“Her room was a corner room where a piano was allowed. It was L-shaped, like a life veering off suddenly to become something else.” – Lorrie Moore, Birds of America
I like short stories. I always have. Some of my favourite writers are primarily short story writers – John Cheever, Alice Munro. Some novelists have written short stories that are among my favourite examples of their work. Hemingway and Joyce both wrote fantastic short stories.
What is it about the short story? Done well, it has the epigrammatic nature of a poem, but with the layered richness of a novel, suggesting lives lived beyond the borders of the page. Like a cupcake, one can satisfy, but when it’s really good you’ll probably want another.
That’s how I was with Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Moore has been writing since the early eighties, but she’s new to me. Birds of America was published in 1998. The stories originally appeared in The New Yorker, Elle, The New York Times and The Paris Review.
In the story “How to Become a Writer”, (not from this collection), the narrator’s teacher says of her class short story, “Some of your images are quite nice, but you have no sense of plot.” There is plot in Birds of America, sometimes dramatic, but usually events are deceptively banal, with strange undercurrents of longing and swirling confusion. The characters in Moore’s stories are adrift, on the fringes of connection with each other, and digging their way back to life from loss. The situations are grim, but her writing is often funny.
In “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”, Aileen mourns the death of her cat, Bert, with a grief that is out of proportion to the loss, according to her husband. The story initially seems among the slightest of the collection. But it showcases Moore’s strengths well – funny dialogue, unexpected imagery and depth of insight found in unusual places. As Aileen drinks and mourns, her husband, Jack, suggests the cat would not have shed any tears for her:
“‘I really don’t think that’s true,’ she said a little wildly, perhaps with too much fire and malt in her voice. She now spoke that way sometimes, insisted on things, ventured out on a limb, lived dangerously. She had already – carefully, obediently – stepped through all the stages of bereavement: anger, denial, bargaining, Haagen-Dazs, rage. Anger to rage – who said she wasn’t making progress? She made a fist but hid it. She got headaches, mostly prickly ones, but sometimes the zigzag of a migraine made its way into her skull and sat like a cheap, crazy tie in her eye.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Jack. ‘Maybe he would have. Fund-raisers. Cards and letters. Who can say? You two were close, I know.’”
Aileen agrees to see a therapist, but only when he guarantees her a cure by Christmas. And she does come to terms with Bert’s death by the end of the story – but it’s her terms, without minimizing her experience:
“You couldn’t pretend you had lost nothing. A good cat had died – you had to begin there, not let your blood freeze over. If your heart turned away at this, it would turn away at something greater, then more and more until your heart stayed averted, immobile, your imagination redistributed away from the world and back only toward the bad maps of yourself, the sour pools of your own pulse, your own tiny, mean, and pointless wants.”
The stories seem to gain weight and depth as the book goes on. In “Real Estate”, a woman faced with cancer has a violent brush with death – her own and another’s. In “Terrific Mother”, the narrator crawls back to life and forgiveness after a horrible accident. And in “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, a couple grapple with their fears and confusion in the face of their child’s cancer.
The characters in “People Like That” are unnamed. Perhaps Moore thought the anonymity would create a more truthful, universal narrative? I’m not sure – I found it distanced me emotionally a little bit from the events. Still, the story was full of her closely observed details, humour, and off kilter imagery. The narrator’s husband suggests she write about their experience, but she feels the situation is too horrific, the emotion too raw, the awfulness beyond her ability to render in language:
“I can do – what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. . . . I do the careful ironies of daydream. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built.”
The narrator would suggest that her writing skills are not up to the task of dealing with the larger issues of life. But Birds of America says otherwise.