Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1754
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.
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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 collection.
In her strongest story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” Moore takes the grimmest scenario, a baby developing cancer of the kidney, and expands it into a controlled rage at cosmic injustice amid the niceties of modern medicine. Curiously, Moore uses this context to reflect on the inadequacies of writing, of trying to shape a narrative around such an absurd situation. The main character, a writer and teacher known impersonally as “Mother,” resembles Moore herself. At one point, a doctor asks her to sign one of her earlier novels, clearly a reference to Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? The character’s husband wants her to keep notes about their baby’s operation to help raise money to pay for everything, but she balks at this “nightmare of narrative slop.” Meanwhile, she resists the blandly sinister hospital procedures, the internal and external threats to her baby, and the nightmarishly cheerful compliance of other parents. As the tone jumps back and forth between existential dread, gallows humor, queasy clinical detail, and parental love, the story consistently leaves the reader off balance. The enormity of the illness keeps clashing with the innocence of the other boys in the ward, most of whom are balding from chemotherapy. While other parents acclimatize themselves with Kafkaesque resignation to perpetual self-sacrifice for their children, the Mother remains in open revolt throughout. At the close, she resolves that she “never wants to see any of these people again.”
Moore is less effective in some of the shorter stories. When she has less time to develop her themes and characterizations, she falls back on more sketchy grotesques to speak for her. “Agnes of Iowa” ends with a homely couple sitting in a coffee shop in New York City. The husband makes a clown face, and Agnes tries to return it, making a “look of such monstrous emptiness and stupidity” with her newly dyed red hair that her husband laughs “like a dog.” Since characters like these have worse problems than most people, Moore has to be careful about her mocking wit cutting off all readerly sympathy for them altogether. In “Charades,” a Christmas family parlor game barely rises above the grotesque. Since everyone puts on an act, real identity gets buried under social personae. In the nearly plotless pathos of “Dance in America,” another threatened child, Eugene, has cystic fibrosis, and another household suffers the impingements of nature when raccoons crawl into a chimney. The dance instructor narrator has recently broken up with her boyfriend, but at least they can all dance away the evening, and through that gesture defy the fates conspiring against them. This makes for a sad story, but the closure does not seem earned, the characters more stand-ins for modern maladies than fleshed-out people.
Yet these are quibbles in light of the stories’ many strengths, their laugh-out-loud one-liners, summary analyses, and skillful use of point of view. In “Real Estate,” Moore includes two pages of one word, repeating “Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!” to establish the derangement of her jealous, morbidly fixated main character. Bill in “Beautiful Grade” cannot stop cracking jokes. If he did, he might expose his fears of age and of remaining a bachelor. Sometimes Moore will allow a character’s cliches to speak for them, as with the mother in “Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People.” The mother’s banal language serves to mask her fear of losing face in front of her daughter. Other writers occasionally hover over a story’s landscape; in “What You Want to Do Fine,” Moore negotiates with the shade of Vladimir Nabokov by cheerfully making the influence of Lolita overt. She names the older man Quilty, substitutes a gay male couple for Humbert Humbert and his nymphet, and adapts the American roadside trash culture of Nabokov’s novel for a contemporary audience.
The stories often end with Joycean epiphanies undercutting whatever illusions a character has built up, and yet Moore carefully weighs the economies of their loss. At the end of “Agnes of Iowa,” a character reflects, “Every arrangement in life carried with it the sadness, the sentimental shadow, of its not being something else, but only itself.” Others contemplate escape of one sort or another. While the woman in “Missing” imagines herself escaping like a bird out the window from her boyfriend’s infidelity, Ruth answers her in “Real Estate” by realizing that the body “possessed its own wishes and nostalgias. You could not just turn neatly into light and slip out the window.” Occasionally, the stories end on a simple note of reconciliation. Given the extreme conditions these characters face, simple forgiveness becomes the best virtue on which to fall back.
With this third collection of short stories, Lorrie Moore displays a darkening, maturing dissection of the 1990’s spiritual and physical maladies of middle-class Americans. A sort of female cross between Raymond Carver and Woody Allen, Moore writes of characters torn between the securities of suburbia and the enticements of the city, the dream of romance and the reality of a failed marriage, and underlying it all, the attempt to maintain normalcy amid growing unease and lack of control. She enjoys challenging the reader with light send-ups of extreme juxtapositions: children who have cancer; an actress dating a mechanic; and a blind man’s perspective of a journey. Through all these combinations, the sick keeps cropping up amidst the semblance of health, just as the public increasingly bullies the private sphere. Moore keeps showing the boundaries crumbling, until only a defiant humor remains. If a woman must mourn her dead cat, she can at least add ice cream to her stages of bereavement. In “Agnes of Iowa,” Agnes reflects on the humor that “seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had.” Moore’s stories salvage a saving wit out of the same ingredients.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCIV, August, 1998, p. 1968.
Library Journal. CXXIII, September 1, 1998, p. 218.
New York. XXXI, September 14, 1998, p. 116.
The New York Review of Books. XLV, October 22, 1998, p. 15.
The New York Times Book Review. CIII, September 20, 1998, p. 6.
Ploughshares. XXIV, Fall, 1998, p. 224.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLV, July 20, 1998, p. 207.
The Times Literary Supplement. October 30, 1998, p. 27.
Vogue. CLXXXVIII, September, 1998, p. 430.
The Wall Street Journal. September 18, 1998, p. W8.