Lorrie Moore’s 1986 book ‘Anagrams’ tells the story of the on-again, off-again relationship between Benna, who teaches poetry at a community college, and Gerard, a would-be opera singer who is a carpet salesman by day, and a pianist at the Holiday Inn lounge by night. It deals with many themes, among them the hazards of living too much in your imagination, the risks of unrealistic ambitions, and others, but I’d like to mention a single one which spoke to me. Both characters are fascinated by language, and humor. While Gerard tends toward silly jokes (“What did one lady cannibal say to the other lady cannibal?” he’s now asking. “ ‘Boy, is my husband in hot water!’ ”), Benna loves to make anagrams out of words that really don’t qualify (moonscape and menopause) and delights in puns. Her daughter’s faithfulness to shredded wheat is ‘cereal monogamy’. Holding an egg roll, she remarks: ‘I am a wok, I am an island’.
Though corny in a sense, there is something behind it that caught my attention— the pleasure she takes in words and sentences. To me, language has largely been a means of conveying information, or perhaps of telling stories. It was a refreshing reminder that it is also a source of pleasure, in and of itself.
Moore also has some interesting insights. Benna, who grew up in a trailer, comments several times that her mother had no illusions, and didn’t want her children to have any. At the end of the book, leaving in a taxi to the airport for a lonely winter vacation, she recalls: ‘Santa Claus is a spirit that lives in your heart, her mother had told her, not believing it right to hoodwink children. But perhaps her mother had been wrong. Perhaps sitting in a taxicab like this on Christmas there was no spirit in your heart. Perhaps there was only an old man, ridiculous and fat, who came into your house through your chimney, too moronic even to use the door.’ To me, the several cases in which she turns around accepted ideas and looks at them in different ways, even if sad, made it a worthwhile read.