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A Return to Form
on 21 June 2014
After the dismal showing on her last novel "The Gate at the Stairs", I was hesitant about picking up Moore's latest work. I am glad I did because not only did it feel like she has returned to form with this collection, but it also further confirmed for me that Moore's strength is in short stories (as previous glowing collections like "Birds of America" and "Self-Help" have proven). And there is no shame in that - just look at Nobel Prize winner, Alice Munro, who almost exclusively writes short fiction.
In these 8 stories, Moore examines moments in the lives of characters, who are as varied as the different junctures they are at in life. The stories are diverse, and often surprising, when a word, or a new situation in life presents the characters with decisions they have to make - and they don't always choose wisely. But that approximates life as we know it, in my opinion.
In the first and one of the longer stories in the collection, "Debarking", a new divorcee, Ira, tries to get a foot back in the dating game and lands up with an attractive, but possibly mentally unstable pediatrician Zora, who has a closer-than-comfortable relationship with her teenaged son. Against the background of America's impending war with Iraq, Ira rather self-indulgently imposes his personal issues on global matters, when he anguishes over his new relationship: "I would stop seeing her, but I don't seem to be able to. Especially now with all that's happening in the world. I can't live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness." Ira's best friend, Mike's advice is: "You shouldn't use people as human shields... Or - I don't know - maybe you should". While bitingly funny, Mike's uncertainty of the right/wrongness of narcissism is symptomatic of the kind of shortfalls Moore's flawed characters constantly exhibits as modern adults.
In the next story, "The Juniper Tree", the narrator puts off visiting her dying friend Robin with her current boyfriend, who once dated Robin, and reflects on the sorry state of the womenfolk in her town: "That was how dating among straight middle-aged women seemed to go in this college town: one available man every year or so just made the rounds of us all.... Every woman I knew here drank - daily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our mothers, and one another." The abruptness of these summative lines so early in the story effectively lays bare on the page the bitterly realist tone of the piece in a concise and precise manner - so it is with some surprise when supernatural elements come on soon after. It is to Moore's credit that while the turn in the story shocks the reader, it remains perfectly credible and drives home the oppressive loneliness of these women that leads them into uneasy symbiotic relationships with one another.
Marriage is also examined under Moore's irreverent yet illuminating lens in "Paper Losses", where Kit, one half of an ex-hippie couple at the end of their union reflects wryly: "Marriage stopped being comic when it was suddenly halted, at which point it became divorce, which time never disrupted, and so the funniness of which was never-ending." Despite the bitterly-funny tone, Moore is never flippant about the fates of people who suffer the aftermath of divorce or abandonment. In "Wings", failed musician Dench describes how his dad had abandoned his mom by climbing out of a men's room window at a restaurant, and muses if "that is cowardice or a weird kind of courage." His partner KC replies that "it's neither.... It has nothing to do it in either of those things."
Collectively, these stories are short, sharp and filled with the kind of coffee table wisdom that stays with you after you close the book, like a heart-to-heart conversation with an old friend. Welcome back, Ms Moore.