The Books: Like Life – ‘Vissi D’Arte’ (Lorrie Moore)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction:

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An excerpt from Like Life, by Lorrie Moore. Excerpt from the story ‘Vissi D’Arte’.

Poor Harry. Harry is a playwright who lives in New York City. He won a contest 4 years ago – something like “Three Playwrights Under Thirty” – playwrights to watch in the future. He had had his picture in The NY Times and it was a big deal. Since then, nothing really has happened for him. He lives in an apartment above a peep show – and he has been writing the same play for 4 years now. He thinks it will be his masterpiece. But everything has started to fall apart around him. His girlfriend Breckie is fed up with the aimless poor life they live – and moves to the Upper West Side, where she won’t have to stroll through hookers and junkies to get into her own foyer. Harry keeps struggling, keeps writing. But his apartment now seems to take on a vaguely malevolent life of its own. Trucks line up below on the street at dawn, and rev their engines endlessly. Harry starts to lose sleep. The sink backs up and floods the room. And he also has plantar’s warts. Things are not going well. Director-friends call him to have meetings, about what he might be working on … but Harry is now so far removed from actual real-world productivity that he has a hard time even getting thru the meetings, and says things like, “I am primitively secret about what I’m working on.” You really like Harry, even though the way I’m describing him makes him sound like a sad sack. He’s certainly not someone I would want to date, for example … but I like him. He has lost his way. He thinks back to that miraculous moment in his life when his picture – HIS picture – was in The NY Times and … it seemed like something miraculous might happen! But now … it’s been 4 years … he’s no longer “under thirty” … and nothing has happened. He writes, though – he writes his play all the time. It drives his friends and his now ex-girlfriend crazy. Any conversation they have with him loops back to the play, even if it is not explicitly mentioned. Harry is a one-note kind of guy. In the same way that he starts obsessing about the trucks outside his apartment (he calls the police multiple times, he shouts out the window, he wonders why they have showed up NOW … what are those trucks doing there?) … he obsesses about his plantar warts, he obsesses about his apartment …Early on in the story he has a meeting with a director from LA. The director is fawning, kind of fake, but also really takes an interest in Harry. It seems like things might be about to shift, the ice might be about to break up.

I chose this excerpt because I absolutely love how Lorrie Moore writes about New York City. She articulates a certain energy the city has, a specific energy, perfectly. I just relish her words.

EXCERPT FROM Like Life, by Lorrie Moore. Excerpt from the story ‘Vissi D’Arte’.

There is a way of walking in New York, midevening, in the big, blocky East Fifties, that causes the heart to open up and the entire city to rush in and make a small town there. The city stops its painful tantalizing then, its elusiveness and tease suspended, it takes off its clothes and nestles wakefully, generously, next to you. It is there, it is yours, no longer outwitting you. And it is not scary at all, because you love it very much.

“Ah,” said Harry. He gave money to the madman who was always singing in front of Carnegie Hall, and not that badly either, but who for some reason was now on the East Side, in front of something called Carnegie Clothes. He dropped coins in the can of the ski-capped woman propped against the Fuller Building, the woman with the pet rabbit and potted plants and the sign saying, I HAVE JUST HAD BRAIN SURGERY, PLEASE HELP ME. “Thank you, dear,” she said, glancing up, and Harry thought she looked, startlingly, sexy. “Have a nice day,” she said, though it was night.

Harry descended into the subway, his usual lope invigorated to a skip. His play was racing through him: He had known it was good, but now he really knew. Glen Scarp had listened, amazed, and when he had laughed, Harry knew that all his instincts and choices in those lovely moments over the last four years, carefully mining and sculpting the play, had been right. His words could charm the jaded Hollywood likes of a Glen Scarp; soon those words, some lasting impression of them, might bring him a ten- or even twenty-thousand-dollar television episode to write, and after that he would never have to suffer again. It would just be him and Breckie and his play. A life that was real. They would go out and out and out to eat.

The E train rattled west, then stopped, the lights flickering. Harry looked at the Be a Stenographer ad across from him and felt the world was good, that despite the flickering lights, it basically, amazingly, worked. A man pushed into the car at the far end. “Can you help feed me and my hungry kids?” he shouted, holding out a paper cup, and moving slowly down Harry’s side of the car. People placed quarters in the cup or else stared psychotically into the reading material on their laps and did not move or turn a page.

Suddenly a man came into the car from the opposite end. “Pay no attention to that man down there,” he called to the riders. “I’m the needy one here!” Harry turned to look and saw a shabbily dressed man with a huge sombrero. He had electric Christmas tree lights strung all around the brim and just above it, like some chaotic hatband. He flicked a button and lit them up so that they flashed around his head, red, green, yellow. The train was still stopped, and the flickering overheads had died altogether, along with the sound of the engine. There was only the dull hum of the ventilating system and the light show from the sombrero. “I am the needy one here,” he reiterated in the strangely warm dark. “My name is Lothar, and I have come from Venus to arrest Ronald Reagan. He is an intergalactic criminal and needs to be taken back to my planet and made to stand trial. I have come here to see that that is done, but my spaceship has broken down. I need your assistance so that I can get it done.”

“Amen!” someone calleld out.

“Yahoo,” shouted Henry.

“Can you help me, people, earthlings. I implore you. Anything you can spare will aid me in my goal.” The Christmas tree lights zipped around his head, people started to applaud, and everyone dug into their wallets to give money. When the lights came on, and the train started to go again, even the man with the hungry kids was smiling reluctantly, though he did say to Lothar, “Man, I thought this was my car.” When the train pulled into Forty-second Street, people got off humming, slapping high fives, low fives, though the station smelled of piss.

Harry’s happiness lasted five days, Monday through Friday, like a job. On Saturday he awoke in a funk. The phone had not rung. The mail had brought him no letters. The apartment smelled faintly of truck and sewage. He went out to breakfast and ordered the rice pudding, but it came with a cherry.

“What is this?” he asked the waiter. “You didn’t use to do this.”

“Maraschino eyeballs.” The waiter smiled. “We just started putting them on. You wanna whipped cream, too?”

When he went back home, not Deli but a homeless woman in a cloth coat and sneakers was sitting in his doorway. He reached into his pocket to give her some change, but she looked away.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I just have to get by here.” He took out his keys.

The woman stood up angrily, grabbing her shopping bags. “No, really, you can sit here,” said Harry. “I just need to get by you to get in.”

“Thanks a lot!” shouted the woman. Her teeth were gray in the grain, like old wood. “Thanks!”

“Come back!” he called. “It’s perfectly OK!” But the woman staggered halfway down the block, turned, and started screaming at him. “Thanks for all you’ve done for me! I really appreciate it! I really appreciate everything you’ve done for me my whole life!”

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3 Responses to The Books: Like Life – ‘Vissi D’Arte’ (Lorrie Moore)

  1. Diana says:

    I finished this collection yesterday and I just popped in to say two things:

    1. This story, in particular, depressed me. I found it very sad, Harry’s life very empty and futile.

    2. After having torn through two of Moore’s story collections (and now with Self Help on its way from the library!), I find myself a tad crazed with ideas. Almost manic. I think that’s part of her appeal; I suspect that the people who are most singing her praises are the ones who have the instinct to write/create themselves. Her stories are so crazed in some ways, or the people anyway, and so complex and packed with life. She’s evocative.

    Now I am bursting with ideas and impressions and weird little observations. It’s catching!

    But I know a lot of people who like to read but have NO ambitions to write or create anything themselves and I picture them reading her and I honestly don’t think they’d like her at all. They’d find her too weird, I think.

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