31 Days of Stories 2011, Day 4: “The Way the Light Is” by Lisa Moore

May 4, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

From Open

Mina O’Leary, the friend of the narrator in Lisa Moore’s story “The Way the Light Is,” once lived in France, where she wrote a novel. “But,” Mina laments, “I used too many words. I’d rather a novel with fewer words.” “Shorter, you mean?” the narrator asks. No, Mina replies. “Not necessarily shorter.”

Fewer words, for Moore, does not equal short, or slight. Moore has always been an elliptical writer: what she leaves out of a story is often as important as – if not more important than – what she puts in. The language in “The Way the Light Is” has been pared down almost obsessively, to the point that what remains on the page is stripped of the expository tissue that might serve as explicit points of reference for a reader. This is not to suggest that there is no integrity to the story, but it is an integrity that must be teased out patiently, it does not manifest itself on the surface. Moore’s stories cannot be read in a glancing or preoccupied manner; they demand attention and care to fully appreciate them.

“The Way the Light Is” focuses on an unnamed filmmaker who is making a short movie based on John Steffler’s poem “The Green Insect.” In the narrator’s conception, Steffler’s poem “is about the elusive,” which is perfectly appropriate for Moore’s approach to her narrative.

The narrator of “The Green Insect” is a writer who keeps the titular creature, “a kind that had never before been seen, / descendant of an ancient nation, regal, rigid in ritual.” Steffler’s narrator views the insect as a talisman, a mysterious, extraordinary being that provides him inspiration as he writes. So proud is he of his insect that when a woman passes by and tries to take a picture, he holds it up for her camera, grasping it so tightly that he breaks its fragile legs. “I laid it down gently on a clean page,” Steffler’s narrator says, “but it wanted no convalescence … I couldn’t believe the strength it had, / it unwound its history, ran out its spring in kicks and / rage, denied itself, denied me and my ownership.”

If Steffler’s poem is about “the elusive,” it is equally about possession, and the dangers of trying to possess someone (or something) too completely. As Moore’s story unfolds, we learn that while Mina was in France, she met and married a man named Yvonique, a man of whom she “is rarely jealous,” even though he has affairs. After attending a New Year’s Eve party, the narrator witnesses Yvonique kissing a young woman in a snowbank. She asks Mina whether this bothers her: “Not really. She thinks for a minute, wipes her lips with the back of her hand. I mean, if it meant something I guess it would bother me. I guess it would bother me if it meant something. I’m not sure.” As the narrator sits in her car with her husband, she considers her own marriage in light of Mina’s apparently cavalier attitude. “I think of the possibility of him kissing someone in a snowbank, just kissing. It would bother me.”

Ruminating on the theme of Steffler’s poem, Moore’s narrator thinks, “Everyone knows what it means to want something with such intensity that you crush it in your haste to have it.” And yet she finds it impossible not to cling tightly to the things she holds dear in her life: her husband, Jason, and her son, whose birth video she shows Mina. Moore explicitly connects the birth of the narrator’s son with the green insect in Steffler’s poem, the creature that Steffler’s narrator loves so much he crushes it in his enthusiasm.

These connections are apparent even in the absence of exposition. Moore prefers to employ patterns of imagery and metaphor as means of lending her story cohesion. The narrator’s breast milk, for instance, is subtly connected to the blood on the birth video, which “stands out around the baby’s neck like an Elizabethan collar.” The blood itself recalls an earlier reference to “vampires” and “sacrificed lambs” in the movies of Ingmar Bergman, and the moment when the narrator slices her hand so that she and Yvonique can become “blood brothers.” In addition to blood and breast milk, water and the colour green serve as recurring patterns of imagery and metaphor. “No single image by itself” could capture the essence of Steffler’s poem, Moore’s narrator thinks. What is required, instead, is “a storm of images” – precisely what Moore provides in this story.

Moore has her narrator quote Bergman on screenwriting: “All in all, split-second impressions that disappear as quickly as they come, forming a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious.” Elsewhere, the narrator points out that “Bergman spends a long time on a face, but there is no plot.” Similarly, Moore spends a long time on images and impressions, but not much time developing a conventional narrative. “I think about how much of a good story seems to happen elsewhere,” the narrator says, “off the canvas or screen or page, in Europe or a backwater New Brunswick town, in what is left unsaid.” In this, Moore has provided us with the key to unlock her own impressionistic pastiche: we need to learn how to pay attention to what happens elsewhere, to what is left unsaid.

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