A new collection of short stories (Bark) has prompted me to return to Lorrie Moore’s Collected Stories (sorry – THE Collected Stories). She is hailed as one of America’s best short story writers – witty, razor-sharp observant, charting “America’s changing anxieties”. She is indeed quite a writer, and aims to grip you with first lines that both set up the story and inject a little twist: “When the cat died on Veterans Day…”, “You had to get out of them occasionally, those Illinois towns with the funny names…” Grand sweeps interrupted by tart particulars. But the cleverness can be too much sometimes – the similes, much like John Updike’s, can display a bit of literary showing-off. She describes an L-shaped apartment as being like a life veering off in another direction. (Really?)
She packs whole lives into the stories, even if chronologically the stories span a short time. A gift is her ability to construct a life by focusing not on the highs, but by looking back on the events in a life from the valleys or plateaus. Characters are often empty, weary, and find themselves in a place, both literally and figuratively, they never expected to be. But this can also be very dispiriting. She can enliven her stories with a knowing humour, and yet often they are very sad (in a listless rather than elegiac way).