Dysfunctional sitcoms

Birds of America

Lorrie Moore <em>Faber & Faber, 291pp, £9.99</em>

Lorrie Moore's new collection of stories comprises a dozen punchy diatribes, laments and elegies to crumbling lives or broken relationships, all taut within the disciplines of the form. Only "What You Want to Do Fine" betrays any slack in the wire of Moore's concentration; it lacks the restraining architecture of the short story form and wanders lost in its own landscape, as though excerpted from a longer, absent work.

Moore writes well about childhood, searching for the innocent key that might unlock the wisdoms that supposedly arrive with age. In "Two Boys", a story from her previous collection Like Life, she writes of the character Mary feeling "the edge of a childhood she'd never quite had or couldn't quite remember float back to her". In her novel Who will Run the Frog Hospital?, two mature children find that they have forsaken the painful exhilarations of youth to gain only the resigned compromises of the adult franchise.

Birds of America pushes further these extremes of emotional fragility. Moore's fondness for word games serves as an index of insecurity. And Moore's characters, mostly women, seem stranded and self-mockingly insecure in an isolated, unheroic age. In "Terrific Mother", "jetty-laggy" Adrienne begins to babble nervously when patronised by a pompous academic at a plush symposium dinner. Then she smiles at him, and he replies: "Baby talk. We love it."

Most of the stories explore the ambiguous space between the requirements of adult behaviour and the faulty equipment salvaged from childhood with which we attempt to cope with our lives. My favourite, "Beautiful Grade", is about a dinner party at which a divorced law tutor puts up a queasy defence of his decision to date Debbie, one of his former students who is less than half his age. Moore's delineation of each diner's meagre powers of empathy is astute. Their morbid rapport confirms the unalterable private grief of soured hope and misplaced, unreciprocated love.

Lorrie Moore is at her most strident in the penultimate story, subtitled "Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk", in which Mother and Husband struggle with Baby's cancer. Mother, a writer, is goaded by Husband into writing up the whole affair to raise money for the child's treatment. But she cannot do it. The reality is too grim, and too distressing, not the stuff of the imagination at all. "This is the kind of thing that fiction is," she tells herself, "it's the unliveable life, the strange room tacked on to the house, the extra moon that is circling the earth unbeknownst to science."

Moore offers us fragments of this unliveable life. Her stories serve as fresh perspectives of dysfunctional sitcoms, nuanced with bleakness in place of absurdity; and she challenges her readers to act, not observe.

This article first appeared in the 08 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Stuff the millennium