Short story: “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk”

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“People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” by Lorrie Moore

Appeared in the New Yorker on January 27, 1997 (subscribers can read here); won an O. Henry in 1998; collected and anthologized all over the place, including in The Best American Short Stories 1998; PDF here

Looks like about 38 pages in Moore’s collection; no idea how many words

Moore seems to get flak for her over-the-top mannerisms, but to me the stylistic excesses of “People Like That” point to exactly the thing the story is about: the main character’s desperate attempts to stave off pain. Her coyness and jokes and lyricism are nakedly obvious coping mechanisms. I think readers who object to that technique are really expressing a dislike for the character herself.

The title, which at first struck me as oddly irrelevant, actually gets close to the heart of the way “the Mother” refuses to accept her situation. Platitudes alienate her. All attempts at consolation sound like platitudes to her. She resents the doctors’ inadequacies and the other parents’ determined optimism: “I never want to see any of these people again.” No wonder so many readers don’t like her. She doesn’t show the gratitude or grace we expect from sufferers; she doesn’t gain any wisdom. She just suffers, and when she sees a way out of her suffering, she lunges for it.

The device of leaving “the Mother,” “the Baby,” “the Husband,” and most other characters unnamed reminds me of the similar device used in one of my favorite stories, “Incarnations of Burned Children.” Wallace takes it further, though, writing “the Mommy” and “the Daddy,” as though the story is told by the Baby himself, who knows his parents only as their roles in his life. By contrast, Moore’s characters’ namelessness seems to be another coping mechanism, a way of adapting to the clinical hospital environment and/or of distancing the story from the specificity of real life. Where “People Like That” expresses pain via the struggle to keep it at arm’s length, “Incarnations” zooms in excruciatingly close.