“You’re Ugly, Too” by Lorrie Moore

9780395843673_p0_v1_s260x420First sentence: “You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names: Paris, Oblong, Normal.”

Humor:

The trick to flying safe, Zoë always said, was never to buy a discount ticket and to tell yourself you had nothing to live for anyway, so that when the plane crashed it was no big deal. Then, when it didn’t crash, when you had succeeded in keeping it aloft with your own worthlessness, all you had to do was stagger off, locate your luggage, and, by the time a cab arrived, come up with a persuasive reason to go on living.

Zoë Hendricks teaches American History at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest. Single and the only person who seems to be sarcastic in Illinois, Zoë doesn’t fit in. She sings “Getting to Know You” in class and cracks jokes no one finds funny (“What is your perfume?  a student once asked her. Room freshener, she said. She smiled, but he looked at her, unnerved.”) And she treats her love life with the same sarcastic bite as the rest of her life. (“I’m not married? Oh my God,” said Zoë [to her sister]. “I forgot to get married.”) Moore combines  the morbid with the hilarious, producing some genuine laugh out loud moments that also make you cringe and be grateful you haven’t crossed Zoë’s path.

Thinking it through

This is one of those stories I wish I’d written. It’s so bad, it’s really good. There’s a few optimists in my short fiction class (every story they write seems to end with the clouds parting, sun shining…), and my professor wants to break them. Because good literary fiction usually has an edge to it, a little bit of sadness and cruelty. And readers often appreciate it because it strikes at the irony of life. I met a guy over the weekend who took out his phone and preceded to show my sister and I an app that tracks how you sleep (how long, how many times you wake up at night, etc.) I’m thinking, yeah that’s exactly what I want to know, how little sleep I get, down to the minute. Later, my sister said it’s so typical of him – he has to be the best at sleep. Now, wouldn’t it be a shame if I didn’t poke fun at this kind of person in writing? Maybe that’s when you become a great reader, when the literary in your own life peeks out at you, and you can recognize it. Regardless – what Moore really succeeds at here, and what became the focus of class discussion, was how close we get to Zoë’s perspective, even though this is a 3rd person narration. Why wasn’t it written in 1st person? This is (yet again) a difficult character. Third person may lend some authority to Zoë’s perspective, since the omniscent voice has chosen this particular perspective to narrate. But third person may also help to create some distance for the reader, so we’re not too close to the caustic. Even so, everything is filtered through Zoë’s critical eye; Moore doesn’t give much distance. For readers (especially optimists), such a limited perspective could be isolating. Why may that not be the case here? How can humor compliment the unsavory without alienating the audience, or compromising a literary edge?

Published in The New Yorker, 1989. Later included in The Best American Short Stories of the Century (2000).

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