Saturday, November 08, 2003

Birds of America, stories by Lorrie Moore

Why is it that mainstream, "literary," New-Yorker type writers are so obsessed with infidelity? It's not just Lorrie Moore, so I apologize for picking on her. There's Jumpa Lahiri, f'r instance. Even Sherman Alexie plays with it. It's like a genre unto itself. There are westerns, there are quest fantasies, and there are infidelity stories. Like any genre, sometimes it can be done well. But it's still subject to Sturgeon's Law; in other words, 90% of infidelity stories are crud.

Which is not to say that 90% of these stories are crud. Moore writes well, even beautifully at times. But her characters are drifting, unfocused and forgettable, and ultimately so are many of these stories. Perhaps, in the case of the infidelity stories, it's my own prejudices that get in the way of enjoyment; I find it difficult to sympathize with the sort of furtive cowardice that would lead someone to cheat, and so I find it boring. Again, as with Colson Whitehead (see below), Moore's book comes highly recommended, so take all this with a grain of salt.

That said, I liked a few of these stories very much. When Moore quits distancing herself (and the reader) from her characters with the good-humored disdain at which she excels, her lyrical prose is put to good use. When she writes about death, for example, as in "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babblings in Peed Onk," she is at her best. There seems to be a tendency in Moore's fiction to distance one's self from what is most human, to look down upon the messy and irrational in us all. I can't get behind that, because messy and irrational is where I live, and where I think most of us live. So while I liked some of these stories, I can't really recommend the collection as a whole.


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