Thursday, May 27, 2010

the rest of Birds of America

As I suspected, the rest of the stories in Birds of America weren't any better than "Dance in America," which did turn out to be my favorite story from the collection. As the stories went on, I felt the cumulative effect of them as sadness. So many bleak, if not downright tragic lives. And although I wouldn't accuse Moore of being as snooty and presumptuous as some academic writers, she has her moments, and they accumulate. The one I reacted to most strongly is about a midwest restaurant "that advertises 'throwed rolls.'" The characters in the story are startled to have rolls thrown at them, whereas anyone who's ever been to what started out as Lambert's Cafe in Sikeston, Missouri is amply warned--usually for more than twenty miles, by billboard--that rolls will be thrown, er "throwed."

In "Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens," a woman mourns the death of her cat for two months and then takes her small daughter outside on Christmas morning to scatter his ashes, when instead of the somber ending I had expected, it turns out that
"Aileen and Sofie each seized a fistful of Bert and ran around the yard, letting wind take the ash and scatter it. Chickadees flew from the trees. Frightened squirrels headed for the yard next door. In freeing Bert, perhaps they would become him a little: banish the interlopers, police the borders, then go back inside and play with the decorations, claw at the gift wrap, eat the big headless bird."

But the weight of all the stories' sadness begins to weigh me down as I go on reading them. Reading a story about a mother who discovers that her baby has cancer had me wandering through a wonderful piece of prose, but it was a horrible way to spend part of my afternoon. The mother says
"when your child has cancer, you are instantly whisked away to another planet: one of bald-headed little boys. Pediatric Oncology. Peed Onk. You wash your hands for thirty seconds in antibacterial soap before you are allowed to enter through the swinging doors. You put paper slippers on your shoes. You keep your voice down. A whole place has been designed and decorated for your nightmare. Here is where your nightmare will occur. We've got a room all ready for you. We have cots. We have refrigerators."

Even worse than the sick baby story, at least in some ways, is the one about a woman who runs into her husband in town in the middle of the day:

"when she turned the corner to head back up toward the path to the Villa Hirschborn, there stood Martin, her husband, rounding a corner and heading her way.
"Hi!" she said, so pleased suddenly to meet him like this...."Are you going to the farmacia?" she asked.
"Uh, yes," said Martin. He leaned to kiss her cheek.
"Want some company?"
He looked a little blank, as if he needed to be alone....
"Oh, never mind," she said gaily.

It's bad enough when you meet someone you're glad to see in the course of your daily rounds and they're in a hurry and dismiss you brusquely. It's even worse when it's someone you have assumed will always be glad to see you. It makes your whole life feel fake, like the gaiety this woman has to put on.

Overall, I'm not sure the moments are worth the bleakness and sadness. Why go to a restaurant where rolls get throwed unless you're prepared to shed enough of your dignity to enjoy it?


FreshHell said...

Ugh. I'm depressed just reading this review.

Harriet said...

This is exactly why I've never been able to get through this book.

Cathy said...

Must be dinner time because I skipped past the depression and fixated on the last time I had a roll throwed at me at Lambert's. Yum!

kittiesx3 said...

The bit about peds oncology resonated with me, not because either of my children had cancer. Thankfully they did not. But I've written about some of the medical issues my older son faced and the line that said "A whole place has been designed and decorated for your nightmare. Here is where your nightmare will occur." brought back so much of that for me.

Children's Hospital is such a bright cheery place and yet such horrible events take place there. I'm grateful we had such good care but the decorations and cartoons and bright colors always rang false for me.

Jodie said...

The trouble with short story anthologies is that most of the stories are written during the same period of life, so if an author's feeling a particular mood you get that mood repeated constantly throughout the collection. I'm hoping for a little more variety from the big Collected edition of her stories as they'll be arranged differently.

Cschu said...

I got some of the same feel from "Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri. She is SUCH a good writer, but the book depressed me for many of the same reasons you gave about this one. I think I will miss this particular book.

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, There are other "literary" short story collections that are much more depressing. This one just isn't worth all the sorrow to get to the moments of humor and perspective.

Harriet, I think if it had been my first my her, I might not have finished it either.

Cathy, this post spurred a FB conversation about Lambert's in which I said that the old Lambert's was fun, but the new one makes a gimmick of enormous portions and a kind of fake hillbilly atmosphere. I loved the way the family used to come around and offer side dishes.

Elizabeth, I've also been in a children's hospital and had a taste of that feeling. I can still see the brightly painted hallway where my firstborn waited on a stretcher while a technician told me that roller skating accidents were very common--it sounded to me like "why would you ever let a child do such a thing?"

Jodie, I did see these stories as studies and sketches for what she does better in her first novel.

CSchu, go straight to the novel. I'll lend it to you.

Trapunto said...

I enjoyed your descriptions. Depressing short story collections are always more depressing than depressing novels. I wonder why that is?

I finished the Gate at the Stairs recently. Based on that and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, Moore is one of those writers I can't love, but can see why other people do.