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Something for Everyone

by Lisa Moore

Lisa Moore codified her approach to the short story early in her literary career. In “Nipple of Paradise,” the opening salvo in her 1995 debut collection, Degrees of Nakedness, Moore writes: “That’s how a story should work. Like that Chinese ribbon dance. They turn off the lights so you can’t see the dancer. All you see are two long fluorescent ribbons, drawing in the dark.” She returns to this idea in “The Way the Light Is,” from her 2002 collection Open: “I think about how so much of a good story seems to happen elsewhere, off the canvas or screen or page, in Europe or a backwater New Brunswick town, in what is left unsaid.”

For Moore, stories take place in the interstices, in gaps and elisions; what a reader perceives is akin to the Chinese dancer’s two ribbons, apparently floating in mid-air. The figure manipulating them remains in the shadows and the exertions that the dancer undergoes to render the performance seemingly effortless are erased from view. In Moore’s stories, meaning and incident are frequently submerged and what remains is a rigorous paring away, a stripping down of language to its very essence. It is as close as prose fiction comes to poetry; as close as it comes to pure style.

As a stylist, Moore seemed to emerge fully formed with Degrees of Nakedness, a brisk, concentrated little book that challenges a reader’s preconceptions about what a story is and how it should operate. As she has progressed, Moore’s stories have developed along with her sensibility: they have become longer and in some ways more straightforward, though the almost fanatical attention to language remains, as does the willingness to explode conventional structures and forms in an attempt to radically revise what a short story is capable of.

Take, as an example, “The Viper’s Revenge” from Moore’s resplendent new collection. The story is set in Orlando, Florida, and has as its deep background the 2016 Pulse nightclub shooting. This subject matter could easily slip into exploitation; what rescues it is Moore’s tactic of viewing the event elliptically, through the experience of one family that is touched by the violence. The family is that of an amusement-park caretaker who works the night shift near the hotel where a librarian is staying while attending a convention.

Moore’s approach to the narration is slippery. She begins in the first person from the librarian’s perspective, then slides back and forth in time and repeatedly shifts the narrative focus from the librarian to the caretaker’s family, who are seen from an increasingly omniscient third-person point of view. The transitions are unconventional and not signposted by traditional methods of breaking the story down into discrete sections. Instead, the piece unfolds like a musical composition, one movement shading into the next almost imperceptibly. The story’s structure mirrors the practice of a local musician with whom the librarian has a one-night stand: “He hits the cymbals, one, two, three, ringing out, and those sounds, too, repeat over the first tinkling notes from the keyboard, which it seems will go on forever, morphing slightly with each iteration.”

The sideways approach to the material in “The Viper’s Revenge” is replicated in “The Fjord of Eternity,” which features a private investigator on the trail of a rock musician who may have killed himself by jumping over the side of an Arctic cruise ship. One anecdote about the rock star – which is related third-hand and so paradoxically elevated to the stature of myth – involves a car’s engine exploding and the man emerging “with his guitar, his back aflame, giant wings flying up toward the heavens from his shoulders.” Elsewhere, “Marconi” provides a glancing portrait of the Italian inventor who famously tested his wireless receiver technology on Newfoundland’s Signal Hill in the early 1900s.

What is most impressive in this collection – appropriately for a book titled Something for Everyone – is the range that Moore displays. “Fjord of Eternity” takes up noir tropes, while “A Beautiful Flare” and “Guard of What” are more straightforwardly naturalistic (the latter with a delicious ironic twist in its final line). “The Challenges and Rewards of Re-entering the Workforce,” about the perils and anxieties of downsizing in the modern economy, is told from multiple overlapping perspectives. “Lighting Up the Dark” is a Christmas Eve fable narrated by a sardonic Santa Claus who causes, and then reverses, a roof collapse at a mall in St. John’s. And at more than 80 pages, “Skywalk” – about a university student haunted by the spectre of a serial rapist in her neighbourhood – verges into novella territory. That story, which closes the collection, resembles Alice Munro in its handling of a fractured chronology and successive narrative torques and shifts in register.

Alongside the radical differences in tone and subject matter, Something for Everyone simultaneously finds its author expanding the spectrum of her technical approaches to language. The staccato sentences that have been Moore’s signature in previous collections are augmented here by looping, swirling, multiple-clause syntactical units that trill and cascade under their own seemingly unstoppable momentum: “And this amorphous monster, coming, always coming for them, to drag them under, is maybe the mall itself, the exoskeleton of a serpent, swishing its weltering tail of withdrawal and spend, the thrashing of swipe, insert, tap, charging through the ether, all bling and brand, pleather, sequins, sex, and here at the Shoe Emporium, a lot of garish neon, spiked heels, leopard print, and Can I help you.”

Moore takes her characters to some undeniably dark places in these stories, though the book is never entirely devoid of humour or hope. And there is abiding joy in the prose, which is lithe and tensile in equal measure. There is astonishment here, and grit, and beauty that is close to breathtaking.