31 Days of Stories 2009, Day 24: “Real Estate” by Lorrie Moore

August 24, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

From Birds of America.

c12247Lorrie Moore’s fiction is characterized by a clutching embrace of language and an unbridled desire to explore all its myriad potentialities. Squirrels in a Moore story gnaw at hyacinth bulbs, “giving their smooth surfaces runs like stockings”; the radiators in a house “[hiss] and [smell] like cats”; spring is a season of “mockery” that brings with it “chartreuse humidity.” Language, for Moore, is supple and pliant, always open to expansion through metaphor or simile. This can prove frustrating at times; Moore’s affinity for puns is frequently cloying and impedes the emotional resonance of her writing: “She had been given way too much to cope with in life. Did God have her mixed up with someone else? Get a Job, she shouted silently to God. Get a real Job.” But, at its best, Moore’s linguistic gymnastics produce moments of deeply resonant emotional truth: “With its sweet, urgent beginnings, and grateful, hand-holding end, marriage was always worst in the middle: it was always a muddle, a ruin, an unnavigable field. But it was not, she felt, a total wasteland.”

The marriage in “Real Estate” is unquestionably a muddle. Ruth is a cancer survivor – one of her lungs has been excised and her disease is currently in remission. She is married to Terence, a serial philanderer, whose “parade of flings” inspires two solid pages of laughter from his long-suffering wife: “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! …” etc. Ruth tolerates her husband’s string of mistresses, believing that the “key to marriage … was just not to take the thing too personally.”

She just didn’t investigate Terence’s activities anymore. No steaming open credit-card statements, no “accidentally” picking up the phone extension. As the doctor who diagnosed her now fully remissioned cancer once said to her, “The only way to know absolutely everything in life is via an autopsy.”

When Ruth’s cancer goes into remission, the couple decides to look for a new house. “We’ve soiled the nest, in many respects,” is how her husband puts it. The house they settle on “needs a lot of work,” their realtor tells them. Indeed, it soon becomes apparent that the couple’s new home is beset by “crows the size of suitcases,” carpenter ants, squirrels, bats, and other unwanted interlopers, including a teenage vagabond who has taken up residence in the attic.

The story unfolds in a parallel structure. Ruth’s attempts to rid her new abode of its various vermin alternate with a plot about a lawn store employee named Noel who becomes so distraught over the successive loss of his girlfriend and his job that he begins breaking into people’s houses and demanding that the occupants sing for him.

Clearly, Moore’s story contains elements of the bizarre, which become more pronounced as the narrative unfolds. The two plot strands inevitably connect, but the surprising violence in the climax is unearned. What is most impressive about Moore’s story is the way in which the author is able to individuate the character of Ruth, presenting her reader with a fully fleshed woman who is at once unique and recognizable, and offering a poignant glimpse at the way in which this specific woman attempts to wrestle with “the pained, purposeless work that constitute[s] life.”

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