“Referential” is Lorrie Moore’s riff on the Vladimir Nabokov story, “Signs and Symbols.” Moore’s homage feature the same setup from Nabokov’s original in which a couple has a son committed to an institution due to a fictional psychiatric disorder called “Referential Mania” in which the afflicted looks at the world and thinks that every nuance, every detail, refers to his/her own existence. However, there are differences between the two stories. Moore’s story is set in the modern era featuring an unmarried American (supposedly) couple while Nabokov’s is set during his time featuring married Russian immigrants as protagonists. Of course, the most glaring difference is in the prose. Here is Nabokov’s original:
“For the fourth time in as many years, they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to take to a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind. Desires he had none. Man-made objects were to him either hives of evil, vibrant with a malignant activity that he alone could perceive, or gross comforts for which no use could be found in his abstract world. After eliminating a number of articles that might offend him or frighten him (anything in the gadget line, for instance, was taboo), his parents chose a dainty and innocent trifle—a basket with ten different fruit jellies in ten little jars.”
Then Lorrie Moore’s riff:
“Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way about what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son. There was so little they were actually allowed to bring: almost everything could be transformed into a weapon and so most items had to be left at the front desk, and then, if requested, brought in later by a big blond aide, who would look the objects over beforehand for their wounding possibilities. Pete had bought a basket of jams, but they were in glass jars, and so not allowed. “I forgot about that,” he said. They were arranged in colour from brightest marmalade to cloudberry to fig, as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person, and so she thought, Just as well they will be confiscated. They would find something else to bring.”
Nabokov is a master lyricist, able to conjure sentences that possesses awesome aesthetic sensibilities that few can match. Moore, although being a very good writer herself, simply cannot match Nabokov in lyricism. However, what Moore excels at is setting the mood and I the first paragraph of referential shows the reader her ability. In one paragraph, she delivers the weight of the couple’s struggles that has been going on for years, where the mere act of choosing a present for your deranged son is a matter of life and death. And, in Moore’s stories, mood takes center stage and, quite often, her stories’ mood is that of resignation or despair.
Unlike Nabokov’s original which concentrated on structure, Moore, in her homage, concentrated on her characters, specifically the mother and her lover, Pete. In the story, the difficulties of having a son committed to a sanatorium is causing a stress in their relationship. Pete, once the foundation of the mother especially in matters dealing with her son, has slowly backed down from the responsibilities and has chosen to limit his involvement with his lover’s son. This, in turn, affects the mother because she draws strength from Pete. Now, in the fourth year of her son’s commitment to the sanatorium, everything seems to be falling apart.
Moore is no stranger to writing about women placed in a difficult situation and not necessarily powering through it but just surviving it. Here, the mother has an aura of resignation that is akin to the resignation felt by her protagonist from “How To Be An Other Woman” when she discovered that her lover won’t leave his wife for her. In “Referential”, especially during the end, the mother does not fight for the survival of her relationship with Pete, her energies drained due to her son’s illness that she can no longer afford to spend it on her relationship with Pete. This is what I like about Moore’s writing, the weight that she puts in her sentences resonates and leaves a mark on the reader. Yes, they may not be as lyrical as Nabokov’s but they’re more effective in showing despair.
Finally, I want to address Moore and Nabokov’s take on “Referential Mania”, the disease that afflicts the sons of their protagonists. Both stories end with a phone call without identifying who is on the other end of the line. It is now then left to the reader to determine whether the call holds significance or not and, if it did, what is it? More meticulous readers may now then pore through every detail in the story, looking for clues in order to solve the riddle at the end. This is where, I believe, Referential Mania comes in. Not only does it afflict the son of the protagonist, it also afflicts the readers of the story who are looking at insignificant details, concluding that such a detail is a reference or a clue to solving the mystery of the ending even if it is not. The story then afflicts the reader with a version of Referential Mania.
Does Moore improve the original story written by Nabokov? I think that is an idiotic question and therefore does not deserve an answer. One need not compare and one need not read the original to understand Moore’s story (although it adds a certain pleasure). Knowing that “Referential” isn’t an original idea does not take away the fact that it is a story about a mother’s strength and extent of sacrifice in order to care for her son. It doesn’t diminish Moore’s abilities and her value as a writer.
I have nothing against homages as long as they live up to the original. Literature is, after all, a conversation between not only readers and writers but between writers themselves. As long as it advances the cause of literature, then I see no problem. The question, after all, is not which one is better but does it do good to the cause of literature?
Published in: Bark and Other Stories