Monday, April 02, 2001

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore

I want to talk to you about a little jewel of a novel by Lorrie Moore, entitled, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? I had read one of her novels before, though I don’t remember much about it, and I may have forgotten about her entirely had I not run across an astoundingly good short story of hers in an excellent text and anthology on existentialism. The story was chosen for the anthology because it dealt very starkly with the fact that we are, all of us, situated towards death. The story is one about a young woman confronting her own death and trying neither to frighten nor to lie to her daughter about what is happening. The story is good, so moving, and yet also one that avoids false pathos.

At any rate, it was my memory of that story that led me to pick this novel up, along with the recommendation of the dear friend who loaned it to me. This is a wonderful little coming of age novel with all the intimacy of a journal or memoir. Often novels of this sort fail because they try to do too much, to cover the whole of a young life, seeming unsure of just what to emphasize and what to leave out. Moore simply takes two strands of a life, one in the present, a woman in a sadly failing marriage wondering around Paris wishing she were in love, wishing she were with someone else, and the other strand the memory of her fifteen year old self. The child of caring but cold and distant parents, this young girl, Berie, turns to a girlfriend for the love and attention that she does not get from her parents. Berie, still flat chested and little girlish, finds herself completely fascinated by a much more mature girl named Sils. This is really a story about first love, not particularly about sexual love, but love none the less. For many of us, if we are honest with ourselves, our first real ‘love-affairs’ are with friends of the same sex, and though perhaps not overtly sexual, there is a kind of delicious aura of sexuality about them. Certainly, Berie’s admiration for Sil’s lush, womanly body, has a sexual component. Truthfully, Bernie does not have overtly sexual desires for either boys or girls, but because Sils includes her in so much of her life, even welcoming her along as a third in the heated mashing sessions she has with her boyfriend (Bernie looking on from the backseat, half disgusted, half excited), there is a dimension to their relationship that would have to be called sexual.

Both girls work at a kind of amusement park called Adventureland—Bernie as a cashier and Sils as a storybook version of Cinderella. Even there, Bernie gets vicarious satisfaction from the long lines of little girls who queue up to get on the ride with Cinderella, paying for the privilege of riding around the park with her in a papier-mache pumpkin coach.

The reader is treated to the innocent development of this love story. Two girls, who, for different reasons, are allowed to run free for a long summer—hitchhiking to slightly bigger towns and using false ID to get into bars, to drink and dance, but mostly playing games not that far removed from their eight and nine and ten year old selves.

But the best way to introduce you to this delightful little book (perfect for busy city-readers—only 150 pages from start to finish), is not to tell you about it, or to describe the events. For it is the lovely, honest prose that glides one through this book. The sadness and loneliness of a little girl, echoed by the loneliness of a grown woman who finds herself in that particular loneliness of a loveless relationship. A wise woman reflecting back on a girl also wise, though profoundly inexperienced. Let me select out a few passages to share with you; I think that is more likely to get you to read this book than any overview I might muster.

The grown Berie reflecting back on the fifteen year old Berie:
In some ways my childhood consisted of a kind of wasting away, a wandering dreamily through woods and illegally in the concrete sewer pipes, crawling, or pleasantly alone in the house (everyone gone for and hour!) chewing the salt out of paper bits, or hiding under quilts in the afternoon to form a new place somehow, a new space that had never existed before in the bed, like a rehearsal for love ... My childhood had no narrative; it was all just a combination of air and no air: waiting for life to happen, the body to get big, the mind to grow fearless. There were no stories, no ideas, not really, not yet. Just things unearthed from elsewhere and propped up later to help the mind get around. At the time, however, it was liquid, like a song—nothing much. It was just a space with some people in it.
Berie remembers little of her silent father who seemed to love music much more than he loved his children. A stranger who reminded them when they hit a wrong note, corrected them and then left then alone again.
You’d be standing there talking to no one ... Nonetheless, we adored him. If he didn’t know us, love us, even recognize us, it wasn’t because he was invested elsewhere in other children. We had no rivals for his affection, except perhaps Brahms, Dvorak, the daily crossword, and our mother--and even then, not often her. In his iconic way our father remained very much ours. And in the long shadows of his neglect, we fashioned our own selves, quietly improvised our own rules, as kids did in America, in the fatherless fifties and sixties. Which was probably why children of that time, when they grew up, turned out to be such a shock to their parents.
And now this girl, this woman, wandering the streets of Paris and trying to pretend or to rekindle love with yet another man who has become a stranger, both wanting to be close but not knowing how to get there. She remembers Sils again, Sils who stayed in that little town, unable to live out their dreams of going to college together. They were so certain they would be friends for life, unthinkable that they would not, though when she sees Sils again, ten years later at a high school reunion, their lives are utterly different. Sils congratulates Berie on her upcoming marriage, insisting that she had always known that Berie would be the one to end up with the best husband of all.
For a fleeting moment, as anyone can, I imagined I felt the poverty of my future, all its unholdable surfaces; I felt inexplicably ungrateful and sad. It was a moment of stillness in which one looks around and ruefully sees only the rocks and searing sun and cheap metal. “You wanted an adventure and instead you got Adventureland,” Sils herself used to say. I longed for a feeling again, a particular one: the one of approaching a room but of not yet having entered it. Being engaged to marry, it should have been what I felt. But instead I associated the feeling with another part of my life: that anteroom of girlhood, with its laughter as yet only affianced to the world, anticipation playing in the heart like an orchestra tuning and warming, the notes unwed and fabulous and crazed—I wanted it back!—those beginning sounds, so much more interesting than the piece itself.
Hopefully, these few passages will give you some flavor of the liquid prose of this beautiful little book, a touch of the wisdom of the author in dealing with the existential angst that invades us all at some time or other.

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