Anagrams can be pretty funny. For example, “New York Times” rearranges to “Monkeys write”, and if you shuffle around “Weapons of mass destruction” you get “US team swoops. Finds no trace”. Props to whoever spent the time figuring those out, because it certainly wasn’t me. Lorrie Moore’s first novel, Anagrams* is also very funny. Not only does the subject lend itself to clever witticisms, it’s evident that Moore is a comical person—a quality that consistently pervades her short stories, which continue to give her clout within the literary community.
Anagrams contains both wordplay and storyplay. Moore exercises in wordplay throughout; characters often confuse similar words, or use words with multiple meanings and thereby have trouble communicating. Usually, the mix-up is amusing, like when the main character explains, “I remember hearing my mother say to [my brother] once in a loud, scolding whisper: ‘Louis! Don’t play with your genitals!” which I thought was the same word as gentiles—leaving me greatly bewildered as to whom we were supposed to play with” (Moore, 171). Moore also engages in storyplay, incorporating several independent storylines, resulting in an ever-changing dynamic between two characters: Benna and Gerard. In one story, Benna is a poet; in another, she’s an aerobics instructor, etc. Each chapter is a different incarnation of the characters, i.e. an anagram of alternate realities.
The one consistency is Benna’s blatant failures. She struggles in every relationship and career move. Moore brilliantly employs the concept of interchangeable anagrams to explore Benna’s crisis of identity. We see a woman in pain in various ways, and Moore highlights her instability via literal plot points and the metaphorical anagram. How can Benna find and clutch to absolutes if meaning is so elusive? How can she find someone who will absolutely, unequivocally love her?
Clearly, Anagrams isn’t an uplifting story. We’re hit with wave after wave of depressing conversation. Thankfully, Moore throws us some life vests with her cynical humor. For instance, when describing Benna during one of her particularly heartbreaking identities, Moore says, “She insisted she loved him and would go mad without him or at least have a hard time grocery shopping” (Moore, 121). Benna reeks of pathetic pungency, but there is something very authentic, and therefore endearing, about her.
On the other hand, I find moments where Moore tries too hard to convey cleverness. Her overexertion manifests itself in some of Benna’s dialogue, but it’s most pronounced in Moore’s layering of storylines. I struggle with determining whether Moore intends certain chapters to be combined in a cohesive thread, or if we should view them separately, or a little bit of both. Honestly, although clarity of plot seems like a big make-or-break, I’m barely bothered by the confusion, and I appreciate her experimental method. In the end, what matters most for me is Moore’s obvious ability to create compelling characters who coerce me to empathy and laughter. Thus, I give Anagrams 4 out of 5 camel humps, and I look forward to seeing Moore grow as a writer in her subsequent novels.
*Moore, Lorrie. Anagrams. New York: Vintage Books, 1986. Print.