See What Can Be Done: A book review by Bob Morris

See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary
Lorrie Smith
Alfred A. Knopf (2018)

Brilliant essays from someone who saw what could be done with “cultural responses to cultural responses”

The title refers to a request by Robert Silvers, editor at the New York Review of Books, in a note that usually accompanied a candidate for her consideration. “He would propose that I consider writing about something — he usually just FedExed a book to my door — and then he would offer a polite inquiry as to my interest: perhaps I’d like to take a look at such and such. ‘See what can be done,’ he would invariably close. ‘My best, Bob

What we have in this volume are about 60 of Moore’s essays, criticism, and commentaries. All were published by various sources during a period from 1983 (“Nora Ephron’s Heartburn”) until 2017 (“Stephen Stills”). I had previously read about a third of them and was eager to re-read them as well as check out the others. Having now read all of them, what is my appraisal? If I were asked to select essayists with whom to spend an evening, they would be Michel de Montaigne, George Orwell, E.B. White, Joseph Epstein, John McPhee, and Moore.

Consider her concluding paragraph in the Introduction:

“My ignorance of a topic never deterred [Silvers] from trying to assign it to me. He started offering more and more television for me to watch and see what could be done. I turned only a few down. But I took on programs and films I was genuinely interested in watching and wrote about them in my Martian wa Mongaigne’s [begin italics] que sais-je [end italics]. A little light, a little wonder, some skepticism, some awe, some squinting, some [begin italics] je ne sais quoi [end italics]. Pick a thing up, study it, shake it, skip it across a still surface to see how much felt and lively life got baked into it. Does it sail? Observe. See what can be done.”

Here in Dallas near the downtown area, there is a Farmer’s Market at which some of the merchants offer slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I offer two brief excerpts from Moore’s lively and eloquent narrative:

“John Cheever” (1988): In his biography of John Cheever, Scott Donaldson “lingers in his discussion of Cheever’s great stories — ‘Goodbye, My Brother,’ ‘The Country Husband,’ ‘The Geometry of love’ — like a gardener caring for the,m, though in his particular tasks they yield him beauty rather thsn fruit. Said son Fred Cheever of his father, ‘No one, absolutely no one, shared his life with him.’ Donaldson has this in common with his subject: the impulse to share a life that cannot be shared — though it can be written down a little with a gardener’s care, the words planted like a kiss.” (Pages 22-23)

“On Writing” (1994): “Writing is both the excursion into and the excursion out from one’s life. That is the queasy paradox of the artistic life. It is the thing that, like love, removes one both painfully and deliciously from the ordinary shape of existence. It joins another queasy paradox: that life is an amazing, hilarious, blessed gift and that it is also intolerable. Even in the luckiest life, for example, one loves someone and then that someone dies. This is not [begin italics] acceptable [end italics]. This is a major design flaw!” (59)

“True Detective” (2015): “The ability on a camera-laden set to inhabit a character without a twitch of distraction or preoccupation or visible hint of internally or externally irrelevant is a scary but brilliant feat. Ordinary people cannot do it. But I have seen great actors do it even at cocktail parties full of cell phones. In a world where major writers have announced that they cannot focus on their work without extracting or blocking the modems in their laptops, this kind of thespian concentration is worth noting. (One thinks of the writer Anne Lamott’s remark on her own maturing  undistractibility: ‘I used to not be able to work if there were dishes in the sink,’ she has said. ‘Then I had a cild and now I can work if there is a corpse in the sink.'” (351)

However different great essayists may be in most respects, all are willing to examine — if only briefly — anything and anyone that attracts their attention with the prospect of nourishing their (not quite) insatiable curiosity. For them, differences have as much in common as commonalities have differences. They are explorers of worlds that are both internal and external. They let their readers tag along as welcomed companions and on occasion as confidantes…or perhaps as collaborators.

That is what it was like as I re-connected with some of Lorrie Moore’s essays and experienced for the first time several others. You can be certain that this volume will be cherished…near at hand, always at the ready.

I feel so grateful for the pleasure of her company.

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