From the satirical, biting wit of a “been there, done that,” college co-ed to the death-defeating witticisms of a middle-aged mother, the monologic voice in Lorrie Moore’s fiction hasn’t changed as much as it has matured in the years separating her first book, Self-Help, and her latest, Birds of America. Whether the speaking character is a twenty-something woman diagnosed with cancer, contemplating methods of suicide; a thirtyish woman dissatisfied with her less-than-stellar love life, contemplating an equally boring affair; or a middle-aged mother dealing with the crisis of chemotherapy for her cancer-stricken infant, the voice of Moore’s fiction remains the same—desperately funny, painfully honest, hilariously outspoken, and unbelievably sad, all at the same time. True, that solitary voice has changed over the years; the funny, young, second-person “know-it-all” style of address found in Self-Help has matured into a more honest, direct approach that pulls no punches where life, death, and the need to laugh are concerned. The age of Moore’s characters have kept pace with the author’s own maturation process—“a writer writes from experience”—as Moore says (Garner 48). The characters in Birds of America speak from hearts besieged by experience, tragedy, and the inevitable ironies of life, but they still undeniably speak with one singular voice—that of Lorrie Moore.
Though the characters in these 12 stories are seen in such varied settings as Iowa, Ireland, Maryland, Louisiana and Italy (rather than the usual New York or Wisconsin setting of previous collections) they are all afflicted with ennui, angst, and aimlessness. They can’t communicate or connect; they have no inner resources; they can’t focus; they can’t feel love. . .but their minds still operate at quip speed; the emotional impact of their inner desolation is expressed in gallows humor through the insights of a very adept author.” (Reviews 207)
Moore has always had the ability to make audiences laugh while reading her stories of heartbreaking sadness, overwhelming loneliness, and downright despair.
In her first book, Self-Help, Liz, the main character in Moore’s story, “Go Like This,” has been diagnosed with cancer and is contemplating suicide, working out the particulars of dying with dignity. She announces, “I have decided on Bastille day” (Self-Help 69). Liz chooses the day because it will be early enough for her husband to adjust to her absence before he has to go back to teaching, and it will be too hot for her friends to wear black to the funeral. She thinks about the early days of her marriage and how she and Elliot couldn’t keep their hands off each other. Now, following the doctor’s pronouncement of the dreaded “C”-word—CANCER—Elliot cannot bring himself to make love to his wife. Perhaps the deciding point for Liz is the bottle of hand lotion she finds on the floor beside the bed, on Elliot’s side, every morning, despite the fact that she just put it away the day before. The tragedy of the situation, as Liz requests the assistance of her best friends in carrying out her suicide, is almost unbearable. Suddenly Moore throws in a paragraph that is so shocking it knocks the breath out of the reader, forcing a bark of laughter:
I am something putrid. I wonder if I smell, decaying from the inside out like fruit, yet able to walk among them like the dead among the living. . .I return to the living room, grin weakly, stand among my friends. I am something incorrect: a hair in the cottage cheese. Something uncouth: a fart in an elevator. (75)
Whether it is the shock of reading words people might think, but never say out loud, or the use of uncouth language in an unexpected manner, the result is the same—uncomfortable laughter. We laugh, but feel almost guilty in doing so. But Moore’s characters would laugh loudly, and revel in the freedom such laughter must bring.
All of Moore’s characters have that one quality in common. They all speak frankly, saying things we would love to be able to say, out loud, whenever something or someone irritates us. Most of us never dare to speak those words, but Moore’s characters do and frequently, rudely, and in such a way that readers cheer for their forthrightness and guffaw at the reactions of those the characters address. While her characters are candid and blunt in Anagrams, Like Life, and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, the characters in Moore’s most recent work, Birds of America, are so desperate, downtrodden and inundated with life’s misfortunes that they don’t have time to couch their words carefully and Moore makes no effort to have them do so. She allows them to speak their minds candidly, and often with great hilarity: “‘Yes, I can see us growing old together,’ says the newly married protagonist in one of Moore’s short stories, ‘In the next few weeks, in fact.’ It’s a typical comment from a Moore character–piercing, hilarious, and profoundly hurt” (Truss). Where the characters in the collection Like Life were allowed at least a tinge of hope for future change, these new characters in Birds of America are filled with an inner desolation, speaking from the depths of Moore’s own personal heartbreak:
She is God to her characters’ Job, throwing at them every conceivable
calamity or handicap. In exchange, they get the great lines . . . for instance, the middle-aged gay man (who is also blind) in “What You Want to do Fine” . . . goes on a road trip with his middle-aged, formerly straight- and-married lover, Mack . . . ‘Describe the view to me,’ says Quilty when they get out at the top (of the St. Louis Arch). Mack looks out through the windows. ‘Adequate,’ he says. (Eggers 189)
It is exchanges like this that has some critics claiming Moore is merely providing material for stand-up comedians rather than creating believable characters. John Blades, in his article, “Flipping Death the Bird,” wrote: “Moore’s comedic impulses tend to sabotage her characters’ credibility . . . (she has) very little ability to create convincing characters or tell stories that invite us to suspend our disbelief” (31). Perhaps it is the “one-liner” quality of Moore’s dialogue the critics disapprove of.
In the story, “The Jewish Hunter,” Odette and her date, Pinky, are sitting in the woods, waiting for a deer to show up so Pinky can demonstrate his hunting prowess. Pinky explains, “During mating season the doe constructs a bed for herself, and then she urinates all around the outside of it. That’s how she gets her mate.” Odette is unimpressed and replies, “‘So that’s it,’ . . . ‘I was always peeing in the bed’” (Like Life 131). And in “How to Be the Other Woman,” Moore uses the same comedic type of response the critics seem to revile: “The next time he phones, he says: ‘I was having a dream about you and suddenly I woke up with a jerk and felt very uneasy.’ Say: ‘Yeah, I hate to wake up with jerks’” (Self-Help 26). Moore’s response to negative criticism concerning her humorous instincts is to shrug it off, saying, “The world just comes to me that way. If you record the world honestly, there’s no way people can stop being funny” (Blades 31).
Moore’s stories are meant to entertain and just possibly to make readers take a look at what’s not quite right in their own lives, and learn to laugh at those imperfections of human life. Although some critics think Moore needs to pull back from a fascination with death, dying, and the decay of the American lifestyle, others see the honesty that blazes forth in her writing, forcing readers to admit that not everyone lives the American dream.
Reading a Lorrie Moore story is like being tickled to death; you’re laughing, but it hurts. She pokes, pinches, and sometimes stabs you with her humor until the gravity of the punch line is apparent. Her characters lighten the narrative and allow the reader to endure her scraping themes: love lost, disease, death, adultery, and general disgruntlement (Lara).
These themes are present in all of Moore’s work, and her characters deal with them in pretty much the same way in every book, like flitting birds—“lost lonely people fumbling their way through life, banging their heads against walls, and their hearts against old sorrows, as they migrate from relationship to relationship, home to home” (Kakutani E46).
In Moore’s novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, Berie Carr is a middle-aged woman, on vacation in Paris with her husband, and realizes she no longer loves him. She tries to pretend, as he does, but the relationship is little more than a farce. Berie thinks to herself:
We touch each other’s sleeves. We say, ‘Look at that,’ wanting our eyes to merge, our minds to be one. We are in Paris, with its impeccable marzipan and light, its whiffs of sewage and police state. With my sore hip and his fallen arches (‘fallen archness,’ Daniel calls it), we walk the quais, stand on the bridges in the misty rain, and look out on this pretty place, secretly imagining being married to other people—right here in River City!—and sometimes not, sometimes simply wondering, silently or aloud, what will become of the world. (Frog Hospital 4)
Berie can only think sadly of her lost past, back to the summer when she was 15, and her best friend Sils and she worked at a carnival. She remembers the risks she took for friendship and love back then, stealing money from her employer so Sils could have an abortion; her husband Daniel can only worry that he is turning into his father, who left his mother for a woman twenty years younger. Berie and Daniel are just two of Moore’s characters who cannot find some semblance of happiness in their lives. At least there is no death or sickness in Frog Hospital, which is nothing like the disconcerting tales in her short story collections.
Of course, as the author of these morbidly fascinating tales ages, so do her characters and their basic understanding of life and death in a world that is never fair to the Unbeautiful. These are the people who look frumpy, weathered, and gray, no matter the time of day or year—the painfully ordinary people who never have the spectacular love lives, the financial success, or the easy talent of those they try in vain to emulate. The Unbeautiful characters are there in Self-Help, but the voice hasn’t become as agonized as it will when the characters in Birds of America fly in the face of death, screaming with rage and laughter. This earlier voice is filled with the cynicism of a new college graduate fresh from six years of mind-broadening education. The voice in “Go Like This” is the one that wittily instructs readers on the finer points of how to kill yourself if you have a serious disease. Compare that story to “People Like That are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk,” and you will immediately recognize Moore’s singular voice, but that voice will be ragged with pain, familiarity, and “more conscious of the rumble of mortality beneath the shiny Formica surface of daily life” (Kakutani E46).
Moore admits her own precarious life experiences, battling her baby’s bout with cancer, have changed her outlook on life and given her the ability to stare unblinkingly in the face of death and find something to laugh about. No matter how much she tried to avoid the issue, Moore finally admitted that “People Like That” was an almost autobiographical piece of fiction about an incident that changed everything she believed about life. Moore confirms that the story accurately approximates an ordeal she and her husband experienced with their son Benjamin. (At one point, Mother declares: ‘I write fiction. This isn’t fiction.’) ‘We went through something that was very, very difficult with our little boy . . . It was as if the house had been set on fire, but we’d gotten out the back door. I was stumbling around for a year after that, and the only thing I could think of, the only thing I could possibly write was these stories. I felt I was drawing much more explicitly and fearlessly on my actual life, which up until that point had failed to traumatize me. At that point, I was traumatized. I have accumulated a lot more hard experience and practical know how than when I was so freely—and satirically—offering advice . . . in Self-Help (Blades 32).
Even Moore recognizes the shift in her characters’ voice, explaining, “That story (“People Like That”) was a one of a kind story, astonishingly balanced between heartbreak and sick humor” (32). The heartbreak and sick humor are present in nearly every story in Birds of America, including the teeth-gritting story, “Terrific Mother.”
Imagine you are a 35-year old woman, no husband, no sign of impending motherhood on the horizon, attending picnics with your friends, all of whom have little babies they want you to hold, possibly in hopes that you will realize what it is you are missing. Picture yourself sitting on a bench at a picnic table, jostling your best friend’s baby on your knee, cooing nonsense as you try to pacify your hovering maternal friends. “Hello, my little punkinhead, hello, my little punkinhead.” Suddenly the bench you are sitting on, rotten in the joints, collapses beneath you, throwing you backwards, baby and all. The only thing you remember clearly is the baby’s head hitting the “stone retaining wall of the Spearsons’ newly terraced yard” after which the baby suffers a fatal bleeding into the brain and dies. This is the premise for “Terrific Mother” (Birds 252).
Everyone began to worry that Adrienne might never come out of her apartment. Even the baby’s mother has tearfully forgiven her, but her sometimes boyfriend, Martin, finally proposes marriage on one of his visits during which he brought her a pepper cheese and tried to keep her company. He proposes marriage to her because, “That way, he said, Adrienne could accompany him to northern Italy, to a villa in the alps set up for scholars . . . she could be a spouse . . . they gave spouses studios to work in . . . she could paint—or not.” Adrienne refuses, claiming normal life is no longer possible for her—she’s killed her best friend’s infant. But Martin insists. “I’m going to marry you . . . I’m going to marry you till you puke” (Birds 232-233).
In “Real Estate,” Ruth, another victim of the dreaded C-word, is tired of tolerating her husband’s affairs. As a way of “fixing” their marriage, they move to a new house that is filled with raccoons and raccoon feces, bats and bat guano, a teenage boy and his crap hiding in the attic, and a yard filled with carpenter ants, crows and squirrels. Ruth, on the advice of a gardener, purchases a pistol and learns to fire it, hoping she will be able to reduce the crow and squirrel population. In fact, she manages to reduce the burglar population in the neighborhood when her former carpenter attempts to burglarize her home late one night, forcing Ruth and her husband to sing for him while he steals their valuables. After singing “Chattanooga Choo-Choo,” she shoots him dead. All her husband can think of to say is, “Good God, I suppose this is just what you’ve always wanted: a dead man on your bedroom floor . . . Did you have to be such a good shot?” Ruth replies, “I’ve been practicing” (209). The horror of a dying woman defending her husband and home against intruders by shooting him dead and then being forced to defend her marksmanship is enough to get the horrified laugh, but if that doesn’t get you, surely one of the scenes from “People Like That Are the Only People Here” will.
Opening the story to nearly any page will elicit for the reader some horrifying aspect of an infant facing chemotherapy, but most of those pages will also bring a laugh that many readers are almost afraid to utter, given the agonizing story being played out. For instance, Mother and Baby (Moore does not name her characters in this story) are playing in the Tiny Tim Lounge in Peed Onk (Pediatric Oncology) the day before Baby’s kidney surgery. Mother is watching Baby smile and wave at others in the cancer ward. When he approaches little Neddy, who is playing with his “little deflated rubber ball, the one with the intriguing curling hose,” Ned tells Baby to leave it alone. Baby persists, and Ned asks her to tell the baby to leave it alone. Mother says, “Baby, you’re got to share.” Down the corridor charges Neddy’s mother, blond hair bouncing, sweat pants straining. “Don’t touch that!” Baby is startled and starts to cry because he’s never been yelled at before. Of course, Mother is incensed and starts to get confrontational. That attitude quickly changes when Neddy’s mothers says, “This is drawing fluid from Neddy’s liver.” The deflated ball is, in fact, a piece of life-saving apparatus for another cancer patient, and Mother has just told Baby he must share (228).
The change in Moore’s voice is certainly apparent in these passages, especially when compared to a humorous balcony scene from one of her stories in the earlier collection, Like Life. In the story, “You’re Ugly, Too,” Zoë is waiting for the results of an ultrasound, sure from the technician’s reactions that she is dying of terminal cancer. Her unknowing sister is still trying to fix her up with a date for a costume party. Zoë meets her intended date, a man named Earl, who comes to the party dressed as a naked woman, swaying pink rubber boobs and all. After some inane conversation and an imaginary relationship that rapidly takes place (in about five minutes) in Zoë’s mind as she tries to imagine what a life with Earl would be like, Zoë reaches a breaking point. As she is standing on the balcony, observing the Magic Marker line of Earl’s costume buttocks as he leans over the rail, Zoë sneaks up behind him and gives him a quick shove:
His arms slipped forward, off the railing, out over the city below. Beer spilled out of his bottle, raining twenty stories down to the street. ‘Hey, what are you doing?!’ he said, whipping around. . . ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ‘Just kidding,’ she said. ‘I was just kidding.’ (Like Life 91)
Moore’s character, a woman with nothing to lose, does something we have all thought about doing, but never would, and enjoys the end result; she seems almost empowered by her appalling actions. Then she smiles at him, and secretly wonders to herself how she looks through his eyes.
Zoë is only one of many Moore characters dealing with the fear of death, mainly from cancer. Though cancer is a recurring theme in much of Moore’s work, the lighter treatment of the dread disease is more readily apparent in Self-Help and Like Life. It is almost as if these people have just been diagnosed and not yet affected by what comes next, as the characters in Birds of America are. The cancer has spread, so to speak, and metastasized into something even more monumental than the author is prepared to deal with. The characters in Birds of America react to their situations with anger, fear, and more often, sarcastic or bitter humor, much like real cancer patients do. These characters have undergone the treatments, the surgeries, and the endless waiting for death that the characters of Moore’s earlier works never experienced. Ruth, in “Real Estate,” continues to smoke, “despite the one lung, the lip blisters, and the ketoidal track across her ribs,” because she is sure that death is still coming and when it arrives, she will “regret the cigarettes she hadn’t smoked more than the ones she had.” So certain is Ruth that death is still waiting in the wings for her that she doesn’t even bother to keep track of her husband’s illicit love affairs anymore, remembering that “the doctor who diagnosed her now fully remissioned cancer once said to her, ‘The only way to know absolutely everything in life is via an autopsy.’(Birds 181). Ruth opts to let her marriage live, at least as long as she does, and starts hunting for a new house to take her mind off her diseased body.
There is a ring of truth or authenticity in the actions and reactions of Moore’s latest group of troubled characters: “Moore also grapples, in these stories, as she has sometimes been reluctant to do in the past, with the real sadness and grief in her characters’ lives. . .at once sad and funny, lyrical and prickly, Birds of America . . .attests to the deepening emotional chiaroscuro of her wise and beguiling work” (Kakutani E46). The voice of Moore’s characters changed in keeping with the author’s resilient stance in the face of death, all of them leaving their youth behind, entering the second and often last stages of life, coming face to face with mortality, and sometimes “flipping death the bird” (Blades 32).
Blades, John. “Lorrie Moore: Flipping Death the Bird.” Publishers Weekly 24 Aug. 1998: 31-32.
Eggers, Dave. “Birds of America.” Rev. of Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. Publishers Weekly 2 Oct. 1998: 189.
Garner, Dwight. “Moore’s Better Blues.” Salon 27 Oct. 1998: 47-56.
Kakutani, Michiko. “Birds of America: And What Have They Done With Their Lives?”
Rev. of Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. New York Times 11 Sept. 1998: E46.
Lara, Jessica. “About Lorrie Moore.” Central Booking. Internet. 27 Aug. 2002.
Moore, Lorrie. Birds of America. New York: Knopf, Inc., 1998.
Moore, Lorrie. Like Life. New York: Plume, 1991.
Moore, Lorrie. Self-Help. New York: Warner, 1985.
“Reviews.” Publisher’s Weekly 28 July 1998: 207
Truss, Lynne. “You Really Must Read. . .” Rev. of Birds of America by Lorrie Moore. London Sunday Times 8 July 2001. On-Line. Lexis-Nexis. SMSU. Available http://80-web.lexis-nexis.com.proxy.smsu.edu