Your book bag is empty

Lessons from a God-Writer: the power of short stories

Published 28th February, 2018 in Writing

‘The Jewish Hunter,’ by the American writer, Lorrie Moore, was the first short story to knock me off my feet and show me the power of the form. It prompted me to read all of Moore’s work.

Over the years, Moore’s writing has taught me how a story’s ‘plot’ can come from moments of intellectual or emotional insight: a character’s ‘epiphany’ can be just as ‘climactic’ as the moment they trip over a dead body! Moore illustrates how an authorial position of empathy (not sympathy) allows you to explore ‘heavy’ themes which—though they may weigh down your characters—must never weigh down your writing. This queen of tragi-comedy also shows how the relationship between language and content is itself a device through which tension and meaning can be created: aren’t the darkest shadows cast by the brightest light? Why else are Moore’s characters always joshing about death, illness and crippling loneliness?

Moore’s novels disappointed me. As I wondered at this disappointment, I realised that I’d wanted her novels to be ‘long short stories’—that I wasn’t respecting them for the different beasts that they were. I realised that the sheer energy of her short stories could never be sustained for the length of a novel: such a book would combust! Most importantly, the simple fact that Moore was clearly, and specifically, a master of short stories showed me how the short story is a legitimate form in itself. I realised my belief that ‘the novel is the zenith of literary achievement’ was not, in fact, a fact. It was a prejudice—something I’d absorbed from Australian literary culture—and Moore’s work opened my eyes to the much older and respected tradition of short story writing in America.

Finally, Moore’s short stories got me wondering about which literary form best evokes the nature of life. As much as I adore novels, they often annoy me in a profoundly ‘ontological’ sense: they just don’t reflect my experience of being. In fact, novels worry and disturb me for exactly the same reason they comfort and compel me: they propose order and meaning where there is none. Moore’s stories do the opposite. They comfort me by showing me that where there is chaos there is energy, and where there is energy there is life—and if life has no obvious purpose or meaning maybe that is exactly what makes it so very funny, so very tragic, and so very, very interesting.

Case Study & ‘Taster’: insights into a brilliant short story

‘The Jewish Hunter’ grabs you from the first line:

‘This was in a faraway land. There were gyms but no irony or coffee shops. People took things literally, without drugs.’ (425)

The narrator’s voice is striking: vibrant, funny, confident. It makes you feel every hopeful jolt and terrified shudder within and between the story’s two unexpected, yet familiar, middle-aged characters, Pinky and Odette:

‘She was bad at love… She used to think she was good at love, that it was intimacy she was bad at. But you had to have both. Love without intimacy… was an unsung tune.’ (428)

As you read on, you begin to sense an exceptional weight pressing down upon these characters’ apparently ordinary lives. Pinky’s Jewishness is revealed to be different to Odette’s. After sex, he watches documentaries about the Holocaust—a disturbing ritual that only makes sense when he confides that his parents were killed in the camps. Whilst Odette’s relationship to the Holocaust is more impersonal, her relationship to the history of women’s subjugation is ever-present. Moore skilfully and subtly evokes the intersecting, combined weight of these ‘larger’ human histories (of men, women, war) via the motif of the hunted deer. Driving together, Odette sees:

‘two cars in a row with bleeding deer strapped on them like wreaths, like trophies, like women, she thought. “Damn hunters,” she murmured.’ (429)

Pinky wants to take her hunting, and she tries to defend herself from the experience with her relentless, wry humour:

‘Pinky’s gun suddenly fired into the trees, and the noise filled the woods like a war… Guns, she was reminded then, were not for girls. They were for boys. They were invented by boys. They were invented by boys who had never gotten over their disappointment that accompanying their own orgasm there wasn’t a big boom sound.’ (438)

But nothing can shield Odette from the blank reality of the deer’s fate, for Pinky is not a straight shooter. She sees the ‘mournful gallop’ of the wounded deer, and then the terrible finality of its death:

‘The deer’s legs buckled, and when it tipped over, dead in some berry bushes, its eyes never blinked but stayed lidless and deep, black as outer space.’ (439)

For a while, Odette avoids Pinky—this man who seems blind to the hideous irony of coming from a tortured, hunted race and yet, himself, taking pleasure in torture and hunting. But liking and disliking, loving and hating, desire and repugnance—none of these feelings are singularly felt in Moore’s worded-worlds. Instead, her characters ricochet between endless contradictions, and it is precisely these contradictions that are the source of the humour and tension that propel her stories along at such a rapid-fire pace.

Though ‘big’ histories clearly unite and stand between Pinky and Odette, they nevertheless struggle towards each other. And sometimes, they do connect—beautifully:

‘At night he began to hold her in a way that stirred her deeply. He slept with one hand against the small of her back, the other capped against her head, as if to protect her from bad thoughts… How quickly bodies came to love each other, promise themselves to each other always, without asking permission… when she slept against him like that, all the rest of the world collapsed into a suitcase under the bed. It was the end of desire, this having.’ (434-5)

But the connections Moore’s characters make aren’t the satisfying stuff of romance. They are always frail, compromised, provisional—always riven with fear:

‘She should stay here with him, unorphan him with love’s unorphaning… One had to build shelters. One had to make pockets and live inside them… But it would be like going to heaven and not finding any of your friends there… And if he came to New York, well, it would bewilder him…

And her restlessness would ripple, double, a flavour of something cold. She would turn from him in bed, her hands under the pillow, the digital clock peeling back the old skins of numbers. She would sigh a little for the passage of time, the endless corridor of it, how its walls washed by you on either side—darkly, fast, and ever, ever.’ (444-445)

Such tender passages suggest that, if love never ‘conquers all’ in Moore’s stories, her love for her characters is exactly what allows her to imagine and evoke their lives so fully and so clearly—yet with so very few words. Because this is what a short story writer strives to do—to say more, with less, always.

All quotes are from: Lorrie Moore, ‘The Jewish Hunter,’ in The Collected Stories of Lorrie Moore, faber and faber, London, 2009, pp 425-446.

H.C. Gildfind lives in Melbourne and has published short stories, poetry, essays and book reviews in Australia and overseas. Gildfind has also researched interwar Australian literature and history, has been mentored by novelist Andrea Goldsmith, and is currently working on a novel. Margaret River Press published Gildfind’s short story collection, The Worry Front, in April 2018.

Explore further:

We publish high-end literary fiction, crime and the best short stories currently being written in Australia.

Shop Books

© 2022 Margaret River Press / Site by Super Minimal