With the critical and commercial success of Birds of America (1998), Lorrie Moore has established herself as one of the foremost writers of the 1990’s. A professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and an occasional reviewer of fiction, Moore published her first collection of short stories, Self-Help, in 1983. Since then, she has produced another collection, Like Life (1988), and two novels, Anagrams(1986) and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994). While her earlier stories were known for their sardonic send ups of self-help manuals, her vision has darkened over time in narratives populated by increasingly isolated characters. She tends to gravitate to unsettling, uncomfortable topics and then find a kind of gallows humor in them. As in her earlier work, Birds of America concerns such topics as cancer and its effects on the people who suffer from it, their forced break from everydayness. Her stories tend to yoke together opposite extremes—a shy, bookish librarian with an anarchist community activist, a drifting Hollywood actress with a Chicago mechanic who has never seen her movies. Even though Moore’s stories have lengthened and become more novelistic in their concern with place and identity, her humor remains her strongest asset. She writes of hilarity in the face of powerlessness, and absurdity that sometimes borders on hysteria; the more bleak the situation, the more she leaves the reader uncertain whether to laugh or feel concern. Moore’s defiant, devil-may-care attitude helps make her characters’ alienation, failure, and disfranchisement more bearable.
Moore achieves some of her best effects through style, a poetic attention to the sound of language, the odd turn of phrase, the disjointed rhythm of an unexpected extra clause. In “Community Life,” the librarian Olena considers the atmosphere of a coffee shop: “there was in the air that kind of distortion that bent you a little; it caused your usual self to grow slippery, to wander off and shop, to get blurry, bleed, bevel with possibility.” The alliteration begins just as the clauses shorten, creating a staccato rhythm that reinforces Olena’s pleasant sense of disorientation with a new suitor. In other stories, characters resort to an exaggerated attention to the absurdities of language as a kind of defense against the real- life tensions around them. Feeling defensive about people’s reactions to his much younger girlfriend, Bill, the law professor in “Beautiful Grade,” makes puns, dwells on names, and considers the weakness of the political phrase “don’t count on us.” Within Bill’s hyperliterary but fragile perspective, Moore riffs out ironic variations on his every thought: “He [Bill] believes in free speech. He believes in expensive speech. He doesn’t believe in shouting Fire’ in a crowded movie theatre, but he does believe in shouting Fie!’ and has done it twice himself—both times at Forrest Gump.” Moore writes felicitous turns of phrase on every page. In another story, one finds a woman whose “brains had been sucked dry by too much yoga” just as “a vacuum cleaner can start to pull up the actual thread of a carpet.”
As her style plays ironic variations on itself, Moore’s plotlines often negotiate between interior and exterior worlds. Characters cocoon themselves from both the natural and cultural wilderness that surrounds them. Damage to property often serves as a metaphor for the threats to the body or the psyche, and increasingly one realizes that no one is safe. In “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens,” Aileen worries over the birds, squirrels, and possums that threaten her yard after her cat Bert dies. In “Real Estate,” Ruth buys a house and discovers the encroachments of a menagerie of animals as well as a young teenager in her attic. If outside agents do not break into her body in the form of cancer, they break into her home in the form of squatters, animals, or prowlers. Eventually, she learns to fire a gun and kills a thief, thus underscoring the aggression underlying her effort to maintain some kind of autonomy. After shooting the man, she walks off by herself in despair. Moore’s portrait of her hysteria is one of the most chillingly effective of the...
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