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Thank you!

  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital?


This week, ladies and gentlemen, a new one…drumroll…Lorrie Moore’s 1994 novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

What?

‘Kay, I’m not sure what you’re reacting to there…the title? I will explain more about the title later, so please take your seat.

The novel (widely praised) has been described as a coming of age tale, but I don’t think that does it justice, rather that description is an attempt to pigeon-hole a complexity.

We must be vigilant to guard against reductionist thinking, particularly in dealing with art.

Thank you.

The story is narrated by Berie Carr, a woman who looks back from an unspecified present to incidents in her life—yes, a character narrator who presents the story in first-person, simple past tense. The tone is ironic and humorous—even while dealing with mortal matters. The incidents selected run along two streams in the narrator’s life so far—one is her adult self, dealing with her marriage to a husband named Daniel. The second—the bulk of the novel—concerns her life as an adolescent growing up in the fictious town of Horsehearts, New York.

Fictitious, you say? Well, yes, my bro. Berie works at the Story Land amusement park with her best friend Sils—this is a real place; however, it is actually located in New Hampshire. I have been there (driven by it) so I know. Ms. Moore has moved the park to a fictitious town in upstate New York.

Frog begins with a page of three quotes, one by Emily Dickinson, one Thoreau, one Shakespeare. All three are interesting, but I’ll pick one for discussion, the Thoreau:

“I am thankful that this pond was made deep and pure for a symbol.”

First, there’s a nice echoing here of the idea of a pond and the book’s title, referring to frogs (who live in ponds—you knew that). Then, there’s the idea of a pond being a symbol. I’m going to say I think the author is tipping us off that the book is a symbol, or contains symbols. Of what, you say? Let’s ponder this and discuss more once we’re underway.

At the outset, let’s note that the structure of the novel is not the traditional Chapter One, Chapter Two, format. After that initial page of quotes, we have a page of thanks by the author, then a title page, then the text itself. There are no chapter markers; sections are set off by space, i.e. paragraph and page breaks. A very few sections are set off by a break filled by an em dash (a long line) and these sections are different, showing scenes set before or after a greater leap of time from what comes before. But that’s all. There are one hundred forty-eight pages of text—short for a novel—and the only title is the name of the book, Frog Hospital.

The story begins with an adult Berie in Paris with her husband, Daniel; the first line: In Paris, we eat brains every night. The narrator comments that, by eating brains, “I’m hoping for something Proustian, all that forgotten childhood.” We are told the scene occurs in Paris, we must infer that the narrator is an adult from the statement that she has a husband as well as from the adult tone. We should note too that the mention of famous writer Marcel Proust tips us off to something about the book’s style, that it will refer to literary matters, albeit casually. We are tipped off that the narrator is someone who is aware of Proust, a sort of in-joke.

The passage continues: “I don’t know why he always strikes up conversations with people next to us.” So the narrator, writing in simple past, is showing these scenes with she and her husband, and also commenting on them to a unknown reader. She’s describing herself in these scenes, eating brains, hoping for something Proustian, interacting with her husband, who seems kind of cloddish, yet, she follows his lead. So another level is that Berie submits to Daniel—although rebelling inside—we are shown this rebellion. Her comments to the reader, presumably from a different time and place, comprise a third level. She mentions her sore hip, which we later learn is the result of Daniel pushing her downstairs. There’s a dynamic of her being “bratty” but submitting to his control. “We walk the quais, stand on all the bridges in the misty rain, and look out on this pretty place, secretly imagining being married to other people—right here in River City!—and sometimes not, sometimes simply wondering, silently or aloud, what will become of the world.” This is in part what I mean by the comic tone—the River City comment. It's ironic and sarcastic.

An interesting use of “we” suggests that the narrator omnisciently knows her husband’s thoughts—or imagines she does.

The next section—set off by one of those em dashes, begins: “When I was a child, I tried hard for a time to split my voice.” Here, the scene has gone back in time to the narrator being a child, apparently in Horsehearts, New York. . Some description of her life and family is presented, although we don’t know exactly how old she was. In any case, we’re presented with a powerful image here. A young girl tries to split her voice. “I might be able to people myself, unleash the crowd in my voice box, give birth, set free all the moods and nuances, all the lovely and mystical inhabitants of my mind’s speech…There must have been pain in me. I wanted to howl and fly and break apart.” The narrator shares that “Later, when I was an adult…” and goes on to tell how she heard a recording of Tibetan monks who could split their voices. Then in the next paragraph, we are presented with another leap: “Certainly ‘safe’ is what I am now—or am supposed to be. Safety is in me, holds me straight…Though there are times…in the small city where we live, when I’ve left my husband for a late walk…I’ve felt an old wildness again. Revenant and drunken. It isn’t sexual, not really. It has to do more with adventure and escape…though finally, it has always stayed to one side as if it were some other impossible life and knew it…It has always stayed.”

What’s going on here? Well, as with the Proust reference above, we are certainly cued here that this is no “Dick and Jane” story, it goes deep into a human psyche to show complex thoughts and distinctions, using poetic language.

In six pages, the narrator picks out events from four different time periods, the last possibly being the narrator’s present. We learn her marriage was not happy but she remains married—maybe the marriage changed, we don’t know. We learn that as a child, there must have been pain in her, and that she wanted to split her voice to try to give expression to the multitude she feels within. And we learn that she is “safe” now, but qualifies safety as something perhaps not desirable. (those parentheses around the word “safe”). She still feels an old wildness that, being old, must have been with her before.

In the next section, we will begin to understand these “symbols” more.

Till then.

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