A Predilection for the Zinger

Rebecca Mead

  • Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
    Faber, 291 pp, £9.99, November 1998, ISBN 0 571 19529 6

It is rare these days for a book or story to get talked about without the attendant behind-the-scenes efforts of publicists, and the notice of reviewers, and the author making appearances on breakfast television shows. But that is what happened in January 1997, when the New Yorker published Lorrie Moore’s short story, ‘People like that Are the Only People Here’. What was so powerful about this story? The subject-matter, in the first place, was irresistibly painful. It concerns a mother, never named, who finds a blood clot while changing her baby: ‘what is this thing, startling against the white diaper, like a tiny mouse heart packed in snow?’ The baby is rushed to the hospital (‘Such pleasingly instant service! Just say “blood”. Just say “diaper”. Look what you get!’), where a scan reveals that he has a malignant tumour on his left kidney. The mother first tries to blame her own body for the ultrasound reading – ‘I’ve never heard of a baby with a tumour, and frankly, I was standing very close’ – then blames her bad parenting skills for the incomprehensible truth:

Just once, before he was born, she said: ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.’ A joke, for God’s sake! After he was born she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over and over again, like a novel by Mrs Camus. Another joke!

The baby enters Paediatric Oncology, Peed Onk, and the parents enter the heartbreaking fellowship of adults passing their days in the Tiny Tim Lounge, exchanging wan, strenuously hopeful smiles. (The story’s title is provided by a visiting friend, who, noticing the ‘airy, scripted optimism’, asks: ‘Are people like that the only people here?’)

But the story also gained its galvanic energy from a meta-narrative about the mother’s profession, that of being a writer. ‘Take notes. We are going to need the money,’ her husband tells her on learning of the child’s diagnosis: a chill mandate, the cool-headed pragmatism of which horrifies her. Later in the story, noticing that she is not writing, he says, ‘This is the kind of thing you’ve always written about,’ to which she replies, outraged, ‘This is life. This isn’t a “kind of thing”,’ and the catalogue of IV infusions and chemotherapy and cardboard ‘no-nos’ attached to the child’s arms post-surgery to prevent him yanking out his tubes continues. In the end, the Baby is pronounced well enough to be brought home into an uneasy peace, a period of watch and wait, a resolution that is neither comic nor tragic but disturbingly ambivalent. And the story concludes with a sudden, acerbic jolt:

There are the notes.
Now where is the money?

With this writerly meta-narrative, Moore’s story became more than a particularly harrowing instance of the ironised examination of domestic life for which she is known. It became a comment on, a resistance of and a response to the contemporary vogue for memoir. This had begun respectably enough several years earlier with books like Susannah Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted and Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, but by 1995 it had generated such florid productions as Michael Ryan’s memoir of sex-addiction, Secret Life, which included a confession even of his inappropriate intimacy with his dog, Topsy. In January 1997, when Moore’s story came out, the publishing world was bracing itself for Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, the account of the incestuous affair she conducted with her father when she was 20.

While the bestseller lists indicated an appetite for true-life stories, critics had started to express distaste for the publishing alchemy which was turning dysfunction or disaster into large advances. Moore’s story brilliantly gave a critique of the trend and a repudiation of it. It wasn’t necessary to know whether the events Moore described had actually happened to her and her family; she was making a case for fiction which is, as the writer Mother says in the story, ‘the unlivable life, the strange room tacked onto the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science’.

It would be good if this case did not need to be made, but it does: literary fiction in America, particularly the kind of small-bore literary fiction which Moore practises, seems to occupy a smaller and smaller cultural space. Apart from the superstars like Philip Roth or Toni Morrison, literary writers in America are accorded a social status roughly equivalent to that of artisanal potters producing, like them, lovely, unnecessary work that hardly anyone cares enough about to want. (That’s the kind of writer Kathryn Harrison was before she set aside novels for memoir.) In such a climate, the writers of literary fiction resort to certain safer precincts, among them the creative-writing schools dotted around the country, where student loans and foundation grants provide the support that the marketplace doesn’t. Moore teaches at Wisconsin-Madison University, and many of the stories in Birds of America, her third short-story collection (she has also written two novels and a children’s book), are set in the never-never land of Midwestern academic outposts, far from the more plausible cultural centres of New York or Cambridge, Massachusetts, and peopled by men and women who have landed there without knowing quite why or how. (One of her characters says that he went to Champaign Urbana once: ‘I thought from its name that it would be a different kind of place. It was just this thing in the middle of a field. I went to a Chinese restaurant there and ordered my entire dinner with extra MSG.’) Though the academy is hardly ever more than a backdrop for her, Moore nonetheless captures the weird, self-involved aimlessness of academic life, the curious way in which, like a psychoanalysis, it becomes both the method and the object of observation. In the story ‘Community Life’, a university librarian called Olena describes how she dropped out of graduate school: ‘I did try. I read Derrida. I read Lacan. I read Reading Lacan. I read "Reading Reading Lacan”.’

If Moore’s setting is often the dislocated, self-generating intellectual provinces of the Midwest, her subject is often the sense of not being quite where you should be in your life, of not quite getting what you thought the world was going to give you. Moore’s characters know you can’t go home again, but they also know that there’s nowhere else to go. In the first story of this collection, ‘Willing’, a middle-aged movie actress gives up Hollywood and returns to her native Chicago, where she sets herself up in a residential hotel, eats Hostess cakes and drinks sherry, and makes a hopeless go of it with a motor mechanic because, she tells a friend, ‘I want to sleep with someone. When I’m sleeping with someone, I’m less obsessed with the mail.’ In ‘Agnes of Iowa’, a woman returns to her Plains hometown after a harried post-collegiate decade in New York (‘I feel like I’ve got five years to live, she told people, so I’m moving back to Iowa so that it’ll feel like fifty’), and there she marries a man and enters the state so many of Moore’s characters live in, that of disappointed making do: ‘It was life like a glass of water: half-empty, half-full. Half-full. Half-full. Oops: half-empty.’ In ‘Which Is more than I Can Say about Some People’, Abby marries Bob after her dog dies of kidney failure, and the marriage is as successful as that auspicious start would suggest; in ‘Terrific Mother’, Adrienne, who has been responsible for the death of a friend’s toddler in a freak accident, slides into a depression, and her subsequent marriage to her long-time boy friend is less an attempted cure than a symptom of hopelessness. (‘I’m going to marry you till you puke,’ he insists, lovingly.)

Jane Austen’s heroines are never seen except in their hopeful, pre-marital condition, and Moore’s women are hardly ever seen except in the slump and settling that comes in those years after the lesson that marriage is a compromise has been learned and overlearned. Her men are hapless or fickle, and unreliability seems to be their default mode; Moore’s stories are studded with aphorisms that could be collected on a calendar for weary wives: ‘Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally. One got it very, very specifically’; ‘She had entered a puritanical decade . . . when the best compliment you could get was “You would make a terrific mother.” The wolf-whistle of the Nineties’; ‘I married my husband because I thought it would be a great way to meet guys.’

Lines like this illustrate Moore’s predilection for the zinger, the heavily ironised pun. A frequent criticism of her work is that she is sometimes too fond of her own jokes, and becomes too clever-clever. There’s something to this: many of her characters strike the same bitterly humorous note – who knew that there were so many barb-hurling Dorothy Parkers in the Midwest? – and there are moments when the self-regard of the humour seems a little much. But sarcasm is the resort of the weak, and Moore’s characters use it in precisely that defeated spirit. So though the reader may cringe when yet another of Moore’s long-suffering women cries, ‘Did God have her mixed up with someone else? Get a Job, she shouted silently to God. Get a real Job. I have never been your true and faithful servant,’ the heavy-handedness of the punning is purposeful: ‘When you told a stupid joke to God and got no response, was it that the joke was too stupid, or not quite stupid enough?’ Jokes are the inadequate weapons of the over-matched combatant.

That line comes from one of Moore’s most affecting stories, ‘Real Estate’, in which, as in ‘People like that Are the Only People Here’, such lightness is laid on top of a far weightier and bleaker theme. Ruth, another weary wife, has dealt with her husband Terence’s extra-marital flings by adopting the blitheness of the mad: ‘in the end they’d made her laugh: Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!’ – and on for another two full pages of ‘Ha!’s. She is two years into remission from the cancer which, she says, she has been given a 50-50 chance of surviving for more than five years (‘how mean not to lie and say 60-40!’). Her one daughter, Mitzy, has become a world-famous ballerina, celebrated for being overweight, who is preternaturally self-absorbed and worried that her fans like her work, but not her. (‘Mitzy was an only child, so it was natural that her first bout of sibling rivalry would be with her own work.’) In an unconvinced attempt to renew their blighted lives, Ruth and Terence move to a new house, where it falls to Ruth to deal with the many impediments to home improvement, problems which have the quality of Biblical plagues: there is an infestation of raccoons, of crows, and even of teenagers, when it is revealed that a 15-year-old runaway has been living periodically in the attic. As domestic life becomes more and more of a struggle, the only cure for the crows is a shotgun and Ruth senses her illness returning like rising damp: ‘Never a temple, her body had gone from being a home, to being a house, to being a phone booth, to being a kite.’ Interwoven with the story of Ruth is a subplot in which a young man, having been dumped by his girlfriend and fired from his job, becomes an armed robber, though one with a quirk: he demands that his victims sing him a song by heart before he takes their VCRs and TVs. These two stories twist together in the end, with the perfect symmetry yet messy veracity – the strange room tacked onto the house – which are among the deepest satisfactions that fiction has to offer