Lorrie Moore's Short-Story Collection "Birds In America" Is Fun, Fun, Fun!
By Stephan Faris
OCTOBER 12, 1998:
Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore (Knopf). Cloth, $23.
YOU DON'T APPROACH a Lorrie Moore short story the way you would just any story. You have to prepare, or else you'll find yourself spun around by labyrinthine plots, blinded by sparking explosions of wit and wordplay, and groping, through wounded emotions, for the easy way out (which Moore rarely provides).
In "Dance in America," Moore analogizes:
"We have raccoons sometimes in our chimney," explains Simon..."And once we tried to smoke them out. We lit a fire, knowing they were there, but we hoped that the smoke would cause them to scurry out the top and never come back. Instead, they caught on fire and came crashing down into our living room, all charred and in flames and running madly around until they dropped dead." Simone swallows some wine. "Love affairs are like that," she says. "They all are like that."
Love affairs? Moore could just as easily be describing her own short stories, which share the passage's mixture of frenzied searching and deadpan delivery of horrifying humor.
Her themes run the gamut of light and dark--from "Daughter, Mother Tour Ireland to Kiss Blarney Stone, Overcome Fear of Public Speaking," to "Baby Develops Kidney Cancer, Mother Churns Agonizingly in Pediatric Oncology Ward." Either way, a Moore plot guarantees a full share of hysterical tangents and heart-breaking asides.
If the plots are circuitous it's because they're exploratory. Moore's characters, usually 30-something women, repeatedly search for some missing thing in a world of relationships that, having once flourished, no longer mean anything. Lacking purpose and confidence, they fight to survive a life that "requires much exaggerated self-esteem."
Knowing their lives are adrift does them no good. One woman flies to Ireland and takes a trip in a rental car, "and sitting on what should be the driver's side but without a steering wheel suddenly seemed emblematic of something." Alone, this woman, like all Moore characters, cries for some sort of control. Lacking that, she comforts herself with the wordplay and pop-culture commentary that has come to characterize a Moore work.
Moore is not above using devices, either: In "Real Estate," she fills an entire two-page spread with laughter as one character reflects on her husband's infidelities: "There had been a parade of flings--in the end they'd made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!..." and so on.
But her wit can be more Spartan and biting, mocking her characters' personality and culture. For instance, in "Agnes of Iowa," the protagonist is a woman who, in an effort to be exotic, has taken to pronouncing her name "On-yez."
One day she is forced to divulge where she is really from, "Originally."
"Where am I from?" Agnes said it softly. "Iowa." She had a tendency not to speak up.
Moore, who has penned two previous collections of shorts and a pair of novels, has titled her latest book Birds of America. There are few birds the text, but somehow the title seems appropriate. Her characters' flighty emotions and nervous inability to confront their demons seem peculiarly avian.
In "What You Want to Do Fine," Moore hints at the title's meaning when Mack, one of her few male protagonists, visiting Audubon's cabin, discovers the great naturalist shot the birds he painted:
"He shot them?" Mack kept asking. "He shot the damn birds?"
Like Audubon, Moore captures her subjects and treats us to microscopically close detail.
She excels at painting the white space between characters. This talent for amplifying gaps--accenting the isolation not only between people, but also between a character and her own emotions--make her characters orphaned observers to their own painful experiences.
Like a television generation, they numbly view their world through a lens. At once, they know both how they should behave, and that they can't behave as such, being as they are perpetually adrift and unable to find their footing.
For instance, in "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk," a surgeon divulges his diagnosis as his child-patient, "big on lights these days," flicks the switches on and off:
"What we have here is a Wilms' tumor," says the Surgeon, suddenly plunged into darkness. He says "tumor" as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
In short, Birds of America, is a poignant and humor-filled collection. Each piece contains deft craft work--clever twists or stunning drama--that makes a reader pause for breath before hurriedly diving back in.
Her storytelling recalls both Dorothy Parker and Raymond Carver: There's a loneliness that sometimes collapses inward in complete breakdown, and occasionally culminates in a moment of epiphanous breakthrough.
Breakdown or breakthrough? We ask with every line, hoping, almost begging, for the latter. And Moore pulls us in. We feel for her characters, as we do for ourselves. We join them as they struggle through their lives. "I'm trying to get all my birds to land in the same yard," one explains...and therein lies the joy.
"What makes humans human is precisely that they do not know the future," writes Moore. "That is why they do the fateful and amusing things they do: who can say how anything will turn out? Therein lies the only hope for redemption, discovery, and--let's be frank--fun, fun, fun!"
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