alisa alering

Writer of fantasy and other fictions

‘Childcare’ by Lorrie Moore


Paul sent me this story because, he said, the voice reminded him of my stories. Because I am trying to do my duty by the short story, and because I am desperate–not so much to know how my writing looks to others but how it would look to me if only I could see it–I read it over last Saturday’s breakfast.

Reading fiction I admire, I sometimes fall into fits of despair because I know, deeply, that I could never write sentences like the ones on the page. They just wouldn’t come out of me like that. The arrangement of words is unexpected, the content unfamiliar, the tone rotated 15 degrees, and it is a million light years from anything that would occur to me. I end up thinking ‘If this is good and I can’t do it, then what I can do must not be good.’

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

Children by josefnovak33/flickr

The first sentence of ‘Childcare’ is:

“The cold came late that fall, and the songbirds were caught off guard.”

This is a sentence I can imagine myself writing. Score one for Paul.

Other possible similarities I can see would be in the humor (I loved the bit where she uses her roommate’s vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. I would do that to a character.) and the way people talk across each other, making motions through conversations without ever really connecting, and possibly the end, where I was not sure exactly what had happened (or failed to happen) but I was sure it was bad. Long, sad, inevitable and to be endured. So, what do you think, Paul, were these the things you meant? (It will be perfect if you say ‘Not at all’.)

Other things I noticed about the story was how slow it started off, with the main character meandering around the cold winter streets, something I would be prone to do, but which I would feel was not permitted. I talked about this story with another writer this morning, and she had the same reservations. Because we are amateurs, we don’t know–is it still wrong if someone famous does it, if it is published in the New Yorker?

I was annoyed by the early passage describing the narrator’s Midwestern background, the menu & customs in the German restaurant, how the wines came in ‘red, white, or pink’.  It seemed not only too easy to make fun of these things (an amuse bouche of smug satisfaction for sophisticated New Yorker readers before the main course of yuppie adoption ennui?) but too knowing for the naive and protected voice of the narrator.

Did I like the story? With short stories I can never tell. I laughed a few times. I recognized the characters as people I have seen, if not known. But I don’t know if that adds up to enjoyment.

Author: Alisa Alering

I write stories. I read stories.

11 thoughts on “‘Childcare’ by Lorrie Moore

  1. i just read this in the New Yorker on Monday. I really lovely piece and you know, the main character really does remind me of you, too.

    I think that there was a lot of slip between an aged persona and the young one… the discussion of the potato varieties had that same kind of reference to age. It’s funny that you picked it up, too.

    Anyway, Alisa…. all best.

    • Judging by the beginning of the story I didn’t realize that there were two narrators (‘then’ and ‘now’). I thought it was only ‘then’. The only place I found any proof of of the double-voice being intentional was right near the end “Later, I would own every loopy Glenn Gould recording available, but there in the car with Sarah was the first time I’d ever heard him play.” Glad it’s not just some personal foible that made me mind this.

      BUT, I’m not so sure how I feel about being compared to the character. I’m not Midwestern (or wasn’t) though we did have those German restaurants in the Boro and around. But the character (when she’s not being the old voice) is so…not naive, but unworldly. Maybe these days that’s a good thing to be?

    • Just read on another blog that is adapted from a novel. Maybe that explains a lot?

  2. I have re-read the story couple of times, trying to analyze the particulars that lead me to feel that you could have written this story, that the author’s voice reminds me of your authorial voice.

    I have concluded that it is a gestalt sort of thing, no particular aspect standing out as determinative. Yet, her similes are, like yours, juicy and apt; her characters (save for the adoption woman) are uneasy in life, as yours sometimes are; and her imagination is, like yours, keener than the average writer’s.

    Having used German as a crutch once here, I might as well do it again; you and Moore, in this story, seem to me to share the same weltanschauung, which sort of means world view, but can also include ideas and beliefs about the nature of things.

    Think of two Quakers sitting down to write their own version of a short-story plot about killing an elephant. Or two Nazis writing the same plot. I have no label for you and Moore, but that’s as close as I can come to the concept I’m trying to express here.

    Incidentally, have you read Orwell’s non-fiction treatment of that plot, “Shooting an Elephant”?

  3. I don’t quite get the fuss about the “two narrators,” the then person and the later person.

    After all, when does a first-person narrative in past tense not imply a narrator existing in present time?

    Is it a big deal if the narrator says, “Back in those days…,” or even “In my youthful naivete…” even though such observations might inform us that the narrator has changed (or collected Glenn Gould recordings) since the time the story elements occurred?

    Rather than being two narrators, it seems to me nothing more than an affirmation that the narrator, like the rest of us, had a past life and has a contemporary life.

    In first-person, past-tense narrative there is always a “narrative present” (my term), even thought it may be minutes, hours, or years after the events described in the past tense.

    • Two narrators, and two kinds of knowing, are fine. For me, though, this story seemed to me to be in the naive voice of the narrator when she was young – knowing only what she knew when she was roaming the winter streets looking for a babysitting job. I liked that voice, I liked that perspective. When the older, more knowing narrator first intrudes (say, with the restaurant) I felt insufficiently prepared. I felt like it was still the young voice but with unrealistic perspective. I didn’t realize there was a distinct older persona looking back on these times with a bit of cynicism. (Remember all those discussions about how the reader doesn’t like to feel tricked?) I also, personally, did not care for the voice of the older narrator. I would much rather have heard only from her younger self.

      • Ah, I better understand your point — you would have preferred to have only the young narrator. A valid preference, indeed.

        But I wonder about your charge of betrayal. I take this to mean that she waited too long before introducing the older voice, leading you to rely upon the story’s narrative voice being that of of the college girl.

        If I interpret you point correctly, then note that there is at least a hint early on that the narrator is looking back from a significant remove in time to tell this story: the first sentence contains, “The cold came late that fall…,” and the story’s fifth sentence (within the first para) begins, “I was a student and needed money, so…” Just a hint, but it is there.

        If I were to begin a short story with, “That winter, I was a soldier and needed money, so…” the reader might well suspect that I’m a soldier no longer. She might not be certain, but she might well suspect it.

        When I got to the part about collecting Glenn Gould recordings, I was probably too gobsmacked with the exquisite choice of “loopy” (a bulls-eye if I ever read one!) to notice the change in perspective. If I were a more critical (careful) reader I surely would have noticed that change, loopy Glenn Gould recordings or not.

        We have, incidentally, Gould’s “Goldberg Variations,” and he accompanies his piano with humming, passim, through the whole thing. Loopy indeed. But great, as well.

      • Whoops! You didn’t say “betrayal”; you said “insufficiently prepared” and “tricked.” Same things? Maybe.

  4. I am compelled to comment on your observations about the author breaking a rule by having the character “meandering” on a street. I think you are referring to the rule that a writer should not begin (scene, chapter, book, story) with the character in transit. He or she should BE somewhere, not GOING somewhere.

    Since we all spend so much of our time in transit, the reason for this rule eludes me. Stuff happens on the way, in other words.

    Because I was aware of this rule, I noted that it was violated in a novel I had just started (“The Dud Avocado,” by Elaine Dundy) by the character walking on a Paris street in the opening paragraph. The scene worked for me.

    I grabbed another book I’d recently been dipping into for re-reads, “The Nick Adams Stories,” and found that in at least two of the stories Hemingway begins with the character in transit; in “Ten Indians,” Nick is riding home in a horse drawn wagon, and in “The Three-Day Blow,” Nick is walking alone down a country road by an apple orchard. In my favorite short story of all time, “The Big Two-Hearted River,” the spirit of the rule is violated by the story’s beginning in which Nick, alone, has just dropped down from a train more or less in the middle of nowhere in Michigan, for a few days of camping and fishing. Ditto in “The Battler,” which starts with Nick picking himself up from a railroad right-of-way after having been knocked off a freight train by a brakeman.

    I’m pretty much coming to the conclusion that rules regarding writing fiction send the message “Be careful here” rather than “Don’t do this.”

    So many rules have opposing rules; e.g., “You are telling not showing here” vs. “Reduce some of your dialogue to narrative summary.”

    Or the opposing workshop-comments on a passage; e.g., “This is a clever bit of foreshadowing” vs. “Delete this. You are broadcasting what is going to happen.”

    Often, the issue is a matter of balance and aptness. Such as the long passages of infodump in some successfully written novels, passages that supply info that the reader longs (and deserves) to know.

    In sum, for me the rules of writing fiction are more and more becoming amber lights saying Caution, rather than red lights saying Stop.

  5. Oh my … a new Lorrie Moore story?! Love her.

    Found your blog from Color Online, and am very glad I did!

  6. This is from her new novel _A Gate at the Stairs_.

    I read the book and enjoyed it, but…. it didn’t change me. Maybe I asked too much.

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