“Stephen Foster is the counterpart to Edgar Allan Poe.”
—Bob Dylan, Philosophy of Modern Song
If you studied fiction in the 1990s and/or 2000s, you probably read a lot of Lorrie Moore. After Jesus’ Son, no book was assigned to me more frequently throughout both undergrad and grad school—in different parts of the country, by professors with otherwise irreconcilable tastes—than Moore’s 1998 collection, Birds of America. Then there were the heavily anthologized hit singles: “How to Be an Other Woman” and “How to Become a Writer” (both from her 1985 debut, Self-Help); “You’re Ugly, Too” (from 1990’s Like Life); “Dance in America” and “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” (both from Birds). Moore was one of those writers who—like Denis Johnson, Raymond Carver, and Alice Munro before her—at a certain point you simply had to walk away from, if only to have half a chance of eventually reckoning with the work on your own terms.
Not to give the game away, but I’ve had my reckoning. I love Lorrie Moore. Dig through the archives of Bookforum (RIP) and you’ll find that I chose See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary as a favorite book of 2018; two years later, in those same pages, I raved over her Collected Stories. I’ve got my own personal catalog of favorites: “Two Boys” and “Places to Look For Your Mind” from Like Life; “Terrific Mother” and (it’s a classic for a reason) “People Like That Are the Only People . . . ” from Birds; “Paper Losses” and “Referential” from her 2014 collection, Bark. I could name more, but I’d rather change the subject because Moore has just published I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, her first novel in fourteen years. Though her novels have garnered their share of laurels down the decades, it seems to me that—precisely on account of her massive, deserved acclaim as a story writer—she is consistently underrated as a novelist. Having your novels viewed as minor work relative to your short fiction is about the weirdest problem a contemporary writer can have: it’s like the punchline of a joke in a Lorrie Moore story. And even as I commit myself here to rebalancing the critical scales, I cannot help noting that this is a “problem” I would give three fingers to have.
Moore’s first novel, Anagrams (1986), is about a pair of lovelorn neighbors in an apartment building in a small town somewhere in the Midwest. Gerard and Benna’s relationship is presented five times over, with minor and major elements rearranged in each retelling. “Anagrams is a novel that takes as its form a short novel and four stories,” Moore told the Paris Review in 2001. “The stories are variations on the central narrative line—rearrangements that visited me while I was writing the main story. . . . Although it was necessary to impose a sequence upon them, ideally they should be thought of as little satellites orbiting the longer ‘Nun of That’ section.” The result of this experiment is idiosyncratic and enthralling, a kind of inversion of the standard magical realist formulation in which a speculative premise is confined within plausibility, to be gawked at like a unicorn at the zoo. At the same time, Moore’s realism allows for a good bit of unreality in the form of psychological fragility that develops into phenomenological indeterminacy—what is real, anyway? (We all know a unicorn at the zoo is a crazy premise, but what about zebras and peacocks? Hippopotami? These each seem as unlikely to me a horse with a horn.) Moore’s approach accounts for the fact that the fabric of reality is always already tattered and frayed, and therefore it should hardly surprise us if once in a while some loose psychic thread catches on an experiential nail and rips a gaping epistemic hole in a given life. You can find her first, and in some ways still boldest example in the aforementioned “Nun of That” section of Anagrams, as well as in stories such as “The Juniper Tree,” “Two Boys,” and (we’re getting there, I promise) the bracingly baffling, uncannily thrilling I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home.
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? was published in 1994. It is a slender, wild thing, like the teenage girls whose all-consuming friendship it tracks. Berie and Sils work at a fairytale-themed theme park in upstate New York. Their transgressions against childhood and each other are mostly what you’d expect—petty theft, petty jealousy, men—but Moore brings their world and their love so persuasively to life that you feel as though you’re reading about all this stuff for the first time. The novel is narrated by Berie as an adult, while on vacation with her husband in Paris. They are trying to decide whether their marriage is salvageable after years of unhappiness have culminated in a disgraceful, though apparently isolated, incident of domestic violence. Frog Hospital has a lot of surface sweetness and silliness, but it is finally—like so much of Moore—a sad and almost comfortless novel, in which all laughter is nervous and the chill of desolation is felt to the bone. It is beloved as a cult classic in certain circles, but I have always suspected its reputation would be stronger if it hadn’t been overshadowed by Birds of America just a few years later.
When A Gate at the Stairs was published in 2009, there was a rumor going around New York City that Moore’s agent had begged her to set it aside and write more stories instead. I sincerely doubt that this happened, though if it did it throws a hilarious light on the fact that the novel’s co-dedicatees are Moore’s agent and longtime editor. (It’s probably a shitty thing to have mentioned at all, and the only reason I bring it up is because it so neatly emblematizes the cockeyed way in which we tend to consider the full career of this truly exceptional writer, who has now published just as many novels as short story collections.) At 320 pages, Gate is by far Moore’s longest as well as her most structurally normative novel, which may be two strikes against it. The narrator, Tassie Keltjin, is a twenty-year-old girl from rural Wisconsin, studying at what seems to be the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where Moore herself taught for thirty years. It is the year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and even in the liberal enclave of the college town there is much to be angry about and afraid of: the prospect of more attacks, the course of the war, simmering racial tensions, a general mood of loss and dread. Back home, Tassie’s brother is considering joining the military, less for patriotic reasons than for a path off the ailing family farm. Amidst all this, Tassie develops a tenuous romance with a classmate and takes a job as a nanny for a prominent local couple who own the fanciest restaurant in town and are trying to adopt a child. They don’t have one yet, but they want help in place for when they do. They aren't exactly who they seem to be (nobody in the novel is), and Tassie will soon learn rather more than she bargained for about who they are, as well as some tough lessons about family, tragedy, small business, and French cheese.
Since I’m doing the completist thing here, and since I’ve issued judgments on everything else I’ve mentioned, I’m compelled to admit that Gate is Moore’s weakest novel. Still, this is a relative judgment, and should be understood in its appropriate context, namely that I think Moore is one of our greatest living writers, full stop. Some of Gate’s politics creak with age today, and it is long enough to have a doldrum or two, but it also has deep and unique pleasures to offer, including some of the most indelible scenes in Moore’s catalog. There are whole pages of unattributed dialogue spoken by a group of neighborhood parents, overheard by Tassie through an air shaft while she watches all of their children in an upstairs room. There is a harrowing scene near the end in which Tassie climbs into an open coffin and winds up trapped inside with the corpse on the ride to the cemetery. Tassie’s central relationships—with her employer and her young charge—are authentic and wrenching. The only reason I’m ragging on the novel at all, rather than simply encouraging you to read it (and I do encourage you to read it) is to wind myself up to say that the new novel is the better one; indeed, I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home, is Moore’s strongest work so far this century, and her most daring formal experiment since Anagrams.
The novel’s first plotline concerns Elizabeth, who runs a boarding house in a small town in what might be Kentucky or Tennessee (“one of those states,” Moore writes, “lying on its side in defeat, slotted in like slate in a stacked-stone fence”) and is being courted by Jack, one of her more mysterious lodgers. The year is 1871. Elizabeth tolerates, even indulges, Jack’s overtures, recording them along with sundry musings on post-war life in a series of letters to her sister. Jack is “dapper as a finch” with a mustache “black and thick as broom bristle and the words come flying out from beneath it like the lines of a play in a theater on fire.” He can recite Shakespeare and Byron from memory. He is given to grandiloquence, which make Elizabeth wary:
A cork foot from the secesh, he told me. Mounted the real foot and donated it to a Lost Cause Army Medical Museum, he said, and sometimes he goes and visits it just to say hello. Well, everyone got a little too dressed up for that cause, I do not reply, claret-capes and ostrich plumes, as if they were all in a play, when they should instead have noted that causes have reasons they get themselves lost.
Finn is a high school history teacher from Navy Lake, Illinois. The year is 2016. He has been temporarily relieved of his duties for reasons that may have to do with some curricular rebellion (adding math lessons to history class, for example) and/or his recent penchant for left-wing conspiracy theories, though he insists his suspension is retaliation for refusing his boss’s wife’s advances. At the time of the suspension, he is already living apart from his longtime girlfriend, Lily, a charismatic but suicidally depressive professional therapy clown, so he leaves Illinois for New York City. He rents an Airbnb in Chelsea and makes daily commutes up to the Bronx to spend time with his older brother, Max, who is in hospice after failed treatment for liver cancer. The brothers watch the World Series and attempt to reminisce, though Max’s lucidity comes and goes. Max in his unfinished dying is an inversion of the suicidal but otherwise healthy Lily, whose prospective sudden death Finn has always had to live with, and which will soon come to pass, setting in motion the main plot of the novel, which is so much stranger and sadder than you can possibly imagine, even bearing in mind everything I’ve already said.
I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is a novel about grief, but it’s at least as interested in iterations of bereftness as in bereavement as such. People are alive who should be dead, and dead who should be alive. The present is careening toward a future whose plausibility it cannot fathom while the past is haunted by a righteously vanquished alternative history whose adherents are determined to keep it zombifiedly alive. The living and the dead communicate easily—not to say pleasantly—with the intimacy that only true love knows. The line between life and death is porous, a poorly guarded border, like the one between the past and the future. In the brackish interzone, in the twilit realm—i.e. here in the fraught, fucked present—road trips take longer than a map suggests, an unmarked grave is findable yet empty, a sentimental blowjob might be given for a host of reasons at once unsayable and better left unsaid.
IAHITINMH’s historical and contemporary plot lines don’t exactly mirror each other, but the longer you meditate on their correspondences and echoes, the more deeply intertwined they will come to seem. This is not a novel where the secrets of history eventually exert determinative effect on the present action—the lines do not converge so much as kiss at midnight and then flee before first light—but there is a feeling of emphatic necessity to both sections, as though the major chords of Finn and Lily’s story could not be properly heard without Elizabeth’s quietly moving (and shocking!) contrapuntal contributions.
As is often the case with Moore, the importance of the title can hardly be overstated. Self-Help was comprised of short stories written largely in the form of how-to’s, with epigraphs from a guide to butchering livestock, a scientific text on sexual reproduction in animals without backbones, and The Amy Vanderbilt Complete Book of Etiquette. Anagrams telegraphed its telos with its title. Birds of America is a veritable aviary; Bark is bursting with dogs and trees. One time when I was teaching Like Life in a course on the formal characteristics of short story collections, I decided to see how often she used the words “like” and “life.” So I counted them and confirmed what I’d suspected: one or both of the words appears on every single page of the text; also, four of the eight stories end on similes.
The title of I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is drawn from a scene in Finn’s first section. He sees the sentiment on a hand-drawn sign that belongs to a man who is sleeping on the sidewalk, though the sign is declarative, definitive: “I am not homeless. This is my home.” Nobody else in the novel is nearly so certain of anything, least of all where—sometimes if—they live. Elizabeth owns her boarding house, but her life is defined by the comings and goings of her customers and the writing of letters to her erstwhile sister. Jack is a transient but doesn’t seem to be in much hurry. Finn is involuntarily on leave from work and voluntarily, albeit grudgingly and (he hopes) temporarily, exiled from the condo he shares with Lily. In lieu of a home he now has two landlords: the woman he rents an apartment from in Navy Lake and the woman who hosts his Chelsea Airbnb. Both have given him odd tasks, whose physical artifacts—a cat’s litter box, a broken goblet—rattle around in the back of his car, which is where he spends most of his time. His travels take him from Chelsea to Riverdale to see his brother, home to Navy Lake to see Lily, and then across the country with Lily to fulfill yet another odd request. Max too, is “at home” only in liminality: between life and death in hospice, attended by two young health aides—a pair of brothers who have jointly taken one job and divided its duties between them.
Everyone in I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home is living on and for contingencies, hence the “if,” which also gestures toward the what ifs of alternative history and historical fiction. The phrase alludes to a lyric from a gospel song usually credited to A. P. Carter, though he’s probably just the first person to have put it on tape. In the song’s refrain, the speaker beseeches God, “O Lord, You know I have no friend like You / If Heaven’s not my home, O Lord, what would I do? / Angels beckon me to Heaven’s open door / and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.” Carter recorded the song as “Can’t Feel at Home” in 1931. Woody Guthrie stripped out the spirituality, riffed it into “I Ain’t Got No Home in This World Anymore,” and put it on Dust Bowl Ballads in 1940. Cisco Houston, Billy Bragg, and Bruce Springsteen have all done Woody’s version; Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, and many a gospel singer have kept Carter’s alive, often under the more overtly Christian title “This World Is Not My Home.” (The best contemporary version—secular or religious—is by the itinerant folk-blues virtuoso Charlie Parr.)
Early on in the novel, Elizabeth notices that Jack has a limp. She starts to say he limps “imperceptibly” but amends herself because “that has the lie built right in.” If the limp were truly imperceptible, she would not have perceived it and so wouldn’t be able to describe it to us. When you’ve got this much riding on an if, you’d better give real weight to the prospect of if not. This connects in obvious and some not-so-obvious ways to the narrative present, in which Finn extols to Max the virtues of the “Alt-Consensus History” he hopes to teach his students. “I’m trying to reclaim the term conspiracy theory,” he argues:
Taking it back from the barbarians. People talk about ‘conspiracy theories’—Pizzagate and bullshit like that. Those aren’t conspiracy theories. Those are psychotic mirages. A conspiracy means more than one person plotted together and hello, you bet your ass they did. But if you discredit the term then you’re left with nada. A theory means a hypothesis has been tested. That is, it’s put through the car wash of some research. I’m not talking about deranged political hallucination. I’m saying, Kids? Probably more than one crazed guy was in on this. Society pulls the trigger. The lone gunman theory offends our common sense. I let them sit with all their feelings and disagreements. I give them their rhetorical safe spaces because this is the school shooting generation, and they don’t have actual safe spaces, not even movie theaters, so they need rhetorical ones, extra courtesies, new gentle and acknowledging terms. But I traffic a little in ‘conspiracy theories’ as we used to understand them, ones that put groups and systems back into the situations where individuals were taking the rap. I’m not a denier of any tragedy, just skeptical about the cleanup crew. I want to bring questioning all Official Versions back to the Progressives. The moon landing in 1969 or the ostensible search for and capture of assassins or whatever needs a squint.
What all this has to do with Lost Cause what-iffing, Elizabeth’s mysterious lodger, and—God help us—the 2016 election, is better left for the reader to discover on her own. Still, there is an extremely funny scene where Finn berates Max for suggesting that a Trump victory is likely. “To have a president so off script can never happen,” Finn says. “He wanders so far off he seems to just step off the planet, as if the world were flat and one could do that. Don’t check out of this life thinking Trump’s going to be president. Don’t go with that hallucination or I will really feel sorry for you.” Finn’s rant perfectly captures the mainstream “common sense” Pollyanna-ism of this moment. More than that, the notion of going “off script” speaks to the conspiracy theorist’s deepest-held belief, the ur-ideology that serves as guarantor of every “theory” and creates the semantic vortex where what-if trumps both sanity and mutual exclusion. The conspiracy theorist’s sole inviolable conviction is that the script exists. The existence of the script implies authors, which reassures him that somebody is in charge and has a plan, however nefarious or convoluted said plan might be. You can put your faith in Q or Mueller, direct your animus toward the Deep State or the Jews; the plot matters not because of what it is but solely in that it is.
In a novel preoccupied with phantasms, hauntings, secrets, permeable boundaries, and alternative histories, who’s to say where the real starts and ends? Why is it taken for granted that so-called reality has a more lasting and legitimate claim on our individual and collective attention than lunatic wishes and fears? The unreal has its advantages: momentum, eros, and something like a rationale; the imp of the perverse offers the ultimate alternate electors scheme.
Let me put this a different way. If your hottest, most emotionally damaged and damaging dead ex appeared in a field wearing clown shoes and a shroud, admittedly worse for wear but still cracking jokes and with that certain gleam in her eye, and if she invited you to play wheelman on a road trip, and if you had nothing better to do anyway—you’re saying you’d say no? Without thinking twice? You’re how sure about that? Yeah.
Finn is wrong about Trump’s prospects and the secret script; he’s probably wrong about the moon landing and his boss’s wife, maybe more besides. But I finally have to believe that he is right to believe (in every sense of that word) in Lily, and to follow that vexed faith where it leads him. ( Elizabeth is not wrong about much of anything, particularly with regard to her doubts about Jack.) The truth is out there, maybe. Maybe kinda. I mean maybe it’s only kinda out there or maybe it’s definitely out there but it’s only kinda true.
At one point shortly after Lily’s return, Finn thinks to himself that “everything seemed scrambled and unstable.” All I’d like to add here is that things don’t merely seem that way, they are that way. It was true in 1861, 1865, 1963, 1968, 2001, 2016, and 2021. It’s true both in the world of the novel and of the world into which the novel is born, i.e., ours. In I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home Moore brings all her powers of language, comedy, and narrative to bear on the abject chaos of our days. She does not attempt to subdue or redeem the wreck of reality—a fool’s errand—but rather to craft a work of art that is true to the baleful circumstances that made it possible, even as its spiky, intricate brilliance offers us a respite from the howling idiocies that grind us down, day by precious fleeting day.