My body, if a surgeon looked inside, would look like a drawerful of old socks and shoes…I’ve always wanted to grow old with someone, but this is not what I had in mind.

This is what Benna says near the end of Anagrams; it’s part of a passage so witty and wrenching I won’t ruin it by posting it all here out of context. Suffice to say this isn’t even the best part, which I know is hard to believe with that amazing made-up word already in there: “drawerful!”

I folded down the page not simply because of how witty/wrenching (the trademark Lorrie Moore combo) the paragraph was, but because it had another layer of resonance for me. It made me glad to be Moore’s reader, someone who will get to grow old with her. It also reminded me that Anagrams was her first novel, and despite its inarguable brilliance, I think she only got better.

But poor Benna, she’s trapped forever inside the endless, sad permutations of Anagrams.

The novel changes terms on every page (hence: anagrams). Elements are introduced and reused again and again (a “group sestina” exercise Benna gives her poetry students returns to particularly stunning effect). Sometimes Benna is “Benna,” sometimes “I,” sometimes, in tragic lowercase, “the teacher.” She’s consistent in her puns, her missteps, her deadpan affect and submerged hysteria. On some pages she’s honest with us, the readers, but, and this is a shade of a spoiler, we find out near the end that she has been doing some very convincing lying.

Because of this, at the end of the novel, I felt both betrayed and devastated. The betrayed part came with a touch of exhilaration—I was impressed that the book could surprise me so much. The devastated part though, oh, I was miserable when I finally put the book down. I’ve said before that I wonder if it was because this was her first novel after writing short stories, where moments can be smaller, that Moore thought she had to be brutal to be affecting. (Later, in books like Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? she strikes more of a balance.)

A few weeks later I’m still sad when I think about Benna. But, I won’t say that’s entirely a bad thing. How many books can bleed into (bleed out?) their readers’ lives like that?