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Lorrie Moore Has a Politics Problem

What happens when fiction abuses the war on terror

Our writers, the complaint goes, are too cloistered. They sit in their cosseted college towns, leading desultory MFA workshops and crafting lapidary stories and poems for tiny-circulation journals, the kind you used to be able to find in that bottom shelf of the periodicals section in Borders, back when there was a Borders. They break out of their bubble only for the occasional trip to a writers’ conference, where they hold forth on panels conducted in NPR-level murmurs before returning home with another tote bag to add to the collection inside the hall closet of their appropriately shabby-genteel Craftsman bungalow.

If only they would engage the world, goes the critics’ exhortation. Grapple with politics, the wars, the issues.

Well, be careful what you wish for. For some years now, one of the best-known members of the academic-literary brigade has been trying to engage with events. And the results aren’t pretty.

Count me among those who have long enjoyed Lorrie Moore’s deft and laconic short stories, the latest batch of which appeared this week in a collection called Bark. Few capture better than Moore the comedy and pathos of everyday life in the college-educated, middle-class precincts of provincial America—the awkwardness of middle-aged dating, the frustration of living with a taciturn teenager, the strained repartee of a dinner party.

Somewhere along the line, though, Moore appears to have decided that her placid and small-scale fictional world would benefit from closer association with the fraught and weighty world of Current Events. More power to her! But in doing so, Moore has only revealed just how great the gap between the two realms actually is, because what is intended as engagement comes across instead as mere tokenism.

Exhibit A is Moore’s previous book, A Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in 15 years, published in 2009.* The injection of the big bad world into the college town of the novel (which bears a strong resemblance to Madison, where Moore lived for 30 years as a professor at the University of Wisconsin before her recent move to Vanderbilt University in Nashville) is not a subtle one: The novel is set in the year following the September 11 attacks and the novel’s heroine, a student and part-time nanny named Tassie, starts dating an alluring young man who passes himself off as Brazilian but (spoiler alert) eventually disappears after telling Tassie that he is suspected of being an Islamic terrorist, which we’re led to believe he may actually be. As improbable as that turn is, it is not half as problematic as what follows and is meant to provide the book’s emotional climax. Tassie’s aimless younger brother, Robert, decides to enlist in the Army after graduating from high school. He heads off for basic training at Fort Bliss in Texas. Just a few weeks later, he ships off to Afghanistan. A few weeks after that, he’s killed.

Seriously? I’m no expert in matters military, but I’m pretty sure that there’s more of a lag time between a young man enlisting out of high school and finding himself on the front lines. Moore herself seems aware of this problem, which she tries to rationalize away like this: “It was unclear how and why Robert’s death had occurred so suddenly, so soon, so instantaneously—eight weeks of boot camp had been hurried along and they had been shipped quickly overseas, as the all-volunteer was at the beginning of its being spread too thin.”

Nice try, but no. The army was not being spread too thin in the summer of 2002—we had a mere 10,000 service members in Afghanistan, and Iraq was still but a gleam in Dick Cheney’s eye. And not only did we have relatively few soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan, but there was virtually no fighting going on that summer. The initial assault against the Taliban in late 2001 and early 2002 had ended, and Osama bin Laden had vanished into thin air in Tora Bora. It was precisely because Afghanistan was so quiescent in that period that neo-con daydreams started drifting toward Baghdad. In the three months from July to September of 2002, the span during which Robert is killed, we lost a total of four men in Afghanistan. Four. It was only after our attention and resources shifted to Iraq a year later that things started to unravel in Afghanistan.

But here is how Moore renders those summer months of 2002, when Tassie’s father tries to come to terms with Robert’s death:

Inside he would sit before the nightly news, which had just begun a semi-monthly honor roll of American servicemen, fresh-faced privates, killed in the Middle East. Their photographs were shown, a few at a time, in silence, with their names and ranks and hometowns printed beneath. They were the faces of babies, babies in hats, and on the rare occasion that there was someone older, an officer, my father would shout: “Aha! All right! They got a lieutenant colonel!”

Sorry, but this is not okay. Perfect verisimilitude is not all-important. But if world events are being summoned to lend gravitas and realism to a story, then basic elements need to be accurate, or at least somewhere in the ballpark. That is, one can’t have the heroine’s brother dying in a meat-grinder war with “semi-monthly honor rolls” of the dead on the nightly news when there was nothing of the kind at all. Far from engaging with the war in Afghanistan, making such cavalier and misguided reference to it betrays a lack of engagement. Either the author was not paying enough attention to the events to realize how implausible their invocation was, or she was knowingly conjuring a bloody conflict when none existed to fit her timeline; neither option is appealing. And that this problem went unmentioned in the book’s glowing reviews—raves by Jonathan Lethem and Michiko Kakutani, among others—suggests Moore was not alone in this disconnect.

Thankfully, there is nothing so excruciating to be found in the stories in Bark, perhaps because the short-story form does not force the kind of unfortunate shoe-horning that the plot of the novel did, with its strict “year after 9/11” framing. But the stories still have very specific timeframes and there are plenty ungainly stabs at topicality. In “Debarking,” a fling between two divorcees is set during the launch of the war in Iraq, and, it seems, partly prompted by it: driving home from one encounter, the main character, Ira, “thought of all the deeply wrong erotic attachments made in wartime, all the crazy romances cooked up quickly by the species to offset death.” To give the invasion of a distant, overmatched country such power, though, means inflating the threat on the home front, so we have Ira wondering whether “the chemical weapons of terrorism aimed at the heartland might prove effective in weeding the garden.” (Were even the most paranoid Homeland Security types worrying about “chemical weapons aimed at the heartland”?) The color-coded terror alerts were “moving from orange to red to orange; no information, just duct tape and bright, warm, mind-wrecking colors.” (In fact, the system only went to red once, in 2006.)

In “Foes,” a writer named Bake McCurty travels with his wife to Washington, D.C. for a fundraiser for a small literary journal. (Even this seems off: There are “dozens” of eight-person tables at a fancy event space in a former bank, with guests paying $500 per plate. For a literary journal? In Washington?) Bake finds himself sitting beside an attractive, Asian-looking lobbyist who starts ranting about the Democratic presidential candidate she calls “Brocko Barama.” ("But in a year like this one, there was no staying away from certain topics,” muses the narrator, in what could serve as the mantra for Moore's current events fetish.) Eventually (spoiler alert), Bake discovers that what he took to be the lobbyist’s Asian ethnicity is in fact the result of severe burns she suffered in the attack on the Pentagon. Now, there were in fact a few burn victims from the attack on the Pentagon—nine, to be exact. It’s truly remarkable how often these scarce victims of global calamities find their way into Moore’s narratives!

Finally, there is “Subject to Search,” in which an American woman has a rendezvous at a restaurant in France with her American lover, who consults for the U.S. intelligence apparatus and has just gotten word of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, before they burst into the news. Moore cannot help but unleash her trademark wordplay on even this gravest of subjects: “And then he said the name [of the prison], but it sounded like nonsense to her, and perhaps it was, though her terrible ear for languages made everything that was not English sound very, well, mimsy, as if plucked from ‘Jabberwocky’: ‘the mome raths outgrabe.’” A few paragraphs later, Moore has the intelligence consultant mordantly comparing the piles of prisoners’ bodies in the scandalous pictures to a dance performance of “Pilobolus at the civic center.”  

This scene may represent the apotheosis of Moore’s brand of global engagement—a character confronted with a faraway event of awful consequence and unable to comprehend it without resorting to a bit of literary humor. This is of course to some extent deliberate—Moore is wanting to highlight the gap between her tourist American and the dark matters of life, death, and torture that the intelligence consultant knows. Yet the gap Moore exposes is larger than what she intends. Here, and in the other stories and above all in Gate at the Stairs, she lays bare the blithe disconnect of right-thinking liberals in the post-September 11 world and in doing so implicates them (and herself) surely more than is her aim.

In a 2005 interview, Moore said the post-September 11 elements in her fiction had a serious goal: “I’m … interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings.” In fact, her post-September 11 allusions have shown just how superficial those intrusions are. In an earlier age, anti-war protest fired literature and rocked college towns, including Madison. In our time, it has inspired lawn signs, the occasional clutch on the corner urging drivers to honk, and, in Moore’s cases, references with which a talented writer can adorn her tales of domestic anxiety—without even bothering to check whether those references are remotely plausible. By all means, let’s engage with the world, but if one’s not willing to take the minimum of effort to actually reckon with it, then perhaps better to follow the Fawlty Towers dictum: Don’t mention the war.

*An earler version of this article referred incorrectly to the novel's place in Moore's oeuvre.