Self-Help by Lorrie Moore

The Tennessean, June 8, 1985, page 8-D.

SELF-HELP. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf. $13.95.

‘Self-Help’ Stories Self-Indulgent

Reviewed by JOHN BETHUNE

All right, all right—so the New York press has sung arias of praise for this collection of stories.

I can only ho-hum it.

As a literary debut, Self-Help deserves notice, but not huzzahs. Lorrie Moore has the kind of quirky talent that may evolve into a distinctive and compelling voice. But for the moment, the restraints on her talent overshadow her promise.

One need not read the dust jacket blurb to recognize in Moore’s stories all the marks of a creative writing program. The self-conscious narrative, the excessively clever language and the inexplicable proclivity for the present tense that are all the rage in writing workshops suffuse Moore’s work and suffocate her originality.

Although her works are now broadcast to the world at large, Moore is still writing for the narrow audience of the workshop. To anyone not in sympathy with that peculiar mentality (which a number of New York critics apparently share) her stories will seem formulaic and the range of her ideas and experience severely restricted.

In the memory the nine stories in this book merge into one long and tedious tale. They have in common one plot and one theme. The heroine, who is usually the narrator, aims for self-fulfillment and fails, trailing clouds of irony.

All but three of the stories are written in the second-person, how-to style of self-improvement manuals. It is clever the first time, mildly interesting the second, and astoundingly dull the third.

Moore’s language is energetic but too often overreaches for its effects. Her lamentable fondness for puns— even she discards “Call me Fish-meal” as an opening line—may amuse as many readers as it annoys, but her habit of stretching words beyond their meanings ought to please no one.

It is difficult to imagine how, as she writes, “a basset hound caroms dizzily up the sidewalk.” Billiard balls carom; basset hounds, no matter how forcefully propelled, do not.

Moore’s how-to style indicates the limitations of her training. Having been encouraged to write for a small and specialized audience, Moore has taken her lessons to their logical extreme of writing solely for herself. Though addressed to the reader, her stories are oppressively hermetic and self-obsessed.

I do not doubt for an instant that Moore knows precisely what she is doing. Her essential intelligence and talent glimmer steadily through the trendy veneer that largely obscures them. What remains to be seen is whether her talent or the trendiness will prevail.

John Bethune is a Sewanee, Tenn., free-lance writer.