by Lorrie Moore
Originally published in the May 28, 2012 issue of The New Yorker.

This weeks story is an explicit gloss on a great short story by Vladimir Nabokov, “Symbols and Signs,” which was first published in the May 15, 1948 issue of The New Yorker (you can read the Nabokov story in its entirety on The New Yorker website here). Each story is very short and focused. A “couple” is going to the hospital to visit a schizophrenic and paranoid “son” who has, as it is called in Nabokov’s story, “referential mania,” a system of delusions under which the teen-age boy believes that a system of codes and symbols exists in everything around him, and he is subject of it all.

There are times when Moore’s story nearly quotes Nabokov’s story verbatim. For example, in each story the son has attempted suicide more than once. Nabokov’s says:

The last time the boy had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, a masterpiece of inventiveness; he would have succeeded had not an envious fellow-patient thought he was learning to fly and stopped him just in time. What he had really wanted to do was to tear a hole in his world and escape.

Moore’s says:

The last time her son had tried to do it, his method had been, in the doctor’s words, morbidly ingenious. He might have succeeded, but a fellow-patient, a girl from group, had stopped him at the last minute. There had been blood to be mopped. For a time, her son had wanted only a distracting pain, but eventually he had wanted to tear a hole in himself and flee through it.

I think what we have here are two gifted writers approaching the same subject from different perspectives. Nabokov’s is a bit more detached and, perhaps, cynical, as the fellow-patient isn’t trying to save the son but rather unintentionally disrupts the suicide out of envy. Moore’s, to me, is a bit more personal. I don’t know why the girl from group stopped his suicide, but, in the absence of explanation, it seems there was concern rather than envy, that the disruption was deliberate. Also, the idea of him wanting to tear a hole in himself rather than the world . . . Moore is using Nabokov as the foundation, but she’s taking it her own direction, and in this instance I think she’s improved upon it.

In “Referential” the “couple” is not actually a couple. The mother is a widow, and for years now Pete has been a part of her life, playing a fatherly role to her son. A while back they aborted plans for Pete to move in with them as he couldn’t find the room he needed in order to fit into their lives. Pete has gone with her to visit her son, as he often does, but he is more withdrawn. We learned early that “‘To me, you always look so beautiful,’ Pete no longer said.” In each story, the focus is on the couple, on the injustice, on the depression each feels but cannot find a way to share, as much as they may desire comfort.

I loved this story and “Symbols and Signs” and admire Moore for taking the risk of basing her story so clearly on one by a master. “Referential” works well either on its own or as a complement to “Symbols and Signs,” and I highly recommend it. After what I felt were some disappointing weeks, The New Yorker fiction is certainly on a strong run right now. May it continue.

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By |2016-07-14T18:05:10-04:00May 21st, 2012|Categories: Lorrie Moore, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |6 Comments


  1. Jon May 26, 2012 at 8:37 pm

    I really love the Nabakov story (thanks very much for posting a link to it). I took as one of its themes how we as people in the real world and people reading fiction deal with uncertain and uncontrollable circumstances. One of the early paragraphs with a fairly in-your-face image of a fledgling bird in a puddle (as a way to illustrate the predicament of the older couple trying to manage the unpredictability of public transit. So, we as readers look to the “sign” of the bird to help clarify the characters.

    In this sense, the son is like a fictional character, who’s started to try to read his own signs. He’s trying to make sense of his world in the same way a reader might try to make sense of a fictional character.

    Well, that’s my reading, and it may be influenced by the sort of post-modern stuff Nabokov plays with in “Pale Fire.” But in Moore’s work, I just didn’t find this sort of richness. And after Nabakov’s tight prose, I also find Moore’s prose to be a bit sloppier and almost self-indulgent (e.g., I wasn’t sure the point of a few lines on the son’s hair other than to flesh out what it means for a mother to love her son.)

    (But so much of this just comes down to personal taste. I have on my “Reading History” list a book of Moore’s from 2 years ago and I just can’t remember a thing about it (other than it had clever witticisms.) I think some writiers just don’t speak to you.)

  2. Amy May 27, 2012 at 4:53 am

    I disagree with the OP and agree with Jon. Moore’s re-enactment of Signs & Symbols is is somewhere between a riff and an unsettling rip-off. Deborah Treisman is the harbinger of the end times.

  3. Trevor May 27, 2012 at 2:31 pm

    Jon, I’m not Moore’s biggest fan and really didn’t like what I read from A Gate at the Stairs, which I’m assuming is the novel you can’t remember from a couple of years ago (she’s only writte a few novels, and they’ve been far between).

    I do enjoy many of her short stories, though, obviously including this one. Moore has been writing short stories for thirty years, and many of them have dealt with families under duress from some type of sickness, so, for me, this take on Nabokov’s story was very fitting. I agree she doesn’t take on the “signs and symbols” aspect of the original story, and boy do I think Nabokov was a genius and far superior to Moore, but in this story she is true to her own exploration of one of her major themes (and I think she hits it best here). I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the lines about the son’s hair are meant to show the seemingly insignificant details a mother would care about.

    Amy, I agree that Treisman is doing The New Yorker no favors during her tenure, but surely this story is not emblematic of her failures. A genuine short story by a genuine short story writer that plays with a genuine master’s short story? This is no hack job, and to me it represents the kind of risks I wish The New Yorker would take more often. Much better this (a lot better, I’d argue, since I found a lot to admire here) than another excerpt from an upcoming novel by a “big deal” novelist.

  4. jerry May 27, 2012 at 9:40 pm

    I much prefer the Nabokov story

    I have been a critic of Treisman in the past but I have to say 2012 *so far* has seen some very good stories in TNY. How much of this is to her credit I have no idea.

  5. Aaron June 1, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    I had no idea that this was based on a Nabokovian short, so thanks for illuminating that. That gets to the meat of what my original issue was when reading Moore’s story, which is that although I thrilled to the language, I found it to be repetitious, as if Moore wasn’t sure what her point was, or if she was just trying to be a little cute in her metaphorical explanations of what might drive one to suicidal thoughts. Far more effective was the stuff she wrote about the dissolving relationship between these two unmarried people, about the displacement caused by “a romantic overlap” (not that the mother feels romantically for her son; you know what I mean).

    Ultimately, the choice to work off Nabokov seems a little gimmicky, then, since it’s the part that’s the departure that works, and the part that copies that holds her back and distracts from what’s at heart. And while I admire the bravery of cutting up the blank page, of publishing, I do have to wonder if the stylistic choice had anything to do with the story being published to begin with — this earned its chops far less than last year’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” which was more than a clever update of a classic short.

    More thoughts here: http://bit.ly/LU63j5

  6. Trevor June 1, 2012 at 8:29 pm

    I must say, Aaron, I appreciate that you come by even though it seems we never agree :). I felt the Englander was derivative and this one fresh! I see your point, though, and agree fully that the strongest parts of this story are the ones focused on the couple. I think it is incredible, actually — ah, the pitfalls of writing from someone else’s work!

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