There are more puns in Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams than I have heard in the whole rest of my life combined. During the weeks I spent reading this novel, I became an obsessive word play spotting machine. One of the teachers at work was creating a homophone matching game with index cards. I completely lost control. Be and Bee. Night and Knight. See and Sea. Meet and Meat. Fare and Fair. I actually uttered the explanatory phrase, “Feet like feet, and feat like a ‘feat of daring do.” I may or may not have punched my fist into the air as I said that. Bazaar and Bizarre. I couldn’t stop myself.
Anyway (or, as Lorrie Moore’s main character would say, “anyways….”)
Anagrams tells the story of Benna and Gerard. Sometimes friends, sometimes lovers, their relationship is profound and difficult to pin down. The novel begins with three chapter-length vignettes. In the first, Benna is a night club singer, Gerard her near-beer guzzling, secretly admiring neighbor. Then, Benna is a geriatric aerobics instructor in a troubled relationship with Gerard. Then, they are a separating couple holding a garage sale (Sale and Sail). Through it all, Benna’s best friend Eleanor offers a funny if sometimes slightly disturbing counterpoint–cheating with Gerard, selling an old skirt and neglige at at the garage sale.
Then, abruptly, the short stories give way to a broader more novelistic approach. In all her incarnations, Benna a character terrified of movement, change, relationships, and connections. In this version she’s stalled out somewhere just short of her doctorate, retreating into a fictional life. Benna is a widow, a struggling poetry professor at a less than prestigious junior college who spends her days hanging out with a cheerful semi-alcholic lounge singing Gerard and fantasizing about an imaginary daughter and best friend (Eleanor, again).
In my reading of the work, it’s this longest section that is the true one, or, at least, the most true. Partly, this is simply because it is the longest. Also the most depressing. But more importantly, this is the part of the story that offers some explicit meaningful symbolism,
some clue to what it’s all about.
Midway through this longer, more novelistic section, the main character recounts the story of her separation from her late husband, a few months before his suicide. The couple are brushing their teeth side by side the morning after a big fight. Her husband says, “I never want to see you again,” but she hears “I want to see again” and a confusing and embarrassing discussion ensues. Benna reflects,
“When I was little, I didn’t understand that you could change a few sounds in a name or phrase and have it mean something entirely different…I thought Bing Crosby and Bill Cosby were the same person. That buddy Holly and Billie Holiday were the same person. That Leon Trotsky and Leo Tolstoy were the same person….Meaning, if it existed at all, was unstable and could not survive the slightest reshuffling of letters. One gust of wind and Santa became Satan. A slip of the pen and pears turned into pearls.”
The anagram metaphor, this idea of twisted reality–the same but different–lies at the center of Moore’s story.
While this novel is, like all Moore’s work, clever, poignant, and stylistically excellent, it’s not my favorite. As a reader, I became distracted and occasionally even bored. The concept behind Anagrams is fascinating and the execution is strong, but when you get right down to it, not much happens in this novel. I can only spend so long peering over the shoulder of an profoundly disassociated character as she drags through her days. Even the best writing in the world can only carry something like that for so long.