Lorrie Moore’s work is often compared to that of such literary notables as Raymond Carver, Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie, and Flannery O’Connor. There are definitely overtones of O’Connor in the comic despair that pervades Moore’s work. One can also perhaps find traces of Carver and Mason in her characters and subject matter. However, no one has written more convincingly and poignantly about the angst of our modern world than Lorrie Moore. Her characters—an assortment of housewives, mothers, and career women (usually academic)—are typically isolated or disconnected from the larger world through no real character flaws of their own. These women can be bitingly sarcastic in their speech, but without fail they are eminently likable, sweet characters. In this world of upwardly mobile Americans, there are very few panaceas for women who both think and feel. They cannot convince themselves to believe in God or the sanctity of marriage; relationships with the opposite sex offer little real comfort, and all efforts at self-help fail.
Given Moore’s early success as a writer, it is not surprising to find some lack of maturity in her earliest work. Moore herself calls Self-Help (her first collection of short stories) and Anagrams (her first novel) apprentice work. The stories in Self-Help bear the marks of graduate workshop writing; all seem designed primarily to evoke laughter and thus have a stand-up comedic effect. These stories are saved, however, by the sad, underlying truths that slowly make their way to the surface and leave a lasting impression on the reader. Similarly, stories in Like Life are often too self-consciously clever. However, evidence of Moore’s mature writing is present in the stories “You’re Ugly Too” and “Places to Look for Your Mind.” Her novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? has some early pacing problems, but it proves to be a hauntingly sweet story of the friendship between two teenage girls, a friendship that nothing in adult life can quite match. Finally, the stories in Birds of America are breathtakingly good. Her mordant sense of humor is still present, but she does not allow humor to eclipse plot and character development. Nearly every story is about characters in relationships (mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, or lovers) who just cannot really connect or experience true intimacy. The last three stories of the collection are especially stunning: “Real Estate,” in which a dying woman is saddled with her husband’s choice of a house that needs massive renovation; “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” in which a couple is faced with the cruel ironies of a baby with cancer; and “Terrific Mother,” in which a childless woman accidentally kills a friend’s baby and is left to struggle with this irreparable grief.
The story “Real Estate” from Birds of America is one of many stories by Moore that explores the futility of marriage. Ruth, who has already lost one lung to cancer, gets a premonition that she will die in the spring “after much boring flailing and flapping and the pained, purposeless work that constituted life.” She also discovers yet another of her husband’s love affairs and laughs for over two pages. At Terence’s (her husband) instigation, they begin to shop for a new house. Ruth finally consents to buy an old farmhouse with which her husband falls in love, but as with all his flings, he soon abandons the house. Ruth, a dying woman, is left to oversee the house’s renovation. She also begins to battle the house’s infestation with racoons, ants, bats, crows, squirrels, and finally a teenage punk.
Meanwhile, in a parallel plot, Noel, a lawn care person, is left by his girlfriend because, among other cultural deficiencies, Noel does not know a single...
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