Tegan Bennett Daylight
Twenty years ago I was working as a bookseller in a small but thriving bookshop in Leura, a town in NSW’s Blue Mountains. Gradually I built up a collection of customers whose taste met mine. Through 1998 and 1999 I sold to these people copy after copy of Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. This, Moore’s third short story collection, has always seemed to me to be her best work. I was entranced by it, captured, subject in my own writing and my way of thinking to its rhythms and observations.
In the story Real Estate, for instance, a paragraph about a husband’s serial infidelity runs, ‘‘There had been a parade of flings — in the end, they’d made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha!’’ and goes on like this for two solid pages, so a double spread looks like nothing so much as the cascade of numbers that make up The Matrix, a controlled flood of Ha! in columns down the page.
Moore notices words in ways you never noticed yourself. She makes you feel as though you’d never been aware of the sound of them, their possibilities, and your own capacity to be moved by them.
But Birds of America was my first foray into Moore’s work. Is that why I’ve always considered it her best, because it was the first time I encountered her style? I went on to buy her earlier story collections and the novels Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? but in these her style felt affected and sometimes even irritating.
I continue to reread Birds of America and have enjoyed teaching it too, but the affair did not blossom. I read Bark, her most recent collection, and her latest novel, A Gate at the Stairs, and felt the same indifference, or even antipathy. It wasn’t that I didn’t admire Moore’s writing, and it wasn’t that she didn’t have things to say that appealed to me. It was just that I seemed, very quickly, to have come up against the limits of her style. What had seemed profound as well as almost unbelievably accomplished felt hollow or even shallow.
Perhaps my point is best illustrated by the opening lines of Moore’s new essay collection, See What Can Be Done. The first essay, a review of Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, begins: ‘‘Nora Ephron, whose name sounds like a neurotransmitter or a sinus medication …’’
Now, this is true, and nicely observed. Ephron’s name does sound exactly like these things, and this observation is typically, Mooreishly attentive.
But does it add anything to our understanding of Ephron to point this out? At best this gambit alerts us to the fact that here is a reviewer who will notice everything, that reading her will be a matter of sitting upright, senses bristling. At worst it feels like a weird kind of racism. Don’t we all have funny names? Are our funny names the point of us or, really, anything See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticism, and Commentary By Lorrie Moore Faber, 407pp, $39.99 (HB) to do with us? We begin to feel that the pool we dived into is not so deep as we thought.
See What Can Be Done is a collection of reviews, essays and think pieces, and it shows precisely what is profound in Moore’s work — and what is not.
She is at her best when she writes about other short story writers, entering a writers’ oeuvre and looking around her with a gaze that awakens, illuminates. There are three pieces on Alice Munro, as there should be, and superb reflections on Ann Beattie, John Updike, Eudora Welty, and VS Pritchett, in the last of which she directs us to a gorgeous line of his about the streets of London: ‘‘The cars come down them like rats.’’ Doing this, she reminds us to read Pritchett again — and reminds us that Moore, herself an intermittently great writer, even a Great Writer — is also a great reader.
She is sometimes good with the unexpected, too, as with her review of a 600-page true crime account of the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. She calls it ‘‘dizzyingly unnecessary’’, going on to notice that ‘‘a complete and accurate record can obscure a subject’s essence: a narrative, on the other hand, reveals, supports and contains it’’.
These are not mindless sonic acrobatics; these are deep studies, written by someone keeping her crazy gift in check for the sake of saying something.
But there are many kinds of essays in here, including those on movies, television shows and even politics, and it is here that this collection disappoints and, in fact, feels unnecessary, if not dizzyingly so.
I’m aware that it’s simply a matter of taste that I don’t cleave to Moore’s deliberately frank and unabashed appreciation of the movie Titanic. Yet when you don’t agree with Moore you can become extremely weary of her wordplay. In a piece written straight after the election of Donald Trump she describes Hillary Clinton as having ‘‘a marital leg up’’ in her campaign, adding in parentheses ‘‘no mischievous innuendo there — don’t search!’’ The reader, who wasn’t going to search, longs for some authorial restraint, some respite from the twinkle in Moore’s eye.
I can’t help but turn mentally to the book’s ill-judged acknowledgments page, in which the author says thank you ‘‘to the tiny handful of people who thought this book was a good idea’’. It’s written in the spirit that animates Moore’s least-good work: an odd, teasing hostility that gets in the way of her real gift, that dazzling admixture of poetry and insight. All it does to the reader is make them think: there’s a reason it was only a tiny handful. This is a book we didn’t need, a book that subtracts rather than adds to Moore’s oeuvre. Allow me to recommend to you Birds of America. You’ll love it. teacher and critic. is a fiction writer,