James Holden: Cancer, language and Lorrie Moore

BirdsOfAmericaI have just finished re-reading Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. It’s a fantastic collection of short stories first published in 1998, often dark but also frequently very funny. A couple move into a new home to overcome the husband’s infidelity but struggle with a succession of infestations, a woman struggles to overcome accidentally killing a baby, and a dance teacher stays with some friends who have a son with cystic fibrosis.

The stand out story in the collection, though, has to be ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’. It has a tough subject matter, following a couple after their baby has been diagnosed with cancer. Whilst it is exceptionally moving it’s also shot through with dark humour. At times I felt a little bit guilty for finding a story about a child with cancer funny, although this clearly was Moore’s intention. If anyone is in a position to write a story on that topic that is also funny it’s Moore, as the story is in part based on her own experiences.

Throughout Birds of America, there is a lot of humour derived from subtle word play, and it is in ‘People Like That Are The Only People Here’ that’s Moore’s interest in language is used to best effect. It’s signposted in the story’s subtitle – ‘Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk’ – ‘Canonical Babbling’ being the language that babies and toddlers use when they pretend they are talking (‘Peed Onk’ is a shorthand for Paediatric Oncology). In the story Moore treats us to an exploration of medical language – when the mother receives the diagnosis, she asks if the apostrophe in Wilms’ Tumour is placed before or after the s, “spelling can be important – perhaps even at a time like this, though she has never before been at a time like this, so there are barbarisms she could easily commit and not know.” The story reflects on the emotions certain medical words can trigger – such as chemotherapy and also cancer itself.

It also looks at the language used by doctors (“‘You don’t always know what it is until it’s in the bucket.’ The radiologists grin grows scarily wider – is that even possible? ‘That’s doctor’s talk.’”) as well as the language we use to reassure ourselves at times of emotional stress. Language makes medical conditions seem real, but the story also shows us how it can de-personalise what is happening, its stark brutality an attempt to mask the effect of what is being communicated. Moore understands the emotional impact language can have, whether to make us laugh or cry, and it is this that makes her such an effective short story writer.

You can find the story on-line here and an interview with her here.

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About James Holden

Brought up in Yorkshire, James has washed up on the shores of London. He spends his days working as a political geek. His short stories have previously been read by the Liars League.
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