A whole tray of delicious mini muffins: Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America”

birdsmooreeditA few weeks ago, I won event tickets through Twitter for a reading and interview with Lorrie Moore. I had never heard of Lorrie Moore before but that didn’t stop me from being excited for an author event. But to better appreciate the author, I wanted to read some of her works. Lorrie Moore had just released a new collection of short stories called “Bark”. However, the reviews I read convinced me that “Birds of America” is her best work, so I drove over to Chapters and picked up a copy. I must at this point admit holding some ignorant views of short stories. I had never really gotten into them before. I viewed them as the lesser cousins of novels and as unsatisfyingly short narratives like opening the container to find only a half-eaten giant muffin left. But I was wholly wrong in my impression of short stories. Good short stories are more like mini muffins: complete little morsels bursting with flavour. Plus a collection of stories means you get to try a variety of flavours all in one sitting. And I owe Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” collection of stories for this literary revelation.

Her stories are placeless and timeless, yet they take place in a present and place that I can recognize so it is easy to fall into the characters’ lives.  She deals with the dark aspects of life: cancer in children, affairs, broken houses, destructive relationships, lost careers. Yet she brings humanity into the stories in a way that made me delve into the issues with the characters without feeling depressed. Like examining a body in a mortuary, identifying its cause of death and recognizing its demise, without feeling the striking grief of loss for the actual person.

She also introduces such shocking bouts of absurdist humour that I found myself laughing out loud in almost every short story. I still smile when I recall the racoons in the fireplace event from “Dance in America”. Or the crazy idea that is sanely put forward in “Four Calling Birds, Three French Hens”  about the psychiatrist who specializes in Christmas specials and promises that if Aileen isn’t over her cat grief by Christmas then her last session is free.

The variety of lives Moore explores in “Birds of America” is astounding: a blind gay lawyer on a road trip with his lover (“What You Want to Do Fine”), a group of middle aged professionals bickering at a New Year’s Eve party (“Beautiful Grade”), and a woman who accidentally kills a baby and has mind-altering massages at the Italian academic retreat centre she is brought to by her new husband (“Terrific Mother”). Moore also spans lifetimes and involves multiple perspectives in her short stories. I was surprised at how much complexity can be fit into a short story. For example, “Real Estate” tells the story of Ruth (who is a cancer survivor trying to renovate the rundown house her husband bought in an attempt to save their marriage) and Noel (who breaks into people’s houses in the middle of the night to steal and gets them to sing him a song). And somehow Lorrie Moore gives us an understandable picture of both complex characters and merges their stories together in a way that brings a conclusion in under 30 pages. (Noel is another one of  her hilarious absurd, yet somehow real, plot points; a man whose ex-girlfriend teased him about not being able to remember any songs from memory, so he puts a gun to people’s heads to see what song they would sing and to help him build his musical repertoire.)

I would definitely recommend picking up Lorrie Moore’s “Birds of America” if you are a short story lover or need to be convinced. These collection of short stories is full of dark, humourous, striking portrayals of human experiences. I have also been inspired to undertake a story of short stories. I have picked up Alice Munro’s “Runaway” and Mavis Gallant’s “Home Truths” to start. I am open to further suggestions!

4/5 bacon strips

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