The secret to good literature is simple enough, abstractly considered. Humans are complicated and beguiling. They talk to each other and fail to talk to each other, often simultaneously. They are disappointingly predictable, and yet resist easy summation. Good literature should capture this perplexity while still maintaining some sense of order. It should chart a path through the murky waters of human life without pretending the waters are clear.
Lorrie Moore’s “Dance in America”, the third story in her collection Birds of America, does this well. It begins with two tragedies of different orders, the broken life and breaking body of the narrator, and the foreseeable death of her friend Cal’s young son, Eugene. These intersect when the narrator, a dance instructor, goes to visit Cal, who she has not seen in a dozen years.
Moore’s handling of these two tragedies is masterful. That Eugene is dying of cystic fibrosis is laid out upfront, but, once the narrator starts interacting with Eugene, it fades into the background. It sets the mood of these interactions, lurks in the background, but becomes explicit only in small details, as when, in the middle of a pre-bedtime dance:
…Eugene suddenly sits down to rest on the sofa, watching the grown-ups. Like the best dancers and audiences in the world, he is determined not to cough until the end.
These moments are touching, but not maudlin. And that is appropriate, for the story belongs to the narrator, and Eugene’s disease is not her tragedy. It belongs to Cal, to his wife Simone, and of course to Eugene. For the narrator, it is background, is an element of the tone of her experience reconnecting with her friend.
Much more at the center of her mind is her own tragedy. This is twofold: her marriage has failed, and her body is starting to break down. She cannot dance as she once did, and is transitioning into the mode of an instructor. And though this is less devastating than, not just the death of one’s child, but living with the knowledge that that death is coming, it is nonetheless more prominent in the narrator’s mind, and understandably so. Though she shows few outward signs of being upset about the failure of her marriage, it creeps up on her, until:
All I can think of is how Patrick said, when he left, fed up with my “selfishness,” that if I were worried about staying on alone at the lake house, with its squirrels and call girl-style lamps, I should just rent the place out—perhaps to a nice lesbian couple like myself.
This charge of selfishness weighs heavily upon her, and comes to a head in the most charged passage in the story. Cal, Simone, Eugene, and the narrator are all dancing before Eugene goes to bed. As we have seen, Eugene has stopped dancing mid-song to rest. The narrator goes to draw him back in:
“Come here, honey,” I say, going to him. I am thinking not only of my own body here, that unbeguilable, broken basket, that stiff merinque. I am not, Patrick, thinking only of myself, my lost troupe, my empty bed. I am thinking of the dancing body’s magnificent and ostentatious scorn. This is how we offer ourselves, enter heaven, enter speaking: we say with motion, in space, This is what life’s done so far down here; this is all and what and everything it’s managed—this body, these bodies, that body—so what do you think, Heaven? What do you fucking think?
This passage refuses to be simplified. I will need three passes to cover it, and that is only because I will not discuss an aspect of it that would require a fourth.
First, then, take the narrator’s perspective for granted. She is not, she says, being selfish, and indeed she is not. She is helping Eugene to dance, is overcoming her broken body to help another, even more broken. She is putting another first.
But we cannot rest in that reading. Is she not, after all, making her “selfless” act about herself, an attempt to prove to Patrick that his accusation was false? And is she not also making it about her aging, her inability to dance as she once did? It is almost a paradox: precisely by insisting that her act is not about all this, she ensures that that is precisely what it is about.
In the end, though, we cannot rest in that second reading, either. The conception of the philosophers, that the selfless act requires a certain inner purity of mind, has always been a caricature. Humans are complicated. They may act for another and yet be unable to escape themselves—such is the position of the narrator here. She is at once selfless and selfish, reaching out across the gap between minds to interact with the life of another and, simultaneously, trapped within her own mind. But that is what human communication is. Lorrie Moore is only doing justice to the facts. The secret, as I said, is simple enough.