Te­gan Ben­nett Day­light

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - 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,

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