Derek's Reviews > Birds of America

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
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Sep 05, 2011

really liked it

In Birds of America, Lorrie Moore is doing so many things exceptionally that it seems like folly to criticize the rare thing that might not be working. The characters are unique and finely drawn. The plots of the stories don't fall into the trap of being just academic-y or literary fiction-y (she's even willing to wander into the potentially maudlin/saccharine Dying Kid Territory, a place in which she happens to fluorish). The dialog is snappy and, at times, funny. The stories have a point. So why did it so often feel like it was a chore to read this?

Take, for example, this line from "Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens":

"Aileen shrugged. The whiskey she'd been drinking lately had caused her joints to swell, so that now when she lifted her shoulders, they just kind of stayed like that, stiffly, up around her ears."

It's a line that works to the story's benefit, as it manages to characterize Aileen--and memorably, too. But there's something a bit too well-thought-out about it, a bit too crafted, a bit too staged. Of course Aileen's shoulders didn't stay up around her ears, and if they did, it certainly wasn't due to stiff joints from alcohol consumption. But it just looked and sounded too fine for Moore to toss away.

This isn't me looking for literalness in fiction; really, it isn't. It's the fact that so many of Moore's lines work like this one, showing themselves off like, ahem, finely feathered birds. There's a heart behind them, sure, but there's also this sense that Moore is a bit too in love with her own voice, her own dry sense of humor, her own way of speaking.

But really, this is just the small portion of what isn't working, and when compared to the tower of what is working, well, the complaints don't really hold much weight. Moore can tell one hell of a story, and little moments in each story typically have some sort of payoff later on. She's so clearly established control of her craft that a criticism is inevitably going to be niggling and small. I quite liked Self Help, but Birds blows that collection out of the water.
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Dennis I'm ambivalent about Lorrie Moore. I liked Birds but I thought it was somewhat light as a feather. She's best when she's writing stories like "You're Ugly, Too" -- humor and insight which sum up to some weight.

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