Monday, May 24, 2010

Birds of America

I've been reading stories from Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore, because I liked her novel A Gate at the Stairs so much. So far my favorite stories are "Dance in America" and "Community Life," both peppered with little unexpected humorous turns and observations that I think she does even better in the novel.

The beginning of Dance in America captures so perfectly what it's like to teach a class that you've taught to hordes of different people for decades:
"I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom. I tell them it's the body's reaching, bringing air to itself. I tell them that it's the heart's triumph, the victory speech of the feet, the refinement of animal lunge and flight, the purest metaphor of tribe and self. It's life flipping death the bird.
I make this stuff up. But then I feel the stray voltage of my rented charisma, hear the jerry-rigged authority in my voice, and I, too, believe....My head fills with my own yack. What interior life has accrued in me is depleted fast, emptied out my mouth...."

In the end, though, the story really is about "flipping death the bird," partly by making jokes about circumstances that would otherwise be too much to bear, like this one, a habitual joke that a happily married couple make to their son when the subject of his mother's first husband, a suicide, comes up:
"You've lived with your mother for seven years now, and you don't know why someone close to her would want to kill himself?"

After the characters' inability to be profound and their pointed but fond and habitual jokes, the story ends with a dance that is a way of showing "magnificent and ostentatious scorn" for all of the indignities bodies suffer on earth. This one may be my favorite of the volume.

Community Life has some good moments, too. My favorite is when a shy character says something astoundingly rude "in the caustic blurt that sometimes afflicts the shy." And how. I think many of us readers have had those moments.

The other moment I like in this story reminds me irresistibly of some of Tassie's observations in A Gate At the Stairs, as if the author's style was developing in this earlier story:
"She was quiet. This lunge at moral fastidiousness was something she'd noticed a lot in the people around here. They were not good people. They were not kind. They played around and lied to their spouses. But they recycled their newspapers!"
Here we only get a couple of pieces of evidence for why the people are not "kind" or "good." But in the novel we get lots of examples of how a certain kind of person, often an academic, can bank too much on the impeccability of smaller choices, unable to see how cruelly some of those choices add up.

Of course, that kind of cruelty is rarely obvious to the wielder of it. But the "caustic blurt" is immediately obvious to everyone within a mile radius. Care to share one you remember hearing?


FreshHell said...

I've had way too many of those moments in the past and I've started just not saying anything for fear I'll say something that will alienate someone because I hadn't meant what I said in that way. Easier just to zip it.

Harriet said...

I have a lot of trouble with Lorrie Moore. I own Birds of America and have tried to get through it several times, but I always get bogged down in such a way that I am left with no memory of what I've read save that I haven't enjoyed it. I feel it must be a moral failing on my part. Someday I will probably try it again. As for caustic blurts, I have a selective memory of such things too. I do not remember what they are, because they are embarrassing. I just remember that I don't like them.

Anonymous said...

Oh god, I am going to visit my alma mater this weekend. I am trying desperately not to remember any caustic blurts. Believe me, there were many.

I'm trying to remember the stories I liked best in that book, but I can't remember the titles. I liked the one where the narrator goes to visit the old friend who is married with a child who may be sick. I like the way you realize, some way in, that she and this friend have some kind of history. Although it's never stated.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, that's what I've learned to do too. Mostly.

Harriet, if I didn't like the little "zingers" so much, I might have gotten bogged down, too. Any young modern writer has to pay homage to the minimalist short story writers of the late 20th century, I guess. But she keeps rising above that for a moment. The novel is better.

ReadersGuide, good luck. FreshHell and I recommend the silent treatment, hard as it can be!
Also, the story you're remembering is The History of Dance. The son has cystic fibrosis.

Jeanne said...

Sorry, I meant Dance in America, not "History of Dance"!!

Jenny said...

I've had those moments. I rarely mean to be caustic! I just sometimes fail to gauge how mean things will sound. I think I'm getting better as I'm getting older.

Jeanne said...

Jenny, I think a lot of readers fail to gauge how mean something will sound from time to time--maybe it's that we're so used to listening to an internal monologue?