Lorrie Moore teaches us dance steps for that which is supposedly the most natural thing of all, placing cutouts of feet on the floor and saying: like this, stand like this, now move. She offers instructions on how to do something that allegedly needs no direction, something that comes before language: how to talk to your mother. The instructions take on the form of a general decree and are based on events that have taken place in the world, but they are in fact impossible to follow, whether as an active user or as the one carrying them out. This is an extremely private story, almost accidental and therefore fateful. Even if you follow this story’s instructions detail by detail, even if you were born like the protagonist in 1939, baking your first apple cake in 1972, you still fail time and again to fulfil the urgent mission – talking to your mother.
It is no coincidence that the story has been written from finish to start, if only to teach us that the will involved in outlining a clear path is, in itself, quite absurd. The literary act here can be visualized as an engine spread out on the ground, a car engine (or a lawnmower) that has been disassembled; it could even be a chemistry set that burst in your hands; or an artificial heart. Now you have to start assembling, carefully piecing together. If anything works again, if the electric circuit is closed, then the heart will probably beat outside the container; if there even is a container.
The story first appeared in Self-Help and is not the only story in the collection that took the guise of an instruction sheet: How to become a writer; How to be an other woman. Lorrie Moore’s instructions put in order that which is devoid of and cannot have order, turning the pre-embedded failure into a document that strangely invites cheerfulness and hope. As if every reading holds a promise – if I relived my life, even only through literature, if I followed all the instructions to the letter, maybe this time the conversation will be possible. A mother’s humming to her baby will blend with the refrigerator’s vibrations, the talk of after death will join the primary speech that has no words, just soft cooing. And instructions.