“The Radiologist stops, freezes one of the many swirls of oceanic gray, and clicks repeatedly, a single moment within the long, cavernous weather map that is the Baby’s insides.”
This sentence, from Lorrie Moore’s People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk—a short story about a child with renal cancer, written from a mother’s point of view—describes a literal scene: a radiologist is examining a child via ultrasound, with the child’s mother looking on. But in context, Moore’s approach transcends the literature of illness. The main character, known only as The Mother, faces an experience that threatens her sense of identity, family, and time. But the Mother is also a writer, and the story—superficially realistic, but deeply experimental—raises other questions: how should an experience like this be understood, and how, if at all, should it be narrated?
From the story’s beginning, questions of narrative are foregrounded. “A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither,” Moore writes. “The whole thing is like a cloud that just lands and everywhere inside it is full of rain.” It’s a paradoxical story opening, a beginning that says there is no beginning, and that small paradox yields to a larger one: People Like That is a chronologically strict narrative about time disrupted. That paradox is rooted in illness: The mother experiences her sorrow as endless, without horizon or chronology, and yet cancer enforces a sense that time is fleeting.
In the sentence describing the ultrasound, Moore distills that paradox in metaphor. The diagnosis, introduced as “a cloud that just lands,” is now presented as “swirls of oceanic gray,” as a “long, cavernous weather map.” It is not only that the cancer seems endless, like the ocean or weather; it is also that this image repeats and varies the initial image. In this way, too, it resists the linear, forward nature of language. Even as the story advances, the mother’s experience seems static, an endlessly varying weather.
One notable fact of Moore’s story is the absence of proper names. The Baby, The Radiologist: With the exception of a few minor characters, everyone has a title. It’s a jarring choice, but one true to the experience of having a child in the hospital, where institutional pressures reduce identities to roles. Given this situation, Moore’s narrative voice—with its bitterly ironic wit and extravagant metaphor—can be seen as a way to resist this reduction, a way to claim an identity. Unlike many illness narratives, Moore’s character finds no solace in fellow sufferers: the “people like that” of the title, the other parents of children with cancer. (Near the story’s end, the Mother says: “For as long as I live . . . I never want to see any of these people again.”)
That claim for identity is also framed in terms of gender. The sentence about the ultrasound distills a pattern in Moore’s story, where the Mother collides repeatedly with men focused on action, on doing something, while she struggles to imagine her situation. So the Radiologist is all active verb: he “stops,” “freezes,” “clicks repeatedly.” He has the power to stop time, to hold “a single moment.” In comparison, the Mother witnesses, comments, worries, imagines. If the Radiologist is presented as a figure of power, an operator of machines, a believer in interpretive certainty and positive diagnosis, the Mother is all question and imagination, her mind and moods changeable. Moore’s description of the ultrasound screen, which is first “swirls of oceanic gray” then “[a] long, cavernous weather map,” is not quite a mixed metaphor: rather, it mutates on the fly, like the mother’s rapid thoughts, like cancer itself. For the Radiologist, that cancer is something small, definable, and identifiable, a tumor to be named. For the Mother, it is unimaginably large, a condition of life, “oceanic” and “cavernous.” The Radiologist seeks to fix it with a label; the Mother, to transform it with a metaphor.
Moore’s use of generic titles, rather than proper names, raises another question. In an institution where titles define what someone does—read an ultrasound, operate, and so on—what does a Mother do? And when the Mother is a writer, someone whose job it is to think, depict, reimagine, what role does writing have? How, in other words, should illness be imagined? For the Mother, who is depicted as ironic, witty, self-conscious almost to paralysis, the question is particularly acute. In an argument with her husband—who tells her, “Take notes. We are going to need the money”—she protests, “I can’t do this. I can do—what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do screwball outings with the family pet . . . But this? Our baby with cancer? I’m sorry. My stop was two stations back.” The tension between a comic intelligence and a tragic situation drives the story, and the result is a wildly flexible voice that veers between deadpan irony and lyrical grief. In a gorgeous scene when the Mother rocks the Baby to sleep, Moore writes: “Sitting there, bowed and bobbing, the Mother feels the entirety of her love as worry and heartbreak.”
When I first read the story, I loved it but disliked the ending. The family leaves the hospital, the child’s prognosis improved. In the concluding lines, Moore not only refers to the Husband’s request that the Mother “take notes” to pay for treatment, but also breaks any number of story-writing conventions:
There are the notes.
Now where is the money?
She not only shifts from third person to first, addressing the reader directly; she also collapses the pretense that this story is fiction, leaving the reader in the uncertain territory between autobiography and fiction. Having opened the door on a deeply private experience, she now slams it shut; having welcomed us into a realistic fictional world, she calls us to the world where the fiction exists, one in which any transaction between author and reader is distant and monetary.
It’s a fitting end to a story that is full of people but empty of connection. The way the family is named is intriguing: Mother, Baby, Husband. Each title implies a vector—the Mother is linked to the Baby, the Husband to the Mother—but the titles’ asymmetry implies a family out of balance. It’s not “Father and Mother” or “Husband and Wife.” Similarly, the relationship between author and reader is intimate, but in only one direction.
I came to see the story’s ending as powerful and necessary. It is as if only a story that fractures boundaries could be equal to a fracturing experience. And in a story full of paradox, the ending adds one more: though it’s deeply unconventional, the ending gives us a conventional arrival, an epiphany. The Mother, paralyzed by worry throughout, is newly purposeful. She rejects chemo; she leaves the hospital; she rejects the other parents on the ward; and in her own way, she fulfills the Husband’s request to “take notes,” implicitly reversing her earlier claim, “I can’t do this.” And yet her act of “taking notes” is not an act of obedience or surrender; it’s an assertion of identity not only as Mother, but as writer, a way of staking an imaginative claim. Like the Radiologist, she finds a way of naming what she faces; but she also finds a way to be true to the experience, without being overcome.
George Estreich is the author of The Shape of the Eye, a memoir about raising a daughter with Down syndrome. Originally published by SMU Press, The Shape of the Eye won the 2012 Oregon Book Award for Creative Nonfiction and was recently released in paperback by Tarcher/Penguin. Estreich, a Visiting Assistant Professor at Oregon State University, can be found online at www.georgeestreich.com.