Like liquid, like a song


Perhaps what I've been expecting from Lorrie Moore's Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? is the same aura I've enjoyed in her works during my college workshops: that simplicity I gathered from some of her stories from Self-Help. Narrated in the first-person by a thirty-something Berie, in France with her husband, she starts with a promising narration: "In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them." This made me look forward to reading it for a few afternoons, basking along the stretches of a surrealist dream with frogs and brains. A portrait painted by one of the characters, Sils, the narrator's bestfriend during their teenage heydays at Horsehearts, is on the first page of the book. Add to that the charm of Paris, and the title which made me buy it at Booksale.

In the opening paragraph, Berie eats the brains "for the flashback." This rings true with the entire story: the bulk of it is flashback, and they are spread over the state-of-things, the actual plot in Paris, with her marriage with Daniel.

In the story, Paris is the footnote, and the reader is hurled into a coming-of-age novel (or, arguably, a novella) in which memory becomes a proper foreground for the marital crisis of Berie and her husband, Daniel. Moore makes her words simple in narrating an otherwise troublesome childhood in Horsehearts, an upstate New York-Quebec setting (Berie's name is Benoite-Marie, and Sils' last name is Chaussee) and its centerpiece, Storyland, a theme park both Berie and Sils worked for a full summer. Sils is Cinderella, and Berie, in a pinafore and a funny hat, is at the cash register. There we find the roller-coaster narrative of childhood and how people come off it as somebody else: with a looming pregnancy for Sils, and with a throng of insecurities for Berie.

"My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just help the mind to get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song--nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it. But one can tell a story anyway." This, I think, is Moore's style in a gist. Readers might think her narration is sloppy--it stutters, it rhymes without making sense, and it is but fragments bound by the spine of a book, but I think it's charming. I think of it as a wall with some cement coming off to reveal red bricks, and in many ways the book is successful in depicting the narrator, Berie, in her most revealing: anxious, nostalgic, with the discontent of someone who left things without looking back.

At the latter parts of the book, some thirty pages before it ends, Berie comes back to Horsehearts. In one of those High School reunions she meets Randi, one of her friends in Storyland, and Randi's name tag says Travis with the name Randi in parenthesis underneath. Berie comments: "(Could one do that? Could one put one's whole past, the fact of its boring turbulence, in parenthesis like that?)" The ending struggles to make sense of the deaths almost always in parentheses, in both ways concealing and obvious, jutting out of the page. At one point, Berie goes back to her meeting her step-sister, La Roue, after ten years. She didn't like her very much: this is the socially awkward step-sister who, within ten years, had groomed fillies at a racetrack and did part-time janitor stint at a restaurant. Yet, during the meeting, La Roue warmly received her, treating her to lunch.

This makes me think that if anything, Berie--and not Sils or Randi or La Roue--has this separation anxiety which hovered around the entire novella. Berie takes note of it all: recalling everything down to the fact that La Roue committed suicide by hanging herself in the country hospital psychiatric ward.

Berie ached to finish the story, putting the death of her father in parenthesis.

In the end, she did have that "musical moment" her grandmother Carr described to her after "much turmoil in her life." It is clear to Berie that the marriage is falling apart, or about to, and is made explicit in the novel-length nostalgia pitted against Paris and her husband, Daniel. In the hospital bed, Daniel said, "it's like I'm on a ride... I go up, up, and up, and then wheeeee." Benoite said something the entire story had itched for: "Except then the keys fall out of your pocket... [a]nd then you can't get back into the house."