Field Notes: Self-Help, Electric Literature #3

SELF-HELP

SYNOPSIS: Lorrie Moore’s 1985 debut collection of short stories, nearly all of which were written as part of her master’s thesis from Cornell University.

CONDITION: New, off Amazon.

THOUGHTS: The week before my vacation I was feeling pretty down. I was mopey, and my stomach felt twisted up in a pretzel. The whole time I couldn’t figure out what was going on—until I realized my supposed “illness” had lasted exactly as long as I’d been reading Self-Help.

Nobody quite makes me feel sick to my stomach like Lorrie Moore does. She doesn’t use shock or gross-out tactics, though; hers is a purely emotional, existential pummeling. You can count the number of her characters who are fundamentally happy (with their marriages, with their children, with themselves) on one hand. For everyone else, life is a series of days to slouch numbly through. Good thing Moore is also so witty, and so stylistically stunning. Otherwise nobody would put up with so much misery.

Self-Help is the collection that launched Moore into the literary world, and many of the stories bear the hallmarks of a writer just starting out. She describes a lot of photographs, easier to capture in their immobility than the chaos of everyday life. There’s also a lot of narrative architecture, from diary entries to a reverse-chronological gimmick in “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes)”. These are crutches, poses, used by writers who are still not quite confident in their own voices. But it’s understandable—Moore was in grad school, for crying out loud.

In fact, the collection as a whole revolves around the framework of the title. Fully half of the titles function as DIY manuals—”How to Become a Writer”, “The Kid’s Guide to Divorce”—and some of the others appear to be answers, of a sort.

It’s one of the latter stories, “How”, about a depressed woman whose boyfriend gets a mysterious kidney disease right as she’s about to break up with him, that stands head and shoulders above the rest. It wouldn’t look out of place inserted into Moore’s masterful 1998 collection Birds of America. Not coincidentally, it’s also the one that ditches the gimmicks and lets time float by amorphously, which is a device that Moore can turn damn near into a weapon. She sucks the air out of a room, and replaces it with a kind of clear, sluggish goo. It’s hard to breathe when she’s at the top of her game.

I’m glad I read Self-Help, and Moore is a writer whose work I’m always recommending and seeking out (by the way, check out her 1986 novel Anagrams. It’s my favourite). In this instance, though, the side effects—uncontrollable nausea, ennui, wanting to quit your job/dump your partner—outweigh the benefits. Make sure you read the label first.

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ELECTRIC LITERATURE #3

SYNOPSIS: The winter 2010 issue of the venerable multi-platform literary journal, featuring short stories from the likes of Rick Moody, Aimee Bender, Patrick deWitt, and more.

CONDITION: New, from Powell’s.

THOUGHTS: Once actually on vacation, however, I didn’t read very much at all, despite the hundreds of dollars I spent on new books in Portland and the slew of review copies I picked up in Vancouver.

Just about the only thing I made it through was an issue of Electric Literature, which as a journal has quickly gained a reputation for both its forward-thinking philosophy (you can buy it in almost any format you choose) and its payment model (each of the issue’s five contributors gets a cool $1,000).

I’m historically pretty bad at reading any kind of fiction outside of a book format. I can’t even read the stories in The New Yorker. But this entire issue went down so easily, and was so exciting on a page-by-page basis, that either I’ve got the whole medium pegged wrong, or else Electric Literature is simply very, very good at what it does.

And what it does is showcase good stories. Aimee Bender kicks things off with a tale about a husband with a prostitute fantasy, and a dutiful wife who then becomes obsessed with monetizing her interactions, sexual or otherwise. Patrick deWitt (who, full disclosure, I had the pleasure of having drinks and macaroni and cheese with while in Portland) has a shaggy, delightful story about two high school friends who start a half-assed moving company. Two more tightly wound, language-soaked stories, by Jenny Offill and Matt Sumell, respectively, were also impressive and unpredictable.

The most experimental story in the issue is Rick Moody’s “Some Contemporary Characters,” which is told in 140-character installments and which debuted on the Electric Lit Twitter feed over a three-day span late last year. It uses the micro-blogging format to tell the story, from alternating perspectives, of a brief romantic fling between a young woman and a decidedly older man.

While the plot is familiar, the ultra-short form nonetheless gives it some fresh life—and not in a flashy or cheap way. There’s no indication these are meant to be actual Tweets, or text messages; they’re simply the kind of brief, oversimplified crystallizations that can form in your head as you ride the bus home alone. It’s like watching individual brainwaves bounce back and forth. It helps to know the original format of the story, but it isn’t essential. Moody has used the restrictions of Twitter to make something that still manages to resonate, as literature, on the printed page.

Electric Lit also has a YouTube account, where they do these incredibly cool animations based on a single sentence from some of their stories. There’s no doubt that these guys are hustling to get the reader’s attention; the good news is that they also deserve it.

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