Referential tells the story of a woman troubled with difficult relationships: she is the mother of a deranged teenage son whom she has committed to a facility, and she has been seeing her lover, Pete, shortly after having been widowed and after her son was born. For years, which cover a huge chunk of her son’s life, these two relationships have become so necessarily intertwined, she felt that the three of them had grown old together. Pete has been around to fill the shoes of her son’s real father.
Unfortunately, the years have taken its toll on these relationships, mostly, on her relationship with Pete. Could it be because of her mentally-disturbed son, or could it be just her?
Do you ever think about how at that moment of the candles time stands still, even as the moments carry away the smoke? It’s like the fire of burning love. Do you ever wonder why so many people have things they don’t deserve but how absurd all those things are to begin with? Do you really think a wish can come true if you never ever ever ever ever ever tell it to anyone?
[Did you know that sparrows can swoop into the wrens’ house and pluck out the fledglings from their nests and hurl them to the ground with a force you would not think possible for a sparrow? Even a homicidal sparrow?]
Lorrie Moore’s story is a tribute and, therefore, references to Vladimir Nabokov’s earlier short fiction, Signs and Symbols. In the latter story, a Russian couple visits their son in a sanatorium but never sees him because apparently, he attempted suicide before their arrival, so they were told that a visit might further upset him. The son is afflicted with an invented mental illness called referential mania, where the patient seems to think that everything he sees around him refers to his own existence. The delusion is also imaginatively contagious insofar as the readers are concerned, who are left to sift through the narrative to find clues referring to themselves, or their own existence.
Taking her cue from the referential mania delusion in Signs and Symbols, Moore crafted this story, Referential, as an illustration of the contagion of the disease, merely embellishing and deviating in certain parts.
A more meticulous reader would perhaps take time out to read Signs and Symbols (if he hasn’t already) seeing how Referential is written as an homage to it, but I opted not to. Reading the first story will provide further context and clarity to the second, true, but I decided to write about Referential based on how I appreciated it, standing as its own story, and on its own merits. In fact, I would not have known about the Nabokov reference were it not for the After VN in the ending and the explanatory note thereafter.
Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game. One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land the same regardless. Tenderness did not enter except in a damaged way and by luck.
The unnamed narrator’s dilemma, to me, felt like a situation that was dropped on her lap where she, principal character and unwitting participant, had little or no choice. The fate of her relationship with Pete did not rest solely on her own volition, and anyone would hazard to say that she certainly did not ask for a mentally sick child. But it cannot be denied that it is her life, too, and that she is half of each of these relationships. If she took matters into her own hands, decided the fates of these relationships on her own, can she be blamed?
Her strength was what leaped up at me as I read through her story. I tried to put myself in her shoes, but I could not even begin to imagine the depth of her strength, her motivation. I understood her unconditional love for her child, but I also acknowledged the pain and struggles that a mother of a mentally ill child must have to endure. Her relationship problems with Pete seem like a trivial matter in comparison, but his role in their lives must be likewise be recognized. When one stops to think about it, how did she do it, really?
Life was full of spies and preoccupying espionage. Yet the spies sometimes would flee as well and someone might have to go after them in order, paradoxically, to escape them altogether, over the rolling fields of living dream, into the early morning mountains of dawning signification.
The open-ended conclusion leaves the reader to formulate his own theory, which adds to the appeal of the story. Who was it, really? Who could it have been? Your guess is as good as mine.
Published in: Bark (2014)