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Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? ()


Granta Top 20 Authors Under 40

Men and women have spent the past 100,000 years or so trying to figure each other out and I'll readily admit that I understand less of this mystery than most other members of the species.  After reading the highly acclaimed Lorrie Moore's coming of age tale, I believe that much of what I thought I knew was wrong.

Benoite-Marie Carr, Berie for short, is in Paris with the husband she doesn't love.  She keeps flashing back to the pivotal relationship in her life, the bond she shared with Sils Chausbee, one summer when both were 15 years old and on the verge of adulthood in 1970's Horsehearts, New York.  Berie was skinny, pre-menstrual and self-conscious, where Sils was bodacious & outgoing.  Days they worked togetherat a local theme park, Berie taking tickets while Sils played Cinderella.  Nights they snuck out to bars or drank liquor stolen from their parents.  Men would be drawn to Sils & Berie would snatch up her leftovers.  Still virginal & naive, they did little more than dance with these men, until Sils met the bland motorcycle riding Mike.  This new relationship put distance between them, until Sils wound up pregnant & Berie stole the money for her abortion from work.  When the theft was discovered, Berie was sent off to a Christian summer camp & then to boarding school and the two lost touch with one another.

Now, I think we've  all known folks like Sils in our lives, or if not known them personally, we're familiar with the type on a larger scale--for convenience sake, let's call them Alphas or Illuminati.  They are people with such force of will, or in Sils' case beauty, that they are nearly luminescent, with electric personalities.  And we, or others, are too often content to bask in their auras or live off of the excess sparks they throw off.  Such people change our lives and change the world because they are capable of diminishing our selves.  These people can be great forces for good and/or evil; for every Moses, Christ, Luther, Washington, Ted Williams or Reagan there's a Jim Jones, Caesar, Robespierre, Lenin, Hitler, Charles Manson, OJ Simpson or Clinton.   If we are strong willed, or lucky, enough, we choose those who are forces for good & even then, we must retain our capacity to judge these people as we judge others, rather than being swept away by them.

In the relationship of Berie and Sils we see, writ small, why these people are so dangerous.  Sils is no better a person than Berie.  In fact, she comes across as a fairly vacuous, albeit beautiful, addlepated girl.  But Berie surrenders her will to Sils and becomes her partner in delinquency.  The danger arises because people like Sils are fundamentally irresponsible; they never face the consequences of their own actions.  There is always a Berie, or a Marc Anthony or a Johnnie Cochran or a George Stephanopoulus there to pick up the pieces and protect them from  the fallout & try to thwart justice.  Their acolytes enable them to live lives largely devoid of accountability.

What Moore has rendered then is a portrait of a woman who abetted the Alpha who overwhelmed her in childhood and has never moved beyond this most self-destructive relationship in her life.  One of the consequences is that subsidiary characters are fairly opaque.  The sections with Berie's husband, for instance, convey little to help us understand why the two are married, so who cares that the marriage is disintegrating.  It's as if Moore, like Berie, was so obsessed by Sils as not to care about the rest of the novel.  The other major consequence is that you just want someone to grab Berie & shake her & tell her to grow up.  It's hard to sympathize with this woman who seems to be alone and friendless and trapped in an idealized past.

I found the book compulsively readable, it's blessedly short,  and I think Moore's a potentially interesting author, but my enjoyment of the book was limited by her seeming failure to fathom and judge the pathologies of her main characters.

GRADE: C

Dorothy C. Judd responds:  Orrin, you want to know why women love Who Will Run the Frog Hospital. It is because we recognize ourselves in the characters, but Lorrie Moore writes the story better than we could.  While our specific experiences may have been different, she captures our feelings perfectly, and while we are immersed in reading the book, we feel, as Moore puts it so well, that "we are all planets in the same solar system."

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Profile (from Ploughshares)
    -Interview (from Salon)
    -Reader's Choice: Lorrie Moore Bookshelf
    -Making the Cut (story about Granta's 25 Best American Authors Under 40 from Salon)
    -The Wise Woman (New York Review of Books Julian Barnes on Birds of America)
    Guided tours of dystopia: The author of "Birds of America" selects five favorite  novels about the future (Lorrie Moore, Salon)

Comments:

Lorrie Moore is sentimenal and nostalgic almost to the extent that she's nauseating. But not quite. Her nice sense of humor, and bizarre, longwinded metaphors save her. She's very disarming, and very lyrical. And she tells a nice story.

One must never put Reagan and Christ, or Lenin and Clinton in the same categories. Never!

- Phil

- Jun-06-2004, 18:53

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