August 06, 2005

Lorrie Moore: Birds of America

So, another book I read: Lorrie Moore, Birds of America. People keep telling me to read Lorrie Moore. When people mention great short story writers, people to look to for an example, people mention her along with Raymond Carver, Andre Dubus, Alice Munro. More than them, perhaps. So I think I read her with a raised eyebrow and a calm heart, full of great expectation.

Having finished the book now, I think it was a most peculiar experience, in that the stories in them seemed better to me the closer I was to their surface. I often think of the experience of reading like slipping below waters; line by line the text crawls up your goose-pimpled skin until it closes over your head and you're in, and for all that you're reading you're not hearing the words themselves but simply seeing the story they're telling you, and the words are the colors of the world, its scents and sensations, its moods and feelings. That's how it is for me, anyway, but I have always found reading easy; I wonder if that's true for people who don't find it so, if even mid-way through a book they have to string the words together like beads upon a thread to see the picture. For me that sense of immersion is complete , though perhaps not as complete as when I was a child, when upon occasion you'd have to physically remove the book from my grasp to get my attention.

So what was a bit weird about the book was that I liked the stories better before I had sunk into them. When I read the first couple, I was struck hard by the craft that went into them, their neatness, as you might marvel at the work of a master carpenter, the whole vessel solid and smoothly worked, clean of line and suited to its function, with all the nails hidden and nary a drop of glue to hold together the joists. I read an interview with her where she said she only writes about a story a year nowadays; and reading these you can believe it. (She's also a professor of writing and english). The dialogue, in particular, is well-crafted, but in a peculiar way. She's famous for the realism of her dialogue, and for her humor, which is a rare thing is most literary books --- there's an attitude among people who plume themselves on reading "serious" literature that if it's funny it must be dumb, unless by funny you mean ha-ha-the-universe-is-cruel-and-absurd. Moore is so obviously intelligent that this prejudice is eradicated.

But that's the thing about her dialogue; it always feel right, like something someone would actually say in real life --- a much more difficult trick that it sounds; almost every reader is so in the habit of cutting fictional characters slack in this department that they'll not put out of joint by dramatic exposition so orderly it might as well be printed on a musical staff to illustrate the high notes. But it never feels fluid; it never has the dodge-and-weave, slapdash rapidity that real talk often does. It reminds me a bit of the paintings of Norman Rockwell in that way. There's a painting of his of a crowd of people praying, about a half-dozen faces, half-shadowed, where you can see clear as day the bunched wrinkles around the second knuckle of an old woman's hands, the burnish on every bead of the rosary she has wound around them, the spiderweb of wrinkles on the apple of her cheek, all this with a clarity of detail usually reserved for photography alone. But Rockwell's paintings have none of the spontaneity of photography, the sense of a moment snatched from life with the shutter-click; instead the feeling you get from them is of infinite patience and care, the artist sitting hunched over his easel with a tiny brush, laying in every separate wrinkle with a feather-stroke. And this is how Moore's dialogue struck me; hyper-realistic, but at the same time thought-out and worried over, wrought.

That's about the only way she reminds me of Rockwell; Rockwell is popular because he used his great realist gift to create scenes of idealized domesticity, scenes that evoke amusement or nostalgia or patriotism but never, ever the least discomfort. Comfort's about the last thing you can find in a Moore story (which is not to say that you never find it) her characters are itchy in their own skins, and their humor has desperate edge to it. It's acerbic, jabs of wit flung out with great strength almost at random, as last ditch-attempt to keep off the screaming mimis. Almost all of her characters seem a little lost in life. They are where they are because that's where they ended up, and not because of what they chose. All the granduer of tragedy is in knowing you must make a choice, choosing, and realizing that you chose wrong; Moore's characters seem too befuddled and bemused to make it through any of those steps, and so their unhappiness acquires no dignity. That's probably far more true to life, but I respected them less for it and sympathized with them less because of it. And this I think was part of why I liked the stories better before I became immersed in them; when you're still on the surface it's easy to respect the skill and the craft but as you sink in, as you feel more deeply and walk around inside these people's heads, I often found them difficult to like.

The other thing I thought walking around in there was that their various brains felt mostly the same, though the bodies they were purportedly attached to were quite different. All her central characters seem to look at the world with a similarly jaundiced eye, and for some of them it felt wrong, felt off. I believed more easily in her women than her men, more in her middle- or upper-middle class characters than in her working-class ones.

But for saying all that --- and it occurs to me now that these reviews seem to be 67% bitching to 33% "but, actually, it was pretty good," --- her characters stick in my mind. Days after having read these stories, they return to my mind, and I find myself picking the book back up again, dipping here and there, re-reading now this one, now that. This happens to me, I think, only with the best books I've read, that you return to them to puzzle over them, because within them they enclose a certain mood, like a flavor, a scent, pressed between the pages. Or that they return to you, when some particular spark is stuck in life --- an anecdote told by a friend, an interaction between strangers on the other side of the street --- and you recognize in that flash some same small truth harshly outlined. And more than that, there are one or two moments which are just perfect; I'm thinking of a scene in the story "Agnes of Iowa," the conversation between Angnes and a visiting author where her hostility toward him melts away and they both sense their attraction toward each other. Moments like that --- Greta on the stairs in "The Dead," or Emma Bovary drawing on the tablecloth --- ones where you feel, yes, it was exactly like that, where the whole meaning of the story seems bound up in one perfect instant are my favorite things about reading. And they take some small portion of genius to achieve.

I don't know if Moore is a genius. Looking at all the stories together I can find plenty to citicize. But there is one story in there that I think might be perfect, "People Like That Are the Only People Here." I've read it several times and have been impressed with it each time, but the feeling I'm left with after putting it down is not one of respect or awe after having witnesssed someone pull off a difficult feat but of sympathy for the characters. 'Course, maybe I'm sentimental, and easy pickings: the story's about a mother whose baby is diagnosed with cancer. But I think that story will last. Which is more than most authors can ever hope for.

Posted by Diablevert at August 6, 2005 08:11 AM

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