While Referential has all the potential to be an impactful short story, I feel that Lorrie Moore made some language choices that lessened the experience of what the piece could have been. Perhaps it is a lack of knowledge and understanding on my part that allows me to point out the following, what I consider “missteps,” and which case I suppose there is a bigger problem afoot; however, I am going to shamelessly volunteer the things that interrupted my experience of what could have been an incredible story.
Just when I was settling into the story, the first of a series of off-putting references, similes, and metaphors happened at the end of the first paragraph, which was the following description: “The jars were arranged by color… as if they contained the urine tests of an increasingly ill person.” There is potential here for beauty or even a better medically-centered description (one that speaks to mental decay rather than physical) but this seems more fitting for a story in which a character is suffering from kidney failure or cancer. It did nothing to emphasize what the child was missing out on by not receiving the jams, nor did it relate to his plight.
While I liked the imagery of “the words ‘peace’ and ‘fuck’ [carved] into picnic tables and tress, the ‘C’ three-quarters of a square” because the detail of the “C” in such graffiti is true yet rarely made a spectacle of, this line was the third successive description using figurative language to refer to the scars on the son’s arms. This was preceded by the mother figure thinking that the scars “sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name, the loss of fathers etched primitively in an algebra of skin” and the scars depicted as “white webbed lines” that somehow get tied into the campground graffiti simile. These back-to-back descriptions resulted in a long-winded heap that I did not find striking or helpful when reading the story. On its own, the idea about Pete and the loss of fathers is very complex, being that Pete is not the child’s biological father, and one could argue that a father-figure’s presence in the child’s life is unplanned—how could anything have been pre-etched into self-made scars? While I can venture at what Moore was hoping to accomplish in all of this, it could have been presented far more effectively.
Adding to the hard-to-swallow, was the over-swallowed. Looming storms, stabbing tears, mirrors, pictures of memories past, phantom callers and a relationship on the rocks—not even the à la carte version, the full meal with probable cheating included—all detracted from my feelings for this story. The only thing that made me question my understanding of the entirety of the seemingly confusing choices in language throughout was the “monkey’s paw” reference at the end of the story that appeared to hearken back to an Edgar Allen Poe story I read over a decade ago. I’m still not convinced it isn’t a coincidence.