Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, Lorrie Moore’s novel from 1994, is a tragi-comic slice of small American life, one of those novels that mixes timeframes so that it is both a coming-of-age novel and a past-that-age novel, precisely in order to demonstrate that no such ‘age’ actually exists: life as process of disappointment, in other words, the slow retreat into submission.
All of which sounds grim, which Who Will Run The Frog Hospital most certainly is not. Moore has a light and deft touch and a way with narrative and, in the shape of Sils and Berie, the two young female leads, a couple of fascinating and engaging characters.
It is, though, an uneven book. Those passages relating Berie’s youth are excellent, but the novel also interweaves moments from Berie’s later life as she approaches forty, on a business trip-cum-holiday to Paris, working on a marriage that may already be irretrievably lost. These sections are essential to the theme of the novel, as we shall see later, but they don’t convince. They feel weak and flimsy, a story-by-numbers with cliched emotions and a down beat that feels too measured to be satisfying. It almost works, but not quite. ‘I feel his lack of love for me. But we are managing,’ Berie says at one point, and the quiet resignation is poignant, but overall this section can’t quite overcome the suspicion that it is manufactured in order to make a point.
The main story, however, where Berie is fifteen and, physically, a slow-developer (she composes elaborate joke routines about her flat-chestedness in the classic defence mechanism of deflecting attention by drawing attention) is engrossing and works beautifully. Her friend is Sils, a counterpoint to the gauche Berie, sexually confident, attractive, assured. The girls have an intense friendship, entirely platonic but nonetheless fringed by a latent sexuality that neither acknowledges or perhaps even recognises. They work in the Storyland theme park, where all the rides are inspired by fairy tales and where everything is possible and the future is only golden and perfect. Such will be the course of their lives, these girls believe, but of course life is darker than that. Sils becomes pregnant. Berie steals from the theme park in order to pay for an abortion. Retribution calls. Youthful idealism is confronted by reality.
Thus, the theme of the novel is set. We are in ‘that anteroom of girlhood’ where everything is still possible but, through the mind of the forty-year old Berie, unhappy in Paris, we also know that the future is an impoverished place, not worthy of the grand anticipation our childhood selves devote to it. There is a great deal of pathos to be had from such disjunctions of hope and experience, and Moore expertly reveals it, not least because of her deft use of counterpointing humour. She mingles comedy and melancholy in her work to great effect, something she recognised in a 2005 interview:
Well, [comedy and melancholy] involve the release of energy, I suppose. And yet they are also a kind of team, feeding each other and enlivening each other and becoming each other—one of those kinds of marriages. They compete for the discourse, then collapse on the sofa. They are both true. That is what I’m realizing more and more: that in most dichotomies each part is true.
Such dichotomies are what life is about. Everything is a continuum. Hope conquers all, Moore tells us, except time, because time unravels every ideal that sustains it. What we are left with, in Who Will Run The Frog Hospital, is a fragile slice of that hope, even as it dissolves into sufferance.