Referential is a story that the author offers as an homage to Vladimir Nabokov, a writer whose short stories are published in an own collection. Lorrie Moore’s work parallels that of Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Both stories are about a couple who are coping with their son who is admitted to a psychiatric institution due to what is termed as referential mania. Patients with such a disorder think that every little thing is a reference to their existence, i.e. everything is about them.
Moore’s story is apparently lifted from the delusional disorder. Her version, in contrast of the original, is set in the modern decade. This is quickly shown by the pop culture references to modern gadgets and the family setup. In the original, we read about long married parents who fail to visit their son because of the nurse’s advice against seeing him. Here, the couple are unmarried. The mother is a widow and Pete, the only named character, joins the mother in visiting her son despite his reluctance.
It is hinted that the mother and Pete’s relationship is gradually falling apart. Pete is withdrawing after years of being a father to the son, and could he be blamed if he pulls away from the two? Early in the story, it is established that Pete is the stronghold of the unconventional family. The mother and son adore him. They both expect him to be always around them.
One may dismiss Pete’s declining affection towards the two as a sign of weakness, but there are other things in play. There is the economic crisis that affected him, a factor that is not explored. More importantly, a bluff at the end of the story is revealing.
So far, these are the major things that are not in common with “Signs and Symbols.” The rest is basically the same. One may look at it as a great work outlined and tweaked for the purpose of art. I wouldn’t want to classify it as a retelling, nor is it plagiarism. It is easy to confuse this as an unoriginal work, especially if one has bothered to read the original work. But is there even anything original these days? Haven’t the stories we encountered been retold, reworked, and refashioned with a few changes here and there?
What I find original in this work is the author’s expansion of Nabokov’s theme of reference into a separate story. It may not be a short fiction par excellence, considering that Nabokov is a lyric master of words, but there is a tender quality to its mood. The mother and Pete don’t bicker out loud and do what they can for the son, who is becoming increasingly difficult and eccentric with each year.
Now she and Pete went to see her son without the jams but with a soft deckle-edged book about Daniel Boone, pulled from her own bookcase, which was allowed, even though her son would believe that it contained messages for him, believe that, although it was a story about a long-ago person, it was also the story of his own sorrow and heroism in the face of every manner of wilderness, defeat, and abduction, that his own life could be draped over the book, which was simply a noble armature for the revelation of tales of him. There would be clues in the words on pages with numbers that added up to his age: 97, 88, 466. There would be other veiled references to his existence. There always were.
The same is true with literature. Overt or not, there always are references to other works of this most encompassing form of art.
Published in: Bark
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars