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13 July 2023

Lorrie Moore’s American afterlife

Moore’s new novel is an absurd, profound treatise on death and grief that only stumbles when it reaches for a grander historical thesis.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Lorrie Moore’s new novel is billed as a “ghost story”. But while mortality haunts the book – one of its main characters, Lily, is not quite a ghost but not alive either – its focus is not death but how we live in proximity to it. 

I Am Homeless if This is Not My Home is Moore’s fourth novel, and her first since A Gate at the Stairs (2009), which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize (now the Women’s Prize). It not only has the author’s idiosyncratic wit – as encapsulated in the title of her 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? alone – but her expert balance of the absurd and profound.

Finn has travelled from his midwestern US town of Navy Lake to visit his older brother, Max, in New York City. Max is in a hospice, dying of cancer. Finn is a cynical maths teacher currently “suspended for his wanderings away from the curriculum”. He thinks up humorous stories to amuse Max on his deathbed, such as the time his landlady sent him to buy a replacement toilet and the salesman “sized up” Finn’s thighs and suggested he’d need a larger seat. 

Illness features often in Moore’s works, particularly in her short stories, notably “People Like That Are the Only People Here” (1997), in which a couple come to terms with their baby’s cancer diagnosis. As in that story, in her new novel Moore uses a close third-person narration that is affecting but never sentimental. Finn observes the physical effects of Max’s demise: “His skin was buttery. He had the smooth hue of an apricot… He was a manila envelope getting ready to be mailed,” somehow at once picturesque, playful and – when you consider his destination – tragic.

Finn leaves Max’s bedside sooner than he expected, when he receives a text from Navy Lake, about Lily. Lily is his ex-girlfriend, whose mental illness has previously led her to attempt to kill herself. Despite their break-up, Finn has remained her “suicide hotline”. This time it is not Lily calling.

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Without giving away too much of Moore’s strange and devastating plot, Finn and Lily find themselves driving to a “body farm” where corpses are studied. Their conversation feels as familiar as if they were a married couple on their way to the supermarket: they bicker, and then talk fondly of one another. There are in-jokes and misunderstandings. Still, this is not an ordinary situation, as Moore makes clear with her depiction of Lily, who has silverfish in her hair and smells “like warm food cooling”. Later, as he tenderly washes her, Finn sees that she is as “sheer as the rice wrap on a spring roll, the bean sprouts and chopped purple cabbage visible inside her”. 

With just these two central relationships – between Finn and Max, and Finn and Lily – Moore opens up a world of philosophical inquiry into how we treat the dying, and therefore the living. Her piquant style exposes the grey area between comedy and tragedy. 

So the interspersal of letters by Eliz, a woman running a boarding house in the years after the American civil war, feels needless. The main strand of the novel, with Finn, Max and Lily, is set in 2016, when the election of Donald Trump looms. It is “one big fuck-you year: politicians to their parties, voters to the candidates, candidates back to the people”. Eliz’s tales from the 19th century, then, suggest the abiding presence of the Confederacy in present-day America and a mangled contemporary political grief that Moore uses to mirror Finn’s. 

But in such a short novel the effect feels forced. We know that death and grief are constants of the human condition. Finn’s experiences with Max and Lily are just slithers of that, but in Moore’s deft telling, they are enough. “Did anyone really know what the story of a human life ever was?” thinks Finn, as he sits through a funeral service. In guiding her readers towards the big, historical picture, Moore forgets that it is in the most intimate of moments that we find the truest answers.

I Am Homeless if This is Not My Home
Lorrie Moore
Faber & Faber, 208pp, £16.99

[See also: Why literary snobs don’t get Bridget Jones]

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