Review: Self-Help by Lorrie Moore - A whip-smart collection on how (not) to solve life's problems

Monday, 18 September 2017

Self-Help by Lorrie Moore
Released: 1st May 2015 (original edition 1985)
Published by: Faber
Genre: Short Stories
Source: Library
Pages: 163
My Rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Complicated, awkward, funny, cruel, heartbroken, mysterious; Self-Help forms an idiosyncratic guide to female existence which is just as relevant today as it was 30 years ago. These stories are modern America at its most real, with characters sharing thoughts and experiences they could have borrowed from our own lives.

This is how to deal with divorce, adultery, cancer, how to talk to your mother or become a writer, the Lorrie Moore way.
Self-Help is a delightfully ironic answer to the genre which the title comes from. The nine pieces here have narrators which are intelligent and very self-aware, with the reasons for their malaise clearly on display. For the reader, the solution may appear simple, the 'logical' response likened to something you may read about in (you guessed it) the 'self-help' section of a bookstore. However, what makes this so compulsively readable is Moore's insight that the answer to life's challenges are not so easy to come by; no matter how accurately one may recognise the flaws in their reasoning - the same self-destructive behaviour could inevitably occur all over again.

The first story 'How to Be an Other Woman' sets the tone for the other parodies on life-guides to follow, many told in second-person for full effect. The situation changes from 'other woman' to simply 'woman' embarking on a new relationship in 'How'. Mocking the cliches in the course of a romantic rendezvous is something achieved with the blackest of humour and I enjoyed every page.

Feel discovered, comforted, needed, loved, and start sometimes, somehow, to feel bored. When sad or confused, walk uptown to the movies. Buy popcorn. These things come and go. A week, a month, a year. - 'How'

In my personal favourite 'How to Become a Writer', Moore tackles the haughty disdain of an English literature professor and the students in his class in a way that puts it at the top of the list for both humour and accuracy.

In creative writing seminars over the next two years, everyone continues to smoke cigarettes and ask the same things: "But does it work?" "Have you earned this cliché?" These seem like the important questions. - 'How to Become a Writer'

It's not only a doomed love-life and literary institutions that Moore critiques, as in 'Go Like This' she delves into the life of a mother with cancer who wishes to take death into her own hands. The way that the author is able to adapt her style ever so slightly to still be funny but never completely out of order when taking on these sorts of situations is a useful skill.

I am getting into the swing of it. I tell them the cancer is poisining at least three lives and that I refuse to be its accomplice. This is not a deranged act, I explain. Most of them have known for quite a while my belief that intelligent suicide is almost always preferable to stupid lingering of a graceless death. there is silence, grand as Versailles. It seems respectful. - 'Go Like This'

Amid the razor-sharp commentary is always a phrase or two which reminds us of the humanity of these characters - they're not just fictional beings, but people who could just as well be someone you'd pass on the street. Even in 'To Fill' which ends the collection, what begins as a portrayal of a woman who wants nothing more in life than to steal money for the thrill of her material obsessions turns into a deeper investigation of her marriage and connection with her mother who has 'convinced herself she is physically and mentally ill'. Most importantly, all of these stories fit cohesively, and while each may relish in its own quirky charm there's no denying that there is a pinch of reality throughout.

I am becoming hugely depressed. Like last year. Just a month ago I was better, sporting a simpler, terse sort of disenchantment, a neat black vest of sadness. Elegant ironies leaped from my mouth as fine as cuisses de grenouilles. Now he darkness sleeps and wakes in me daily like an Asian carnivore at the Philly zoo. - 'To Fill'

FINAL THOUGHTS

It's been a long time since I've found an anthology this whip-smart and satirical. This is a book which crackles with wit, and an energy which makes you look forward to each quip to arrive on the next line. I've already lined up my next read from this author because I want more. 

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