Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

"Birds of America" by Lorrie Moore (Faber and Faber, 1998)

It's difficult to avoid the issue of how she uses wordplay and jokes. They could be used to distinguish between characters but in some stories there are jokes anyone could have said. At dinner parties where friends from the same mileau are talking, this works well enough, but even in "What You Want to Do Fine" where the class and history of the two characters are so different, the characters spar as near-equals. Wordplay/comedy can be used by a character to indicate distancing from sadder emotions, or the joke may be a masked insult. The narrator may be distancing themselves from the material. The jokes may be entertaining in their own right, the plot merely a vehicle to deliver the comedy.

I think she takes advantage of all these options, though characters don't often use humour as self-deprecation. The balance between comedy/wordplay and character development mostly works fine. Sometimes the plot creaks a bit, though I don't know if that matters because the stories are all good reads.

"Which is more than I can say about some people" brings together several of her techniques. In it Abby, living in America, is in an on/off marriage. She's employed making questions for America Scholastic Tests - things like "spider is to web as weaver is to - ?". We meet her when she's been promoted to a job where she'll talk at schools. For some reason she's given a cheque and a suggestion that she could go on holiday before starting the new job. We discover that

Of all Abby’s fanciful ideas for self-improvement (the inspirational video, the breathing exercises, the hypnosis class), the Blarney Stone, with its whoring barter of eloquence for love … was perhaps the most extreme. Perhaps. There had been, after all, her marriage to Bob, her boyfriend of many years, after her dog, Randolph, had died of kidney failure and marriage to Bob seemed the only way to overcome her grief. Of course, she had always admired the idea of marriage, the citizenship and public speech of it … He was not a verbal man (p.27)

She decides to tour Ireland though How her mother became part of the trip, Abby still couldn't exactly recall (p.28).

As in some other stories there's a job with opportunities for jokes, a difficult marriage, and a daughter-mother relationship that's in flux. The mother's presence is necessary for this story, as is the Blarney Stone. The humour doesn't distract me from thinking that the justification given for introducing these elements is unconvincing though. A page before the end of the majority of the stories, some minor revelation provokes reflection leading to reconciliation or a glimmer of hope. Towards the end of this story Abby suddenly says "A toast. I feel a toast coming on" and then thinks "No one had toasted Abby and Bob at their little wedding, and that's what had been wrong, she believed now". So she toasts her mother. The penultimate paragraph is "Blank is to childhood as journey is to lips".

In "Community Life" the main character's a word-player too. She thinks up "Tom Swifties" that can perform several functions, popping up at any time - "This hot dog's awful, she said frankly" (p.74) "You're only average, he said meanly" (p.75), etc. Throughout the book are potted character sketches like "Her father had looked perplexed, then amused, and then angry - his usual pattern" (p.31). They often involve humour too

  • "He was a short, balding musician who liked to tape on his door pictures of famous people he thought he looked like. Every third Monday, he conducted the monthly departmental meeting – aptly named, Agnes liked to joke,since she did indeed depart mental", p.81
  • Some people might consider your involvement with this girl a misuse of your charm,” he said slowly.
    ”But I’ve worked hard for this charm,” said Bill. “Believe me, I started from scratch”
  • The key to marriage, she concluded, was just not to take the thing too personally, p-180. Marriage, she felt, was a fine arrangement generally, except that one never got it generally, p.182

In the following the humour's more cutting. Non-PoV character Eugene is given wisdom beyond his years (he's 7, with cystic fibrosis). I suspect that the PoV character is the wisdom-giver, rather than the author

“Why did he kill himself?” ...
"Eugene, you've lived with your mother for seven years now, and you don't know why someone close to her would want to kill himself?" Simone and Cal look straight across at each other and laugh brightly.
Eugene smiles in an abbreviated and vague way. He understands this is his parents’ joke, but he doesn’t like or get it. He is bothered they have turned his serious inquiry into a casual laugh. p.54

The humour can be funny/sad

She had already – carefully, obediently – stepped through all the stages of bereavement: anger, denial, bargaining, Haagen-Dazs, rage. Anger to rage – who said she wasn’t making progress? She made a fist but hid it. She got headaches, mostly prickly ones, but sometimes the zigzag of a migraine made its way into her skull and sat like a cheap, crazy tie in her eye. p.112

Or it can show a character's heartlessness

She picked up the pink-poised tin and shook it, afraid she might hear the muffled banging of bones, but she heard nothing. “Are you sure it’s even him?” Jack asked. “With animals, they probably do mass incinerations. One scoop for cats, two for dogs.” p.119

Sometimes the metaphors surprize rather than amuse

These [medical] imaging machines! They are like dogs, or metal detectors: they find everything, but don’t know what they’ve found - That’s where the surgeons come in - They’re like the owners of the dogs - “Give me that,” they say to the dog. “What the heck is that?” p.213

In my favourite story, "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk", there's narrational distancing. The characters aren't named. A toddler has cancer.

What words can be uttered? You turn just slightly and there it is: the death of your child. It is part symbol, part evil, and in your blind spot all along, until, if you are unlucky, it is completely upon you. Then it is a fierce little country abducting you; it holds you squarely inside itself like a cellar room - the best boundaries of you are the boundaries of it. Are there windows? Sometimes aren't there windows? (p.220)

It's strong and moving. The mother (who happens to be a well-known writer) wonders if she'll cope. It's suggested that she keep notes. As usual, the dialog is snappy

"Really," the Oncologist is saying, "of all the cancers he could get, this is probably the best."
"We win," says the Mother.
"Best, I know, hardly seems the right word. Look, you two probably need to get some rest. We'll see how the surgery and histology go. Then we'll start with chemo the week following. A little light chemo: vinchristine and -"
"Vinchristine?" interrupts the Mother. "Wine of Christ?"
"The names are strange, I know. The other one we use is actinomycin-D. Sometimes called 'dactinomycin.' People move the D around to the front."
"They move the D around to the front," repeats the Mother.
"Yup!" the Oncologist says. "I don't know why - they just do!"
"Christ didn't survive his wine," says the Husband.
"But of course he did," says the Oncologist

We get more than a glimpse of hospital life - "Everyone admires us for our courage," says one man. "They have no idea what they're talking about" (p.230). "It's all very hard ... But there's a lot of collateral beauty along the way" (p.248). The piece ends when the child leaves hospital with a positive prognosis, and these words -

There are the notes
      Now where is the money?

Starting at p.177 there are 2 pages of "Ha!" - a trick only the famous can't get away with, I suspect. Having finished the book, you may want to read about the author. This interview from The Telegraph contains interesting material.

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