A professor of mine once said that The Great Gatsby is the perfect novel, except for one thing. “Fitzgerald never manages to convince me,” he said, “that the voice telling the story really comes from a stockbroker.”
This is a major obstacle for any author who writes in the first person, I think. Writers by the terms of their very job descriptions are articulate, and most authors have a tendency to delve into the nuances of human motivation. (This, by the way, is why we tend not to get along very well with our families. But I digress.) If one’s protagonist is not a writer – or a psychologist, or a theatrical director, or a member of a handful of other professions that lend themselves to this kind of analysis – there is a good chance that he won’t be practiced in making the kinds of observations that novelists tend to rely on in their characterization. Yet if one chooses to write in the first person, the protagonist’s voice is the primary filter through which the reader receives the world of the novel (the only other filter available, really, is dramatic irony – the placement of actions and events and details in such a way that the protagonist misinterprets them but the reader can recognize their significance while also recognizing the protagonist’s naïvete – and this is tricky). And this is how The Great Gatsby ends up with a stockbroker-narrator who says things like “the fresh, green breast of the new world” and “for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder” (180).
Lorrie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? is another novel that – while generally skillfully written – suffers from this central incongruity. Its protagonist is Berie Carr, who, in the novel’s de-emphasized present-time plot is trying to force herself to face the fact that her marriage is troubled and perhaps doomed. The bulk of the plot takes place during Berie’s adolescence, when her life revolved around her odd family, her best friend Silsby Chaussée, and her job as a cashier at a bizarre fairy-tale theme park that would strike me as implausibly strange if I didn’t have a vague memory of driving past a very similar place once, a long time ago, somewhere in northern New Hampshire. Teenaged Berie is concerned about a lot of fairly predictable things: her mysterious parents, who are constantly ready to open their home to various exchange students, foster children, and international refugees but seem totally unable to fathom the inner lives of their own children; her body’s failure to develop sexually at the same rate as other girls’ (there is definitely something Judy Blume-ish about this novel, although happily this quality is overshadowed by the sophistication that the present-day plot provides); and her determination to fund her friend Silsby’s abortion.
The young Berie strikes me as impossibly dingy, and I think this is a factor not of her lack of intelligence or even of her lack of experience but of her tendency to see other people as opaque rather than transparent. The scheme by which she embezzles hundreds of dollars from Storyland (the theme park where she works) requires a certain amount of intelligence, after all. Maybe this is just me, but I tend to assume that dingy teenagers will become dingy adults – and I do not at all assume that teenagers in general are dingy. My own teenage years were probably the most focused, industrious, serious years of my life, and in my ten years of working in high schools I have generally found that the percentage of airheadedness among adolescents seems to be about the same as that in the general population. This is one reason that I find the incisiveness of the first-person narration – even coming from the adult Berie – implausible: in both timelines, Berie strikes me as relatively intelligent but not at all contemplative, so the portions of her narration in which she makes inferences about other characters strike me as false – as inserted by Lorrie Moore the writer rather than by Berie Carr the narrator. This is the root of the problem: it is fine for a writer to write about a character who sees the world mostly for its surfaces and finds other people impossibly mysterious, but in this case Moore’s choice to write this novel in first person forces a divide between Berie-the-narrator and Berie-the-character that, in my opinion, weakens the novel.
For one thing, Berie thinks way too much about language for a non-writer. I know this because whenever I make what I think are obvious remarks about words and language to non-writers – even very, very intelligent ones – they give me that look. I dated an extremely intelligent man with a Ph.D who once used calculus to derive a formula that made a multi-million-dollar instrument obsolete, and he couldn’t understand why I thought it was a bad idea to call adult women “girls.” He wasn’t a sexist jerk or anything – he understood why adult women shouldn’t be treated like girls – he just didn’t see why the words one chooses are a big deal. But Berie notices all kinds of nuances of language that strike me as way too subtle for someone who never bothered to scrutinize her parents’ behavior long enough to figure out why they keep bringing home so many African refugees. For example: her endless fascination with the Americanisms whoops and whoops-a-daisy (which I hate), her amusement at how various phrases sound when translated literally from French into English (“terrine de lapin: bowl of bunny” ), her recognition that her hometown is “the sort of place where even a person of prominence might say things like ‘even steven.’ It was the sort of place where if you stayed too long, you might add or subtract syllables; you might ask for ‘hamburgs’ or ‘cheeseburgs’ or ‘cream de mint.’ After twenty years, you could end up saying ‘bingo’ for ‘yes’” (113). In fact, this whole book reads like one long riff on the peculiarities of language in small-town America – which is not a bad thing in itself, but when coming from the mouth of a first-person narrator as noncommittal as Berie, it bears a false ring.
In addition to its frequent wordplay, this novel also engages in a good bit of what I will call ‘motif-play.’ You’ve probably noticed that the title is, well, odd. To me, this title is odd in a bad way and is actually a turn-off; I probably would have read it a long time ago if it weren’t for the silly title, which my brain often confuses with Tom Robbins’ Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, which I also don’t want to read because of its ridiculous title. The title comes from a memory that Berie has of her elementary school years, when her male classmates used to go to a local pond and shoot frogs with BB Guns. Berie, Silsby, and the other girls used to go along with them and would conduct “operations” on the poor frogs, removing the embedded BB’s when possible and then bandaging them with gauze. Silsby painted a picture of this scene at some point when she and Berie were a little older, and “Who will run the frog hospital?” was the caption of the painting. This scene introduces some assumptions about gender roles that are important throughout the novel – men hurt, women heal – especially when Berie is so determined that it should be she who pays for Silsby’s abortion and helps her cope with its aftermath in place of the more logical candidate – Silsby’s boyfriend Mike – but it also in subtle ways raises the question of whether the “healing” that women think they do can sometimes do just as much damage as the initial male assaults. In the present-time plot of this novel, Berie is trying to make two decisions: first, she and her husband are trying to decide whether or not they should try to have a child in spite of the fact that they have discovered that they both carry the gene for Tay-Sachs disease – meaning that their child would be likely to develop this disease – and second, she is trying to decide what, if anything, she should do about the fact that once, during a fight, her husband pushed her down the stairs. The obvious, logical, and P.C. answer is that she should divorce him and certainly put to rest any thoughts of having children with him – but anyone who has been alive for even a few minutes knows that we don’t always do the obvious and logical things. By forgiving Daniel’s assault, is Berie showing high-mindedness and maturity, or is she simply enabling further violence – like the girls who dug the BB’s out of the frogs? Answers to questions like this one are usually clear in the abstract but unclear when dramatized in concrete terms, with the faces of real people that one loves superimposed upon the generalizations, and Lorrie Moore does a good job of fleshing out the difficulties that these decisions create for Berie.
I have a feeling that the parallel that I tried to draw in the last paragraph probably makes some sense but not complete sense, and in that it is similar to the symbolism and imagery in this novel. Frog references pop up everywhere – there are all kinds of references to princesses kissing frogs, and there is a French colloquialism that translates as “eating the frog,” which describes what Berie does when she steals from the till at work. French language and culture is important in this novel (which is set in France during the present-time plot), yet it is never entirely clear to me whether Moore wants us to view the use of “frogs” as a derisive term for French people as part of the linguistic texture that is created by the title. While I did get a little frustrated trying to figure out exactly where Moore was going with all the frog references, I actually kind of like it when fiction writers set up patterns of motifs and imagery that almost hold together, but not quite. When imagery and symbolism always work, a novel feels too simple. When they work up to a point but there are certain pieces of the puzzle that don’t seem to fit, this always seems to me like a figurative acknowledgement that life does not often fit neatly into molds and archetypes and expectations – and I trust a writer who will admit to this kind of uncertainty much more than I trust one who wants me to believe that the literary equivalent of x squared plus y squared always equals the literary equivalent of z squared.
This would be a great novel to study in an upper-level college or grad school course on fiction, because both its strengths and weaknesses are so evident. I don’t at all think that everyone would react to this novel the same way I do – in fact, one of the reasons I think this book would be fun to teach is that I suspect that men might react very differently to it than women, and also that younger, college-aged readers might react very differently than people in my generation and older. I didn’t love this book, but I did very much enjoy the questions that it made me ask about just how “realistic” realistic fiction is supposed to be and about the effectiveness of motifs and patterns of imagery when used at high concentrations in a short novel like this one – which is well worth reading and discussing, even though I don’t think it will ever be one of my favorites.