Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Jokes, Fiction, and Lorrie Moore

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

Jokes, Fiction, and Lorrie Moore

Article excerpt

The opening sentences of Lorrie Moore's "You're Ugly, Too" present a superbly comic picture of the contemporary intellectual faced with the arid, earnest culture of middle America:

    You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with
    the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal. Once, when the Dow Jones
    dipped two hundred points, the Paris paper boasted a banner
    headline: NORMAL MAN MARRIES OBLONG WOMAN. They knew what was
    important. They did! But you had to get out once in a while, even if
    it was just across the border to Terre Haute, for a movie. (Like
    Life 67)

It is passages such as this, with its spunky prose and keen sense of the absurd, that have made Moore one of the most widely read writers in contemporary fiction. Yet the sort of humor exhibited here has not appealed to everyone. This is not because it betrays intellectual "elitism" or exhibits symptoms of what, since the story was first published in 1989, has become known as "blue state" snobbery. As we know from the rest of the story, Moore takes aim at folly with an eminently egalitarian eye, and urbanites escape her wit no more than yokels. Rather, the question that has dominated the critical response to Moore has been how legitimate or probing her humor ultimately is, regardless of its target. Most of the discussion of her work has come in the form of book reviews in newspapers and magazines, and the question commentators most frequently pose concerns what we might call the moral weight of Moore's humor. Are the one-liners of her stories merely, as a reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor wrote about Like Life, the collection in which "You're Ugly, Too" first appeared, an "entertaining" feature of her work, something "distracting" us from deeper concerns ("Lives on a Short-Story Roller Coaster")? Is she only interested in furnishing us, as another reviewer wrote in a review of Like Life, with "enough verbal glibness to provide material for all the stand-up comics in Los Angeles" (Rubin)? Are all her stories simply about "articulate career women quipping their way out of pain" (Cryer)?

One way to answer these critical questions would be to appeal to later Moore stories such as "People Like That Are the Only People Here," a powerful story from Birds of America that, though not without its comedy, is written in a more somber register than "You're Ugly, Too." Yet while it may be true that such later texts elicit fewer chuckles from readers, recourse to Moore's later work is not the only way to rebut her critics. I want to offer here an extended reading of "You're Ugly, Too" in order to suggest that, as early as her second collection of short stories, Moore engages the moral and aesthetic questions that readers sometimes pose about her work. Anyone, that is, interrogating the moral weight of the comedy in "You're Ugly, Too" must confront a major complication--namely, that such questions are at the heart of the text itself. As I'll be arguing here, it is a layered, self-reflexive text that thematizes and questions its own dark comedy in a way that most reviewers, favorable and skeptical alike, have failed to notice.

Moreover, the self-reflexiveness of "You're Ugly, Too" extends not only to a consideration of laughter and comedy but can also be seen as part of a wider act of self-reflection on fiction generally. To ask questions about the particular form of humor on display in "You're Ugly, Too" is also to ask questions about the nature of storytelling itself. Not only, in other words, does the text initiate critical questions about the legitimacy and depth of Moore's humor, but it also places us smack in the middle of debates about the ontological status of fiction. What does a fictional story mean? What kind of reality does a fiction represent? What sort of world does it depict, and how is it related to other worlds that are said to exist? Moore has never been explicitly preoccupied with philosophical questions; her work is not intellectualized in the manner, say, of Richard Powers or Jonathan Franzen, her close contemporaries. …

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