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Book Review: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

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There's something about short stories, the way they straddle the narrative world of novels and the metaphorical world of poetry. Like poems, short stories tend to be about moments, about a thing, no matter how big the story might be. A good short story can pack a punch in a way that novels rarely can. Novels colonize you like a cancer; short stories have the immediacy of an aneurysm.

Lorrie Moore writes those kinds of short stories, dangerous stories that can lay you flat as you move from absurdity to tragedy to the quotidian. The 12 stories of Birds of America, published in 1998, explore the uneasiness of life — relationships and loneliness, expectation and disappointment — with a diamond-edge wit and tender humour. These combine to illustrate the nooks and crannies of life.

"For me stories are responses to little disturbances that rattle the windows, or to creatures that suddenly enter the house," Moore told the Believer. Once, a bat flew into my house and Moore's stories are indeed like that: disturbing, unsettling, off-kilter, mesmerizing and, ultimately, undeniably real. These adjectives can be as equally applied to the moods of the scenes and the temperaments of the characters. Moore's ears are finely attuned to the rattling of lost souls. Take, for instance, this description from "Agnes in Iowa":

That had been in Agnes's mishmash decade, after college. She had lived improvisationally then, getting this job or that, in restaurants or offices, taking a class or two, not thinking too far ahead, negotiating the precariousness and subway flus and scrimping for an occasional manicure or play. Such a life required much exaggerated self-esteem. It engaged gross quantities of hope and despair and set them wildly side by side, like a Third World country of the heart.

Moore manages to convey the freedom and the despair of improvisational, mishmash post-college life with all the relief and nostalgia it tends to engender and she does it all in a single paragraph. Moore makes you crawl inside Agnes's skin and feel her existence. Moore's prose is full of beautiful language and surprising combinations of words.

When she describes the way a day can "vanish tragically" in the mother-daughter travel tale "Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People," I want to send the passage to every writing teacher who ever said adverbs are amateurish. Sure, to vanish magically is a cliche, but the idea of a day, its potential squandered, vanishing tragically? That's beautiful.

As is this description of aging within a relationship, also from "Agnes of Iowa": "The functional disenchantment, the sweet habit of each other, had begun to put lines around her mouth, lines that looked like quotation marks — as if everything she said had already been said before." The imagery conjures a picture that works on literal and metaphorical levels alike; you instantly understand the kind of relationship that exists between Agnes and Joe.

Perhaps the thing that gives the most life to Moore's stories is her use of humour. Moore told Salon that "people being funny with each other is also a kind of generosity between people." And in Birds of America, character after character tries to be generous, in the foot-in-mouth, gallows way of the isolated. In "Real Estate," Ruth dismisses the idea of an affair and ponders what she would do if an attractive man appeared in her life:

If she knew a man in town, she would—would go on a diet for him! But not Jenny Craig. She'd heard of someone who had died on Jenny Craig. If she had to go on a diet with a fake woman's name on it, she would go on the Betty Crocker diet, her own face ladled right in there with Betty's, in that fat red spoon.

Or take the quipping of characters from "Community Life," as they describe the Mayo clinic:

"An amusement park for hypochondriacs," said a cataloger named Sarah. "A cross between Lourdes and The New Price is Right," said someone else named George. These were the people she liked: the kind you couldn't really live with.

But Moore demands that we live with these people, for 10 pages or for 20, for just long enough that we see who they are. And it turns out that these crass, damaged, irrational people are us, banging against the glass as we try to fly through life in the dark. Count on Moore being at the window.

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  • This article has been selected for syndication to Advance.net, which is affiliated with newspapers around the United States. Nice work!