Thinking: I don't know why, but until last week I've stubbornly resisted reading "Birds of America." I think it has something to do with the jacket descriptions; the word “funny” has always been a turn-off for me, a sign of my morbid disposition and tenacious suspicion of superficiality. I saw that the stories in the collection had no universal theme—no place they resided from, no political or cultural persuasion or mission—and thus decided that Ms. Moore was a mere suave linguist with just the right mix of contemporary zeal and humor to please the gentile New Yorker reading set.
And so I nearly almost never read her. How foolish I nearly was. Or maybe it is that books come to us (if we’re lucky) at just the right moment in our writing and reading lives.
A year ago I wrote an essay about landscape in contemporary fiction in which I said that I found myself disconnected from much contemporary landscape-less fiction. I wrote, “This includes much of the fiction in The Best American series and in The New Yorker. I find myself asking, “So what?” (quietly, and in the confines of my own home) while reading stories about the interpersonal dynamics of people without the context of place.”
“Birds of America” is very much about the interpersonal dynamics of people, without a fixed context of place. It is very much what Annie Proulx termed “interior fiction”; fiction (influenced by Freud) that delves into personal psychology without dwarfing that personal with the larger context of time and place. And it has an even more challenging asset: the stories are about academics, artists, writers, and rich (and failing) actresses. If I had known that, I may have never picked up the book. I have a particular aversion to the literary complaints of the privileged elite. Oh you poor thing...you are not enjoying yourself at the Hyatt? Are bored by your stay in a European mansion, or on a bed-and-breakfast road trip: Oh DEAR!
And yet. And yet! I found “Birds of America” to be an astoundingly and arrestingly beautiful book of fiction. Part of it is Lorrie’s prose. My god, it’s so fresh and surprising and beautiful. The collection is speckled with radiant and arresting sentences that make you pause and smile and begin to see the world in a different way.
And part of it is her intelligence. Once I allowed myself to disengage my interior critic, I found that I empathized quite a bit with her privileged, literary characters. Questioning love, questioning our mothers, questioning our artistic and intellectual aims. If I’m honest with myself I’ll acknowledge that those are the pressing questions of my life, so why do I not deem them worthy of fiction? Does fiction always have to have a political or social mission to illuminate lives other than our own? By writing about the poor or displaced or outcast, “the others” (because let’s face it, the audiences for short stories are the New Yorker crowd, or at least we all want them to be,) we are attempting to shed light on other kinds of lives and cause buds of empathy to pop in less than down-and-out hearts. But isn’t fiction that causes self-reflection also worthy? Isn’t it one of the most glorious mystical acts of literary artifice? That we can learn not just about others, but see our own weaknesses and fears and ugliness reflected, glaringly, back at us? Isn’t it amazing to be guided by someone smart enough and lyrical enough to undress the neat clothes of our comfortable lives, and leave us standing naked amidst our own bazaar and absurd and empty and sad strangeness?
And one last thing. Lorrie Moore may not be writing about landscape, but she uses it, sparingly and beautifully, in ways that are so original and surprising and fresh it made my arm hairs stand on end. Her snapshots of the natural world do something essential for her work (as do the “birds” that litter her pages); they exist as contrast to the un-groundedness of her characters' lives. They manage to do what Annie Proulx’s extensive landscapes do, in very few words: portray the smallness of our human lives, not in contrast to a sublime landscape, but to a natural landscape that is, in many ways, just as small, and bazaar, and sad as the human lives she depicts. It’s a new way of using landscape, with new language to describe those landscapes. It’s lovely. And perfect. And an inspiration.
I will never be a Lorrie Moore. I do not have the same eye for absurdity she does, or the bazaar, or her air-borne twisted tongue. But I think it is a blessed gift when we encounter art that challenges our notions of our own taste and style; when we read a book that makes us want to throw out everything we’ve ever written. Not because we should try to become that other writer, or really throw out our doted-on manuscripts, but because that art leaves us standing naked amidst our own fictional dressings, able to see clearly and with new eyes what, up to this point, we have made. Able to see (at last!) our crusty habits and predictable tropes. And because in that seeing lies the ability to see (at last!) a new vision for what our words might, someday, have the fresh-sprung capacity to become.