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BooksMay 31, 2018

Book of the Week: Lorrie Moore, in all likelihood the best TV reviewer in the world


Linda Burgess celebrates a collection of reviews and essays by the great New Yorker writer Lorrie Moore.

Someone has decided that Lorrie Moore’s writing is so good, and so lasting in its impact, that it’s worth gathering up 30 years’ worth of her pieces in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Guardian, and elsewhere. She’s equally insightful writing about television and books. I found myself almost wishing that I’d read her review of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake before watching it, because then I might have watched it with an open mind, and not loathed it from the minute I watched a pregnant very young girl apparently committing suicide by drowning in a lake surrounded by picturesque South Island scenery.

Whereas I saw only too much long grey hair, Moore sees “the catastrophe that is men and the different catastrophe that is women…foregrounded against the romantic sublime.” Holly Hunter plays her part with “crisp enigmatic derision.” She even finds humour in the series’ homage to Twin Peaks. If only I’d been prepared by her skilful pen, I found myself thinking. But not enough to give the horrible series and its equally overwrought sequel another chance.

I entirely agreed with her, however, on her attachment to Friday Night Lights. I’d forgotten all about that series but the minute I started reading her review it came back to me how much I’d loved it, and why. At the same time, Moore, with her inclusive writing style – she describes herself at a party and getting into a corner with writer friends to share their love of the programme – made me feel as if I’d been in that corner too. She is excellent at evoking situation and it’s never gratuitous: she simply assumes that she’s writing for people who are, broadly speaking, like her.

In the same way, she is inclined to reflect as she writes. In an excellent piece on Making a Murderer – which for many of us was our introduction to binge viewing – she muses on how, and why, the series never focussed on who the murderer actually was. If you’ve seen the series you’ll remember Wisconsin, “with its feeling of overlookedness and isolation…[where] the idea that no one is watching can create a sense of invisibility that leads to the secrets and labours the unseen are prone to.” You’ll remember the two heroic, untiring lawyers working for Steven Avery, and his sad nephew, who lied to the police because that’s what he always did at school when the teachers asked him things that he didn’t know the answer to. Making a Murderer made the viewer reflect on things far broader than the murder itself, and Moore is just another viewer, albeit an extremely intelligent and reflective one.

The authors who she reviews include John Updike, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Joyce Carol Oates, Nora Ephron, and Philip Roth, who died last week. I love what she says about Updike because I won’t forget how I meandered casually into the pages of the Rabbit series and was hooked within sentences. She says of Updike that for the first time she felt she was reading fiction by someone who wasn’t making it up. I’d felt like that when I discovered Drabble and Weldon all those decades ago, but for me it was extraordinary to read a man, and more to the point an American man, who understood the way things are in relationships and in the domestic world, and who expressed it so purely.

The essays, somewhat longer than the reviews, are good reading. She varies her tone and she always gets it right. Post-election, she writes broodingly about Hillary Clinton, who Moore, clearly on the left politically, couldn’t quite like but nonetheless voted for. She bemoans the fact that Clinton was “playing a board game and knew the byzantine rules and all the answers to the questions on the card but forgot to move her markers round the board.” It’s a reflection not only on Clinton’s missed opportunity, but on how in America you can lose with a popular lead of almost 3 million votes.

But my favourite essay examines the currently fashionable genre of memoir, which I have to admit to reading avidly. All students about to enrol in short courses encouraging them to examine their own lives should be forced to read this before taking out the student loan. Moore goes on to attack with a barrage of questions including: “Are you Winston Churchill…Nixon in China…a trenchant thinker with incisive analytical powers…are you helpless before your own life and unsure of how to write the autobiographical novel that might exploit or explore it or redeem it into an art…do you have a case of what the literary critic Michael Wood has called ‘catastrophe envy’…are you prone to…the oversharing of the inconsequential you?” Yes, dear memoir writer, if you find Wellington cold on a blustery winter’s day then perhaps you shouldn’t be planning that visit to Antarctica.

Anthologies of criticism don’t always work. Clive James, also an excellent writer, got away with publishing a selection of his television reviews long after the programmes discussed had been sent to the Jones channel. That’s because television programmes were only a tiny part of what he was actually discussing. Same with Moore. At the end, on the page before that bemusing “note on the type” (Oh! Adobe Garamond! I thought so!), Moore thanks the “tiny handful of people who thought this book was a good idea and encouraged it”. This, and the slightly smug title of the book, hints that the person who most wanted the collection was Moore herself. So – yet again, I find myself agreeing with her.

See What Can be Done: Essays, Criticism and Commentary by Lorrie Moore (Faber and Faber, $45) is available at Unity Books.

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