Like Life
 by Lorrie Moore

Faber & Faber
Second Collection

"The things you were saying might be old radio programs bounced off the foil of your molars, or taxi calls fielded by the mussely glove of your ear. What you described as real might be only a picture, something from Life magazine you were forced to live out, after the photography, in imitation."

Reviewed by Emma Young

Like Life is Moore’s second collection of short stories, her debut being Self-Help, and it moves away from the "How to" nature of the first work this time to offer a sense of different versions of "life" itself. The collection as a whole is moving, provocative and perfectly crafted. As with all of Moore’s writing the language and structure is executed with grace and precision, as in the final lead story Like Life; "In February a thaw gave the city the weepy ooze of a wound". The language wraps itself around its meaning beautifully making the coarse and cold city appear warm and appealing through the blend of the sentence.

The stories in this collection all follow the life of an individual and conflict the nature of existence, the idealization of life and the suggestion that there is "life" and "like life" in someway. The stories provoke the question of "what is our reality" and therefore "what is reality"? Whether it is Mary in the opening story Two Boys with her double life dating two men, or Mamie in the closing story Like Life for whom reality and existence are becoming confusing and problematic categories, all of these characters narratives go against the grain of explainable, definitive and unquestioning existences.

Two stories in particular resonated greatly within this collection: Like Life and Vissi d’Art. Both of these stories explore the verges of surrealism and fantasy and blur the very boundaries of life and reality. In Vissi d’Art Harry the writer, who refuses to sell his morals and write for television believing himself to be a true artist, is left by his girlfriend who is fed up of living in the meat-packing district of New York. He remains in his Soho flat and now on his own his life seems to slip from his grasp:

Harry went upstairs to his apartment and slowly opened the door to his bathroom. He reached for the switches to the light and fan and turned them on in a single, dramatic flick.
The tub. The miso soup was gone, but in its stead was a dark brown sludge, a foot deep, sulfurous and bubbled.

As his flat slowly disintegrates from pollution so too does Harry’s life and arguably his sanity as the story borders on the real and surreal.

Likewise, in Like Life the story moves between a sense of the safe and everyday to a threatening, darker and more surreal aspect of life as people begin to "suspect that they were being spied on, controlled, that what they had thought when they were little – that the people on the television could also see you – now was true". In a highly big-brotheresque turn of events the story is permeated by the dark and sinister. The story questions life and the future with a certain ambiguity over both and concludes with Mamie stepping forward in the "Here. But not now", epitomizing the conflict poignantly.

Whilst these two stories stood out personally not all of the collection is quiet and dark and surreal. Like Life is filled with an array of stories that re-work its central motif in numerous ways. The stories are never depressing due to the wit and humour that runs throughout all of them. Even in the darker narratives that deal with physical illness and questions of death Moore manages to maintain a sense of warmth and humour in her language and characters.

In 2004 Moore won the Rea Award for the short story acknowledging her vast achievements within the genre. The quality of the creativity, language and narrative in all of these stories is justification enough for such an achievement let alone the marvelous work composed in Self-Help and Birds of America.

Read two stories from this collection in the New Yorker:
You're Ugly, Too and The Jewish Hunter

Emma Young is a PhD student at the University of Leicester working on her thesis: Contemporary Women’s Writing and the Short Story Genre. Her work explores the implications of gender and genre by discussing the work of numerous contemporary women authors including Lorrie Moore and Ali Smith and considers the implications of new digital technology on the short story.. 
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Lorrie Moore was born in 1957 in Glen Fells, New York. She is a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. She has published novels, Anagrams, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, and short story collections, Self-Help and Birds of America. The Collected Stories was published in 2008.