In this story, it was the first word that struck me. As if from the very beginning the author has already given us a warning. Mania, from the Greek word mainesthai, which literally means ‘be mad’. And yet after reading the whole story, aside from the son suffering from the fictional referential mania, seems there is nothing to be mad about. The thing is, though, people suffering from mania do not think anything is wrong.
Our main character is a mother, strongly forced by circumstances. She was widowed prematurely and left with a mentally afflicted son. It would have been easier if her lover Pete had stuck with her -being there to soothe her troubles away and share compassion with her son- but Pete was overwhelmed by these responsibilities, so she had to let him go. A mother whose priority is to care for her son the best way she could, take him home, and be with his family.
“Do you think of me when you look at the black capillaries of the trees at night?”
“I suppose I do.” Pete stared back at him, so as not to shift in his seat. “I am always hoping you are OK and that they treat you well here.”
“Do you think of my mom when staring up at the clouds and all they hold?”
Pete fell quiet again.
Unfortunately, both Pete and the mother did not recognize the mania in them. They prefer the comforts of a lie than being out with the truth. The truth that when the mother takes her son back home, there will be no Pete waiting for him, that Pete is no longer part of their lives. Somehow, she’s still clinging to the hope of keeping Pete, and that she could bring normalcy back to her son. Meanwhile, Pete struggles with his guilt, for turning his back from this family, and for choosing someone else. The boy is the only person in the story who is comfortable with the truth, that there will be no candles or a fork for the birthday cake, because it would have been dangerous with his condition. Yet, perhaps, the ending poses a hope of discernment for the mother.
She knew that the world was not created to speak just to her, and yet, as with her son, sometimes things did.
Lorrie Moore made Referential a story of her own despite the acknowledged fact that this is a nod to Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols. In my humble opinion, the original may have the lyrical prose, but it was Moore’s version that gave the words purpose. It made the reader understand the emotions, ask the questions, and mirror the story in the everyday life.
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.
Excerpts from the contributors:
Her [narrator] 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? – Monique
I greatly appreciate Referential for its strong message and poignant portrayal of a mother’s love. As a mother myself, I can easily connect with the narrator. Hers is a story of courage and strength brought about by unfavorable circumstances. She has experienced the harsh reality of life, that no matter how she wants for things to be different, she has to learn to accept that sometimes life throws rocks at you, and you just have to learn to catch them or else you find yourself stoned to death. – Lynai
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. – Angus
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. – Bennard
Rating: 4/5 stars
Printed in Bark: Stories