BOOK: Birds of America by Lorrie Moore

Over the years, I’ve read Lorrie Moore short stories kind of here and there, now and again; I’m going to guess primarily in The New Yorker.  But she wasn’t really an author I actively sought out.  She crafted sentences with incredible brilliance, yet still failed somehow to connect on a personal level with me most of the time.  I found her cleverness masterful, but it also struck me as sort of disruptively aggressive at times.  It would interrupt the flow of whatever emotion I had just been starting to feel for one of her characters, like a sudden stubbing of the toe.  Sometimes, I didn’t finish the story I’d started after one of those derailments.  The magic got bumped.

A friend of mine recommended this collection of stories to me several months ago, though, and I bought it the next week.  It’s been sitting around on the floor of my room since then, eventually getting kicked under the bed where it stayed until last Thursday when I went digging around under there looking for a lost shoe as I was packing my bags for a train trip.  I dusted it off (the book, not the shoe) and the next day on the train pulled it out and started to read.   Read the entire thing in a single sitting, barely taking a break to look up.  Scenery, your loss.

Maybe it’s got something to do with the mindset — when you’re reading The New Yorker and suddenly come to the fiction section, it requires a dramatic changing of gears that I don’t always shift with grace.  I wonder if that’s why I never felt overwhelmed by Lorrie Moore’s greatness before.

I’m overwhelmed now.

The characters in these stories are regular people, their situations as normal as they come, and I think that’s what makes them so mesmerizing.  Some of the stories are hilarious, and others are almost unbearably sad, but they all seem like stories about people who actually exist, who weren’t dreamt up but are outside right now walking down your street.  That’s startlingly refreshing, I have to say.

Moore’s writing style is something I still have some issues with at times, but one of the things I love most about it is the way she frequently pairs adjectives and nouns together that don’t really go together, and yet somehow go together perfectly.  The one I remember most vividly from this book was the phrase “frantic candlelight,” in the story “Agnes of Iowa,” which is about a couple trying to overcome stagnation in their relationship.  They  “struggled self-consciously for atmosphere” in their bedroom, where “frantic candlelight flickered on the ceiling like a puppet show.”  Candlelight can’t be frantic — that makes no sense.  And yet, in two words, it completely conveys the emotion of that room and the two people in it.

There are dozens of other examples like this.  Go discover them.  I’ll wait.

[FICTION]

[Buy this book]

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