Book Review — Birds of America (1998) by Lorrie Moore

This review is part of the No Man’s Land Reading Project, an attempt to right a gendered imbalance in my reading and a general imbalance in the availability of reviews (by men, especially) of works by female authors.

It’s rare that a collection of short stories makes the New York Times bestseller list. Lorrie Moore was already an acclaimed short story writer when this happened for her third collection, Birds of America, but it nevertheless cemented her as something almost totally unique in the world of short story writers: a commercial success.

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I came across this collection because a story in it, ‘Dance in America‘, was read on the New Yorker Fiction podcast by Louise Erdrich. Another, ‘Paper Losses‘, also by Moore but from a later collection, Bark (2014), was read by Gary Shteyngart, and it’s ‘Paper Losses’ that deserves the credit for convincing me to purchase something by Moore, which just goes to show one should not necessarily seek out a writer’s most “successful” work if the one they produced at another point in their career was the one that spoke to you. Which is to say I didn’t enjoy Birds of America much, and wish I hadn’t listened to bestseller lists and had instead considered that Moore’s 2014 collection might be more my speed than the collection she produced sixteen years earlier.

The blurb for Birds of America, and much praise for it, centres around the idea that it is darkly comical, ranging and original. It certainly does range. In ‘Willing’, a faded Hollywood starlet has a hopeless love affair; in ‘Community Life’, a clever librarian cannot see the goodness in supposedly charitable people; in ‘Charades’, a woman finds during a Christmas game that she has little love for her family; in ‘Beautiful Grade’, a professor sleeping with his student contemplates the affair’s significance; in ‘What You Want To Do Fine’, a straight man and his blind gay lover take a road trip south; in ‘Real Estate’, a woman’s desire to claim responsibility for her life takes a series of unfortunate, unsatisfying turns.

To my mind, the stories range in their narrative, location and subject so much that, as with more than one other collection I read in 2015, each new story jars a little. And if there is a theme or mood tying them together (as there was in an excellent collection I read) it is not strong enough to unite them into a cohesive whole. There is a sense of displacement in the characters – from their homes or states of origin, from their pasts, from their husbands or mothers – but it is a glassy, dysfunctional displacement. And that aforementioned jarring is also somewhat prompted by the stories’ themes, which are mostly discomfort, dissatisfaction, loneliness, alienation, disillusionment, and so on. There are bright sides, certainly, but it’s safe to say at least two thirds of the stories leave you with a bad taste in your mouth, because the sadness of the situations is not dealt with generously but is twisted away from in a painfully self-evident pitying of them, which makes starting the next one hard.

The stories in Birds of America that did win me are the ones in which Moore seems to write with love for her characters, which brings out in her writing a knowledge of them as people; clarity is strangely lacking elsewhere here, as though she is holding her characters at arm’s length or hiding her face, like they’re her captors and she does not want to see their faces. (This is taken to an extreme in ‘People Like That Are The Only People Here’, where the main characters’ names are Mother, Father and Baby.) But in ‘Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People’, there is a real sense of the stakes in the relationship between a fearful young woman and a mother who has pretended for too many years that fear is beneath her. And in ‘Dance in America’, Moore writes so genuinely a scene where mortality and movement are contrasted that their dance is rapturous. But the rest of the time Moore’s just not that into people, and she seems like pretty poor, evasive company in her dislike.

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More often than not, Moore overwrites in a compulsive kind of way, as if packing in a bit of melodrama, an exclamation or a strained, deliberate quip will help capture the humanity of a moment, when often it seems to cheapen it. It is entirely likely that this is Moore’s “voice”, but there is a harshness, darkness and sadness that Moore seems determined not to confront. Some might call this practice darkly comical, but I picture her creative world as populated by people who cannot look you in the eyes and say something without a manifestation of concern for their vulnerability squirming anxiously through. Moore makes me feel awkward – and not, I think, deliberately, but rather because she had not in 1998 (as I would say she had by the time she wrote ‘Paper Losses’) come to grips as a writer with the fact that she is deeply pessimistic, and that there is nothing inherently wrong with that, nothing at all.

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