You Go Through Hell, You Come Back a Little Angry

Lorrie Moore's new stories are anything but wry and dry.

Lorrie Moore is angry. Or so it seems. Her new collection of stories, Birds of America, is stunning—a blow to the stomach, a kick in the shins. Gone is the style we've come to associate with Moore, what a friend of mine calls "The Wry and the Dry": dead-on accurate, as if muttered like a witty aside, the kind of friend you'd like to be with at a stuffy cocktail party. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (Knopf, $23) This new impression of Moore began a few years ago when The New Yorker published "People Like That Are the Only People Here," which is included in Birds of America. "People" recounts the journey a youngish couple takes through hell: Their infant son is diagnosed with a tumor on his kidney. The word flitting about the circles of People Who Read was that the story was true. I believed it because the story is a bald look (one can hardly call it a meditation) on the process of transforming real grief and pain into writing. The profit side of experience, the narrator decides, is not worth the loss. Her husband, in the face of enormous medical costs, implores her to take notes, ". . . write nonfiction. Do a piece of journalism. Get two dollars a word." The implication is that anything can be turned into a story. But should it? This is not to say that Moore has up to now ignored the painful side of life; rather, it has always hovered around the periphery of her writing, exerting its inevitable pressure. But now her witty asides have the forces of prophecy and doom. Reconciliation, as in "Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People," the story of a mother and ambivalently married daughter on a road trip through Ireland, has the force of one of Flannery O'Connor's revelations, violent and scorching. In "Terrific Mother," a woman accidentally kills a friend's child and ends up approximating her own life (marriage, conversation, self-forgiveness) at an intellectual retreat in Italy. Sick children, infirmity, dislocation—her characters seem to suffer more than they used to. Moore's language, too, is stranger: "She was trying to tease him, but it came out wrong, like a lizard with a little hat on." Her leaps of logic are larger, more intuitive, so that you almost have to hold your breath while you read. The narrator of "People Like This" says, in response to her husband's plea to take notes, "I can't do this. I can do—what can I do? I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I can do succinct descriptions of weather. I can do screwball outings with the family pet. . . . I do the careful ironies of daydream. . . . But this? . . . This is irony at its most gaudy and careless. . . . This is a nightmare of narrative slop." Moore finds in the end that she can do it, and she does it beautifully, wrenchingly. Emily Hall is a fiction writer and critic in Seattle.

 
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