31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 12: “Wisdom Teeth” by Lisa Moore

August 12, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Degrees of Nakedness.

c18287Lisa Moore has been accused of writing “difficult” short stories. In the now-defunct Books in Canada, Sherie Posesorski calls the stories in Degrees of Nakedness “coolly narcissistic” and “over-calibrated,” and suggests that they left her “craving … the mass market fiction racks.” “Many of the stylistic techniques get in the way of the story,” Posesorski laments, betraying a fundamental misapprehension about Moore’s focus in her short fiction. Because, as a short fiction writer, story has never been Moore’s primary concern.

Moore, like Amy Hempel (or Mavis Gallant, whom Moore championed in the 2008 edition of CBC’s Canada Reads showdown), is a devotee of the sentence, a writer who privileges style and technique over story.

In his book An Aesthetic Underground, John Metcalf singles out the adjective “flashing” in the opening paragraph of “Wisdom Teeth” as an example of Moore’s originality and adeptness with language:

They call it a state of emergency. White dervishes scour Stephenville, the blue arm of the plough impotently slashes through the snow. In St. John’s where my mother is, the wires are frozen with sleet and the electricity is out. She’s in the plaid chair, I know, one emergency candle and a flashing drink of rye.

The word “flashing” is indeed an example of a brilliantly technical mind at work, as is the image of the plough’s blue arm, which “impotently slashes through the snow.” Moore’s language is as clipped and pared-down as that of Carver or Hempel, but it is also gleefully iconoclastic, throwing up images and modifiers that are simultaneously surprising and perfectly appropriate.

“Wisdom Teeth” is not a story that is liable to win over readers devoted to straightforward storytelling marked by ornate description and explicitness. The story of Jill, a young woman who travels from community college in Stephenville, the “herpes capital of Newfoundland,” to Toronto with her boyfriend, then back to Corner Brook to rendezvous with a musician with whom she once shared a brief encounter, “Wisdom Teeth” is not so much a traditional narrative as a collage-like pastiche of scenes, each of which illuminates a moment in time. The story is highly impressionistic; little is explained, and much is left for the reader to determine for herself.

The story does contain patterns and repetitions that reveal themselves to the attentive reader. Jill and her mother both undergo potentially dangerous encounters involving moose; graves make repeated appearances; and Jill’s oral problems are repeatedly related to her unemployed status. Moreover, Jill’s essential lack of awareness (of herself and of those around her) is apparent through her persistent faulty character judgments. She says of her mother: “You won’t catch me loving someone that much, that hard. I’m going to have my own bank account. I’ll be a single mother. Nobody’s leaving me for another woman and nobody’s going to die on me. That’s for sure.” The stunning naïveté inherent in these statements comes clear over the course of the story, in particular when Jill tells her dormmate Darlene, “My mother thinks that you only have sex with people you love.” The irony is palpable: Jill refuses sex with her musician acquaintance, and applies for an apartment by writing, “Waitress, presently unemployed, no bank account at present, spouse: student.”

Jill’s character, emerging piecemeal throughout the story’s vignettes, evinces a touching humanity, which is ultimately the result of her creator’s rigorous fidelity to technique and aesthetic performance. “Wisdom Teeth” is a careful, precisely rendered narrative that yields copious rewards to the reader willing to engage with Moore’s language on its own terms. Far from getting in the way of the story, Moore’s style is the story.

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