Friday, April 18, 2008

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

This is one of those books that everyone but me had read when I was in Mankato, and I had always intended to get to it, but there was always something else to read first. Then I found a copy of Birds of America at a thrift store for $1.20, and I could no longer make excuses.

Everything I've heard about Lorrie Moore has been good news. I've never heard a negative opinion of her work, but what I had read in anthologies didn't really impress me. The good news is the stories in Birds of America do impress me. Moore's language, her use of the surprising metaphor, and her ability to tread near sentimentality without getting it all over her shoes all outweigh my reaction to her subjects: boring.

An example is the story "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk." It's a story about a woman whose child is undergoing cancer treatments. What follows is the usual hand-wringing one would expect from such a subject, and that would normally trigger my gag reflex pretty quickly. But Moore's treatment of the events lends it a remoteness, an emotional numbness, that both feels perfectly appropriate and also saves the story from melodrama. Plus, it boasts passages like this one:

How can it be described? How can any of it be described? The trip and the story of the trip are always two different things. The narrator is the one who has stayed home, but then, afterward, presses her mouth upon the traveler's mouth, in order to make the mouth work, to make the mouth say, say, say. One cannot go to a place and speak of it; one cannot both see and say, not really. One can go, and upon returning make a lot of hand motions and indications with the arms. The mouth itself, working at the speed of light, at the eye's instructions, is necessarily struck still; so fast, so much to report, it hangs open and dumb as a gutted bell. All that unsayable life! That's where the narrator comes in. The narrator comes with her kisses and mimicry and tidying up. The narrator comes and makes a slow, fake song of the mouth's eager devastation.

Aaaaah! AAAAAAAGH! Perfect. I like it.


Diana said...

I know, I know! That one of my favorite passages from one of my favorite stories of all times. It's really really good.

Jess said...

That IS my favorite story of all time. I read it and want to slash my wrists because I didn't write it and because I'll never be as good as Lorrie Moore. Oh, oh, oh. Glad you read it.

Now it's time to get yourself a copy of Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. It's what I am reading right now. It's so good I want to make out with it. Yes, that's right. Make out. With a book.