"Referential" 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.
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.