Lester I. Mor, the enigmatic, reclusive minimalist author, died yesterday in his sleep at his Manhattan home, apparently of natural causes. Mor, a literary star and critics’ and academics’ darling from his first published work, Les Is Mor, was 59 years old.
Mor was known as “The Minimalist’s Minimalist.” Les Is Mor is not just the title of his first best seller. It’s the entire text as well.
Published when Mor was a sophomore majoring in quantum mechanics at MIT in 1969, the compact, single-page volume was initially given short shrift by the few critics who took the trouble to consider it. Most if not all reviewers who bothered to take note of it at all relegated it, as a footnote item, to the clusters of cash register books at the chain stores, alongside those blank notebooks with plush covers, the latest bathroom humor collections, and cats-with-captions gift items and the like. However, following casual mention by beat poet Allen Ginsberg on the Tonight Show two years later (“Les is Mor says it all,” declared Ginsburg without elaboration) and after having gathered its share of dust on a table at Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Book Store in San Francisco, sales at the register began to register. Re-orders from City Lights to Mor’s dormant and nearly bankrupt publisher, The Ex Press, revived the company, and spurred other booksellers to take note. Before you could say “less is more,” the slim volume was climbing all the major bestseller lists. It quickly became a favorite of commuters and college freshmen.
Critics had second and third looks, and academics soon began assigning it to their contemporary literature seminars and writing workshops. At least twenty-six Ph.D. dissertations are known to have been completed on Mor’s works to date.
Lester Isadore Mor was born in East Flatbush in Brooklyn, New York. He was the only child of Jacob and Sarah Mordecai, immigrants from Vilnius (also Vilna), in Lithuania. Lester’s father, Jacob Mordecai, was a fruit peddler who sold only Macintosh apples from a horse-drawn cart that he drove around their own and adjoining working-class neighborhoods. His mother, Sarah, was a housewife who also played the piccolo and taught ballroom dancing.
Something of an athlete in his youth, Lester Isadore Mor played first base for his high school baseball team and held the record for the least hits ever (zero) in a season, on a team that lost every game it played. He pitched one inning in relief for the team and gave up the losing run in the final inning of its frustrating season closer during his senior year for a 1-0 loss.
After Ginsburg’s comment and upon the astonishing critical and commercial success of Les is Mor, the new literary star dropped out of MIT and moved to the Lower East Side, never receiving his bachelor’s degree. He devoted the rest of his life to writing. Despite his windfall from book sales and film options, he lived a simple life in a sparely furnished one-room, sixth-floor walk-up apartment on East First Street, declining all requests for interviews and refusing to be photographed.
Two years after publication of Les is Mor, Mor again stunned the literary world with his next book, Enough Said, its entire text again echoing its title. The critic for the New York Times called Enough Said “the essence of in-your face literary moxie.” Le Monde tipped its beret to Mor, an author who, it declared, “clearly respects the reader’s imagination and refuses to pander, as do so many American writers, to the middling mindlessness assumed to be in demand by the masses.”
The Guardian of London lauded Enough Said for its “vast, virtually limitless subtext,” and declared it “nothing short of visionary, a monumental moment” in western culture. Thomas Pynchon wrote, in an essay emailed from an unknown location to the New York Review of Books, that Enough Said “expands the vast universe of imagination already illuminated for us by Mor’s singular masterpiece, Les is Mor.”
One Wonders, the title and text of Mor’s third book, evoked even higher praise. “He sees what the rest of us do not see, and he tantalizingly provokes us, and compels us to confront all of our preconceptions about literature, love, cosmological conundrums, our own darkest thoughts, even our assumptions regarding the natural sciences and world history,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times Book Review. “We are alone and utterly exposed before one of Mor’s masterworks of micro-narrative as never before, naked beneath the cosmos, and it is a terrifying and exhilarating experience. Savor each word. They are few, but like the powerful and even tinier atom whose study he abandoned for the sake of art, they pack a power punch. Mor’s oeuvre is to be reread again and again. Each time it is new. A revelation and an astonishing achievement.”
Mor’s final opus, Ibid (title and full text), inspired the prolific maximalist Joyce Carol Oates to posit, in an essay in Harper’s, that “Mor unquestionably is our greatest and canniest writer. We are all humbled by his accomplishment. Beckett and Pinter pre-date him, perhaps inspired him, and must now be consigned to reside in his shadow, as they cannot approach Mor’s daring nor his mastery of the mysteries of language and thought. Even Joyce must now be reconsidered, along with Faulkner and Milton. None of us truly understood the power of inference before Les Is Mor came along. Nor can we anticipate how literature, indeed all art forms, will surely change from now on in his wake.”
Minimalist painter and sculptor Ellsworth Kelly told Artforum magazine last year that he felt compelled to take two years off from his own work after discovering Les is Mor seven years ago, to reexamine his own methods, stating; “Mor is the man, no doubt about it. Who the hell did we think we were before he came along? He’s got it. Just think of all the ink and paint that’s been poured over the years without anyone getting it right the way Les Mor has. I love him.” After a reading of Enough Said at the Union Square Barnes & Noble bookstore in Manhattan, during which Mor merely recited the title and text and then stood mute for 22 minutes, composer John Cage attempted to sue him for plagiarism. A State Supreme Court judge threw the case out, however, declaring that silence could not be copyrighted. Although he lived there for more than 40 years, few of Mor’s neighbors could state for certain, when asked, if they had ever actually seen him. None could describe him to a reporter who attempted to fashion a profile of Mor two years ago. His landlord said his rent checks arrived on time on the first of every month without fail. So far as is known, he never married. His only survivor would appear to be e.e., his tuxedo cat, whose name was etched onto the side of his feeding bowl, and whose cries alerted neighbors to Mor’s passing after the author had been dead for approximately 48 hours, according to the city’s Medical Examiner. Mor’s agent, Sally Burkheiser, of Burkheiser and Burkheiser, LLP, said she herself had never met him personally, and that she believed Mor, a painstaking taskmaster, was hard at work on another book, title unknown, and was expected to deliver a completed manuscript later this year. Critics and scholars have disagreed for years over what to call Mor’s writing. Some said it was poetry, others fiction. Many became convinced that Mor had invented a new kind of novel, although some continue to argue that his books ought more properly be shelved with the memoirs. Norman Mailer seemed to have hit the nail on the head when he wrote in Vanity Fair in 2004: “They are what they are. You will get from them what you bring to them. Read, enjoy, put it down, take a walk, then pick it up again and re-read. I never go anywhere without at least one Mor in my satchel.” A handwritten will found in a bureau drawer reportedly called for his assets— minimal furnishings and clothing and an unknown amount of savings—to be distributed among as many sidewalk fruit peddlers in New York City as can be found, with an annuity set aside for housing, care, and feeding of his feline friend e.e. Funeral and memorial services are yet to be announced. Daniel B. Meltzer is an O. Henry and Pushcart Prize winning author of many stories, memoirs, essays, poems, and plays. His essays have been syndicated in newspapers and magazines here and abroad. His plays are performed regularly across the US, also in Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Scripts are available from Samuel French, Inc. He has taught at NYU and Penn State Universities. Last year, his play A Cable from Gibraltar had its New York Premiere and The Square Root of Love had its European premiere in Barcelona. Daniel lives in New York City. More at danmeltzer.com
Q: What was the inspiration for this story?
A: I have read many obituaries, even written a number in my days as a journalist. I have read many, many book reviews, and I have been an academic. I have, in addition, known a number of experimental artists and writers. The lines intersected and Les Is Mor is the result.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Eastern Long Island. The air, the light, the beaches, the sea.
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Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I can hear the narrator’s voice, grammar, feel his or her state of mind and role in the story. I have to have the first line, then the first paragraph, and then the next, and so on. I sense the arc of the story, which comes into sharper and sharper focus as I go on, until I see an ending up ahead and I write it. I then re-write, re-write and re-write until I am satisfied it is complete.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?