'See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism and Commentary', by Lorrie Moore - Review

By Sansom, Ian | The Spectator, May 12, 2018 | Go to article overview

'See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism and Commentary', by Lorrie Moore - Review


Sansom, Ian, The Spectator


Is there anything more depressing than the prospect of reading a writer's collected essays, journalism and occasional pieces? Most of it is sheer dross, the work of the left hand, written under the cosh in double-quick time and for easy money. There are of course exceptions: Orwell, though even then you have to wade through a terrible lot of dreck; the late, great, much-missed Gilbert Adair; the New Yorker's ever-so-sweet E.B. White; the definitive bouncing Czech Karel Capek (whose journalism was translated into English some years ago, published as Believe in People); and Marianne Moore, whose reviews are almost as astonishing as her poetry.

In her introduction to See What Can Be Done, Lorrie Moore, the much lauded American short story writer and novelist, expresses doubts about the value of the enterprise:

Essays, reviews, occasional meditations are all included here. Whether there is really a reason to round them up, even selectively, is a question I can't answer. But I can say that I did the gathering because, looking at my decades-long life as a fiction writer I noticed another trail had formed -- a shadow life of miscellaneous prose pieces -- and I wondered about it as a trip, if not precisely a journey.

One might perhaps describe a trip as a journey without a purpose: what matters on such a jaunt is the quality of the company rather than the destination.

Fortunately, Moore is marvellous company. Indeed, during the course of this vast 400-page detour she proves herself such a delightful companion in every way -- a smart, sardonic, world-weary sort of companion -- and with such spot-on taste that by the end of the book you want her to be your BFF. You like her so much that you really, really want her to like you. Nora Ephron's name 'sounds like a neurotransmitter or a sinus medication' -- I know, doesn't it just, Lorrie! Don't Richard Ford's book jacket photographs all have 'a Tin Woodman tint, evoking a man of metal and mettle, in sorrowful quest of his forgotten heart'? Yes, yes, they do! 'One continually marvels at the spare, unmuddied jazz of a Vonnegut sentence and too often despairs of his ramshackle plots. …

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