “late fall smell of applewood burning” seems to rise from her skin.

Finn and Lily set off on a road trip, giddy with love and mournful in anticipation of loss. Their destination is gruesome, but never mind. The one-liners keep coming. “I’m sorry to be so perishable,” the rotting Lily says. Finn drives until he’s tired and comes upon a decrepit inn (“janky,” Lily says) with a proprietor who seems strangely familiar to us, though not to the weary travelers.

Jokes are Moore’s signature trope, to the dismay of critics who have called her drollery intrusive and immature—facetious, compulsive rather than disciplined, emotionally evasive. But I think Moore’s jokes are supposed to draw attention to themselves, certainly in this novel. A point is being made about comedy, and Lily, the late therapy clown, is the one who makes it. “Vesti la giubba,” she says to Finn, referring to an aria sung by a heartbroken clown in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s opera Pagliacci (“Clowns”): “Put on your costume, your powder and paint. The people are paying and want to laugh.”

[From the December 2004 issue: Lorrie Moore on Alice Munro’s fiction]

Lily’s creator is working hard to entertain, and she wants her readers to be aware of that: We should know that sardonic clowning is the only solace she can offer in a deranged world. In I Am Homeless, her characters, too, can seem to be, if not entirely in on that joke themselves, at least partially in the know. When Finn wisecracks, privately, “Death is the new life,” adding that “he hoped it would be cheaper,” he is both tweaking the Ghanaian aide’s remark and riffing on Moore’s meditations about death and life mirroring each other. Moore’s gallows humorists perform best in pairs, though, like Finn and Lily, using misery as material for quipfests. Jokes are “flotation devices on the great sea of sorrowful life,” Lily reflects, and also “the exit signs in a very dark room.”

When Lily’s offstage, as it were, the jokes abate, the room darkens, the sea of sorrow swells. Max dies, and death no longer seems to Finn like a joyous extension of life. Hell is just hell. He leaves the reception after the funeral, overcome. But then Max’s stepson rushes out and demands he come back in: “Max is here!” And indeed, as Max’s friends dance to his playlist and the fond stories told seem to fill the room, Max is conjured up, at least for a moment.

The dead die in degrees and do us the favor of haunting us for as long as they can. The bygone await resurrection in dusty objects, photographs, scrapbooks. At the inn, Finn finds a leather-bound journal containing Elizabeth’s letters and takes it home. In its pages lies the secret history of a noteworthy corpse that would seem to confirm a certain conspiracy theory about Lincoln’s assassination. What will he do with the story? What do any of us do with stories?

I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is not an easy novel. It’s dense with allusion—perhaps one day it will come with footnotes—and its two parts don’t fit together neatly; you have to wiggle them, work them, and even then they don’t interlock. But life is like that, and death even more so. “The road was an unfurling ribbon without a gift,” Moore writes of the highway that leads Finn and Lily to their terminus. I hope I’m not making the novel sound discouraging. It’s not. Moore has made death elating, and that’s a pretty good trick.

This article appears in the July/August 2023 print edition with the headline “Lorrie Moore's Gallows Humor.”

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