I like Lorrie Moore’s short stories. That is, I like them enough to read them when they come out in the New Yorker. I admit, I am not one of the world’s big readers of short stories. If they are not funny, like George Saunders when he was funny, I have a tendency to begin with high hopes and invisible pats on the back (here I am, fulfilling my cultural duty) followed by a tendency to peak ahead at other articles, which engross me in I don’t know, some profile of a forgettable pop singer, some crime story until I shake myself temporarily free of a text that I know, rationally, holds a content as trivial at least as the short story incident I have abandoned and return to characters that I have, in that brief interval, forgotten to the extent that I have to begin over. What I am saying here is that I am unfair to short stories.
But Lorrie Moore’s stories have such an easy flow that they hold me, like a story about some celebrity will hold me – I am bonded to the text by the lesser boredom of the text in contrast with the greater boredom outside the text of other things to read or even, horrors, to do. It is in the balance of boredoms that this little superannuated smartass, this me, shares the Zeitgeist with all other readers of newspapers and magazines. Especially as that balance of boredoms, now, is dispersed among the moronic inferno of the internet, the twenty four seven access to the perpetually trivialized world in which the sensational never really reaches the sensations at all. The consumerist death of the nerve endings, y’all.
Anyway, to resume, so I picked up Lorrie Moore’s novel, A Gate at the Stairs. I am not so far very happy with it. But I notice that Moore sometimes needs to stumble around a bit at the beginning, so perhaps I will persevere. What I want to write about here, though, is the narrator’s curious habit of writing things like this:
“I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read about in Cultural Anthropology…”
Perhaps curious habit is the wrong way to get at what I find curious about this sentence, which is the way that a learned, or least a bit learned allusion has to be credentialed in American writing. You can’t just introduce a metaphor taken from an anthropological text in a novel, apparently, in America without immediately tracking it to its source in a classroom. For on no account are we to think that there are characters out there in the American hinterlands so bold and savage as to read “Cultural Anthropology” on their own, say in one of the public libraries that every urb in America is equipped with.
If this allusion had been to say the Sopranos, there would be no credential tracking required. American characters are permitted to know about car types, sports figures and tv shows without exculpatory information being provided as to just how they know about these things. But of course, the American character doesn’t come equipped, from birth, with knowledge of V-8 engines, the Dallas cowboys, and Kim Kardashian. I think Moore’s gesture here – a gesture I fully recognize, one I see made in numerous American novels – points us to the weather in our ‘meritocracy’. The era of culture has long been liquidated in favor of the era of credentials. There are the odd warriors out there who don’t accept this: for instance, Oprah Winfrey, bless her heart, thought that one could simply pick up a Faulkner novel and read it. Or at least read it in a book club (which mix, rather shamefacedly, the classroom and the card club).
However, the reader of Moore’s novel – Moore evidently thought – is not going to accept the narrator throwing out allusions to Columbian peasants without some explanation – otherwise, she wouldn’t be “real”. That is, she wouldn’t be credentialed as real. In fact, she would be very real – you can go into, say, the Austin library and look at Michael Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America, which does indeed contain information about Colombian peasants, and you will surely find out that it has been checked out by people who are not taking courses in Cultural Anthropology at the University of Texas.
I am not taking the piss out of Lorrie Moore here, who only reflects the kind of defensiveness that grows in a credentializing culture about “knowing” high cultural things. What a relief to turn to entertainment, to drop the name Michael Jackson or to crack wise about Metallica instead of, say, Thomas Mann! The relentless tyranny of credentializing there takes the more perverse form of fandom, with all of the secret contempt one has for the obsessive, the attendee of sci fi or comic book cons, those who know all the lines from The Big Lebowski, etc.
Still, I’ve always been more on Ralph Ellison’s side, on the side of the Little Man at Chehaw Station:
“All right,” she said, “ you must always play your best, even if it’s only in the waiting room at Chehaw Station, because in this country there will always be a little man behind the stove.
She nodded. “That’s right,” she said. “There’ll always be the little man whom you don’t expect, and he’ll know the music, and the tradtion, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform.”
Now, we blast a thousand holes through the little man’s heart, we stuff his throat with SATs and grade point averages, we tell him that we got an A in the class, we try to dance on his grave – but that little man behind the stove is, I think, unkillable. Of course, I’m a romantic.