Wild things

Lorrie Moore’s new novel is a rite- of-passage piece, full of frog-

kissing and fairy-tale allusions. She :

talks to Sue Wilson about growing up.

‘1 do think that the novel is not really a natural form in which to tell a story a short story you’ll read at a single sitting, it’s a self-contained whole; it comes out of the same idea as when you’d sit around a campfire and tell a story, you’d tell it in one go. Whereas a novel can take years to write and maybe weeks to read, the reader has to return to it day to day, keep on going back and continuing the experience in this piecemeal fashion, and for a writer to create something that will make you want to do that is very hard.’

Her prose is studded with quirky signs, arresting images, aphorisms and jokes.

As the author of two short-story collections and two novels, 37-year-old US writer Lorrie Moore is well acquainted with the differences and difficulties of «each form. One ofthe central strengths of her new novel, the eye-catchingly-titled Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, is her skill at making artful use of her medium’s artifice. As she unfolds her story about a woman visiting Paris with her husband, meanwhile mentally revisiting the late-60s summer when she was fifteen Moore deftly exploits the symbolic

lorrie Moore: revisiting the late 60s

potential of such themes as memory, female rites-of- passage and mortality to create a playfully heightened realism, her deceptively smooth, supple prose studded with quirky signs. arresting images, aphorisms and jokes. The fact that the protagonist, Berie, and her best friend, the worldlier, beautiful

Sils, both have jobs at an amusement park, Storyland,

where high-school kids are employed to dress up as Cinderella, Little Bo Peep and so on, is a key device in this respect, allowing for plenty of playful, pointed reference to the murky, sexually charged world of

fairy-tales and folk myths, frogs and princes et al.

‘l actually knew ofa theme-parkjust like this when I was growing up,’ Moore says, ‘and l’d always been interested in it as a possible setting for a story this situation that seemed to contain all these metaphors and yet actually existed in reality. But my primary concern was with the actual experiences of these girls, with dramatising them effectively: the fairy-tale stuff was very much secondary it carries a thematic, or metaphorical load, but it doesn’t contain the actual drama.‘

The dramatic and the thematic unite in the novel’s central elegiac thrust, which traces and mourns the loss ofwhat the adult Berie experiences fleetingly as ‘an old wildness . . . . Revenant and drunken. it isn’t sexual, not really . . . more to do with adventure and escape‘. After a summer charged with this wildness.

‘There is a time for girls where adolescence is really the height of something.’

Berie is caught stealing money at work and sent away to camp, then boarding-school, sundering forever her friendship with Sils, abruptly and forcibly ending the phase of her life when such adventure and escape seem possible.

‘There is a time for girls where adolescence is really the height of something,’ Moore explains. ‘There’s such energy and intensity and theatricalin in it, even though it’s full of awkwardness and surprises. There’s an active cultural bun'al ofthat wildness for women you look back when you’re older and wonder where it went. But it leaves its mark, and sometimes you can get some sense of it back.’

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital is published by Faber and Faber at £14. 99, along wit/1 reissues of her first novel Anagrams, and her two short-story collections Self-Help and Like Life (all £5.99).

:- Fatherly love

Few novelists nakedly invest as much of themselves in their work as William Wharton. The alienated boy in Birdy, the young soldier in A Midnight Clear, the American painter working on a French houseboat In Scumbler - these are Wharton at different stages of his life. The older and younger generations In Dad, the immediate tarnin members who surround his narrator In Tidings - these are thinly veiled portraits of his parents, wile and children. The result is that a novel such as Tidings may be slight in narrative - an annual family get- together for Christmas In rural France - but It Is deeply imbued with domestic warmth. For Wharton, this semi-autobiographical approach ensures an emotional precision that leans towards, but never submits to, sentimentality.

Family only son Vfllls

In August, 1988, Wharton’s eldest child Kate died in a motorway pile-up In Oregon, along with her husband and her two infant daughters. The road ahead was shrouded in smoke from supposedly ‘controlled’ stubble burning In a nearby field when an

(left) '33 not in the death car

eighteen-wheeler truck ploughed into them from behind, trapping them in their car. They burned alive. The tragedy was rendered obscene when Wharton was forced into a long- running legal battle due to a failed US justice system that descended into a ‘sue-or-be-sued’ fiasco. Wharton, however, found the inner strength to face this head-on, then to chronicle the events in a powerful and distressing book, Wrongful Deaths. ‘The main reason I wrote the book was to stop field burning,’ he explains, targeting the $300 million a year industry that holds the state of Oregon in its palm - agriculturally, economically and, of course, politically. ‘At first I postponed it because I didn’t want to feel that l was doing it for therapeutic reasons. I just wanted to walk away from that funeral and try to forget. But the anger won’t be gone until they stop field burning, because I’m still concerned that it shouldn’t happen to anyone else. My family is dead and gone. We are still, more or less, reeling from it

to the extent that my younger son won’t drive an automobile and my wife won’t be driven, she insists on driving. I have evolved a lack of belief in continuity, an anxiety that is irrational and hard to deal with l have hands that shake too much now, I’ve never had this before in my life.’

One means Wharton has found to ensure some measure of continuity for his lost child is to include her in his most recent (as yet unpublished) work and to relate the first third of Wrongful Deaths in her own voice. ‘She’s a very important part of my new book,’ says the 69-year-old author. ‘llere she is, she’s living again. All my family become so vivid to me when I’m writing them. In the process of writing the Kate part of the book, I found myself writing things I didn’t know. I’d check them with my wife and other daughter, and they’d say, “flow did you know that?” Kate was writing through me in a certain way. This was a very positive part to me.’ (Alan Morrison) Wrongful Oeaths is published by Oranta, priced £14.99.

85 The List 4—17 November I994