The messy sprawl of life, its contingencies, concessions; the chanciness, the often offhand, flippant gamble of our biggest life decisions, their repercussions, ramifications; the white, obliterating heat of desire; the intricacies of grief: these passages, these inevitabilities provide the bedrock for the stories in Newfoundland writer Lisa Moore's outstanding new collection, Open.
Moore zaps us with bracing metaphors, stabs of jabbing, tart wit. Funny, brainy. Like her American counterpart and namesake, Lorrie Moore, the oftentimes chatty, genial jauntiness, the clever breezy buoyancy of Lisa Moore's stories mask their core gravity, the pull and weight of human experience. The vagueness of the title itself ("open" as adjective, as verb) is rife with possible interpretations, possesses a Rorschach blot malleability, subjectivity; its ghostly, unmoored suspension paralleling not only the confusion of human interactions but also our essential aloneness as individuals.
Strong, headstrong women figure prominently in Moore's stories (men seem, at times, largely secondary, consigned to a supporting role, lurking spectrally in the wings.) In "Melody", the title character's verve, her headlong, engaged momentum, fuel not only the engine of the narrative but also force the passive protagonist to confront her doubts, mistakes, failings: Melody's a raunchy Greek chorus. Early, lopsided forays into the raw, scary terrain of sex; the intensity of youthful friendship (those fierce pacts); the death of a beloved husband; a rickety second marriage: Moore manages to compact these disparate elements into a fat whole without an awkward obviousness, without sacrificing the story's oblique unity, sleek energy. Melody's blunt pragmatism, her directness arches over the story, neatly brackets, bookends it.
On the subject of sex, Moore is frank, candid without an in-your-face pushiness, without being wearisomely explicit. Recounting the circumstances of her first orgasm, she deftly invokes the jittery, feverish rush of post-adolescent sexuality without succumbing to the neo-Harlequin tropes of, say, Susan Minot.
[Ó]I'd let Brian Fiander hold my wrists over my head against the brick wall of the dorm while he kissed me; his hips thrusting with a lost, intent zeal, the dawn sky as pale and grainy as sugar. Brian Fiander knew what he was doing. The recognition of his expertise made me ting and smolder. My waking thought: I have been celebrated.
No candy-flossy filtering here, just a vital, visceral involvement with the material at hand. Moore's sensuality bleeds¨with an embracing, egalitarian porousness¨beyond the borders of the quantifiably erotic to the raw immediacy of the brute, sublime physical details of the world. (She works a sinuous fusion of the earthy, the ethereal.) Moore excels in locating, pinpointing with piquant, peppery accuracy the seam of adolescence, those ultra-subtle bumps of transition from child-to adulthood, all the while eschewing tacky effects, affected epiphanies¨rather, limning with a fierce clarity.
The skittish dance of relationships, the covert anarchy of marriage provide fertile territory, rich loam for Moore. Hurt, tenderness, capitulation, regret, cruelty: those fleet, slippery moments of intimacy, its tangled ambivalence, rough tug-of-war. Rendered with an absence of studied cynicism or glib jadedness. In "Grace", a woman attending a friend's wedding (Moore is effective at capturing the fracturedness of carousing) weighs her love for her husband against his infidelities and quavery, watery vow to leave her¨this spliced with spasmodic jolts of memory. Moore charts¨with a quicksilver Freudian deftness¨the nimble elasticity of the mind's workings, the rapid-fire rubberiness of internal associations. In "Mouths, Open" the artifice, the surgical perfection of transsexuality is contrasted with the shambles of a disintegrating union by a woman vacationing with her lover in Cuba. Moore's stories shift locales, time zones (both geographic and mental) with a jump-cutting, nervy facility; the jarringness of travel, its attendant dislocation, functioning as a catalyst for revelatory change. But, in spite of their globe-trotting range, the stories are implicitly anchored, centred by Newfoundland's denseness, its solidity. Site-specific without being regionally straitjacketed.
Rather than plunking down a strung-together pastiche of arbitrary vignettes in her stories, Moore cunningly fuses seemingly random strands into a densely-knit cohesion. There's a filmic kinetic energy, a lively dynamism at play here, mercifully minus any arch hipness. (Moore's full-bore, hell-bent methodology does sometimes backfire: "The Way the Light Is" comes across as overstuffed, swollen with a surfeit of disparate, bulky details which never really gel.)
Above all, Moore's an absolutely marvellous writer: she possesses the preciseness, the assured rhythmic lope, of a poet; a supple drive, a rich propulsiveness urges these stories onwards. Her imagery swarms with luminous intensity:
Outside, the storm slow traffic like a narcotic. You haven't seen a winter like this since. The equipment is breaking down. Bring in the army, they're saying. At night the snowplows crash into the drifts and stagger backwards like dazed prizefighters. The windshields have bushy eyebrows. Cars stuck on the hills, smoking tires, engines squealing like dolphins. You haven't seen anything like this since you were a kid. You and your mother, the icicles, the lake catching over, the wind circling the glassy trees like a wet finger tracing a crystal rim. Her sleeping pills, the alarm clock blaring near her ear. Stumbling from your room at dawn to wake her so she can drive you to diving practice. The smell of chlorine in your skin always, your hair.
Open isn't skimmable: Moore demands a committed measure of attention from her readers, a rigour, a stringency. The rewards for the reader, however, are prodigious: the dense, streamlined energy of the writing, the audaciously adept, apt similes, the unerring ear, even the sly insertion of acerbic, angled digs at materialism. And, over all, the consistency of Moore's voice: compassionate, graceful, ferociously true. ˛