Birds of America
AS A WRITER, I hate Lorrie Moore. Her work is too good. In a book like Birds of America, she displays this virtuoso range through mourners, mothers, backstabbing academics, and dancers who box with the ragged bad jokes of life and make them all into balletic, slapstick tragedy.
And I say to hell with it. Where does she get off making me want to pack all my semicolons into a trunk in the attic, turn my thesaurus over to the proper authorities, and do something useful with my life?
Consider even a lesser piece in this collection of 11 stories (all previously published in magazines), like, say, "Beautiful Grade," in which a 24-year-old student, Debbie, tells her middle-aged-professor lover, Bill: "Don't think I'm doing this for a good grade. I'm doing this for a beautiful grade." And: "If I'm just a passing fancy then I want to pass fancy." Bill is oft-divorced, as are his overeducated friends, who say things such as, "No more divorces. No more wasting time. From here on in, I'm just going to go out there, find a woman I really don't like very much, and give her a house."
On New Year's Eve, Debbie, Bill, and his bitter and funny middle-aged friends sit down and get drunk at a dinner party. Debbie is nervous and says dumb things like, "Do you believe that thing about how everyone is separated by only six people?" Opening herself up for replies such as, "Oh, we're separated by at least six, aren't we darling?" which fly between married couples. Sometime around the fish course, Serbia, the Second Amendment, suicide, 'Theoretical Common Sense,' the asexual attire of academe, and other people's office parties receive glancing blows. It's like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but with characters who have actual investments of heart in the compromises they've made. At the end, some surprising romantic entanglements are laid bare, and we learn that Bill is built for disappointment, and it's so, so sad. It's terrible! Poor Debbie! Poor Bill! Poor friends! You're left with an awful melancholy, like when you see reruns of TV shows starring comics you know died tragic deaths. And that's probably the worst story in the book.
The really good stories are sublime, such as "People Like That Are the Only People Here." In this piece, a mother who "knows her own face is a big white dumpling of worry" has to deal with her son's cancer and imaging machines that "are like dogs, or metal detectors: They find everything, but don't know what they've found. That's where the surgeons come in. They're like the owners of the dogs. 'Give me that,' they say to the dog. 'What the heck is that?'"
Actually, forget about the good stories. I don't even want to talk about them, because when I'm not, as a writer, seething with jealousy over Moore's work, I'm fuming over them as a reader. After she introduces her oh-so-real characters, after she imperils them, after they bow around saying clever true things to each other, Moore has the audacity to let her really, really good stories end.
I mean, they just go off and conclude, they culminate, they run their course and--cruelly! unforgivably!--discontinue, leaving you alone again when you were so happy in this world of witty, articulate devastation.