BY SONYA LARSON
[This is the final entry in our “I Loved This Book When…” series. To read past installments of this series or any other, check out our Special Features page. Later in the year we’ll be bringing you a new series, “The Best Books of 2010”.]
The purpose of this series is to describe books loved at a certain point in a reader’s life, but there’s one book I’ve fallen for many, many times. It’s called Anagrams, by Lorrie Moore, and here’s a sampling of occasions when you’ll want to crack it open.
1. When you’re feeling schizophrenic.
Anagrams concerns the lives of Benna, a nightclub singer, Gerard, a wimpy and admiring neighbor, and Eleanor, a witty friend. Except for when Gerard is a noncommittal stud. Or when Eleanor is trashy and selling crates of halter tops. Or when Benna is actually an aerobics instructor for old people. Or a first grade teacher. Or cracking a bottle of ketchup over her best friend’s skull.
Across five short stories Moore plays with three characters’ lives, switching their tastes and personalities like somebody trying on shirts. They are anagrams of one another. What happens, the book seems to ask, When a character goes from brassy to meek? What happens when Benna gets angry, or even angrier than that? Are these really different characters we’re talking about, or don’t we all contain many lives and longings?
2. When you’re planning a yard sale.
Some items you can buy at Benna and Gerard and Eleanor’s: foam rubber curlers with hairs stuck in them, two bags of fiberglass insulation, three seamed and greasy juice glasses, and an opened box of Frost ‘N Tip for Brunettes Only with two coffee cup rings on the front.
3. When you’re drinking beer for breakfast.
Benna does it, as does Gerard. You’ll have company.
4. When you want to hear some hokey jokes.
Especially from a lounge singer. In this book, you have your choice: Benna or Gerard, depending on the story.
Good evening, ladies and gentlespoons. Welcome to the Dome Room. Where’s the dome in this room? What a dome name. I’m Gerard Maines. I know some of you were expecting Tammy Wynette, but these things happen. Hey you, Eleanor! You in the back, doing my taxes! This one’s for you.
5. When you’re having roommate problems.
Though Benna and Gerald are dating, they move into apartments across the hall from each other.
“It’s like parallel universes,” says Benna. “It’s like sleeping in twin beds.”
“It’s like Delmar, Maryland,” says Eleanor, “which is the same as Delmar, Delaware.”
“It’s living flush up against rejection.”
“It’s so like Gerard,” says Eleanor. “That man lives across the hall from his own fucking heart.”
6. When your best friend is having an affair with your boyfriend.
Such is the moment when Benna whips out that ketchup bottle.
7. When you’ve learned a thing or two about cancer.
In one story Benna finds a lump in her breast. This is going to sound bad, but I laughed more in these passages than in any other. I also wanted to weep. Says Benna:
This is why I was pleased: The lump was not simply a focal point for my self-pity; it was also a battery propelling me, strengthening me—my very own appointment with death. It anchored and deepened me like a secret. I started to feel it when I walked, just out from under my armpit—hard, achy evidence that I was truly a knotted saint, a bleeding angel. At last it had been confirmed: My life was really as difficult as I had always suspected.
8. When you’re playing word games.
“Things flow about so here!” says Lewis Carroll in one epigraph. “Everyone says to stay away from ants,” says Lewis Thomas in another. “And—you say to yourself—what’s the harm?” says Jerry Lewis. What is up with the Lewises? That’s for you figure out.
9. When you want a child.
In the last story the narrator claims she has an imaginary daughter: Georgianne Michelle Carpenter. She is six years old and “watches too much TV news.” For fifty thrilling pages you’ll understand this little girl more richly and hilariously than your own niece, perhaps even forgetting that she is only somebody’s wish.
10. When you want to feel alive.
This last one is cheesy. But I’m telling you—it works.