The Books: “Birds of America” – ”People Like That Are the Only People Here” (Lorrie Moore)

Daily Book Excerpt: Adult fiction

birds_of_america.jpgBirds of America, by Lorrie Moore. Excerpt from the story ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’.

It’s interesting that a story with a title suggesting huge generalizations (“people like that”) is also a story where the main characters have no names. They are known by their roles in life: Mother. Husband. (Interesting that he is not known as “Father”??) Baby. Surgeon. Etc. A couple folks they meet later do have names – but they do not. It’s a device, obviously – in a way, it’s a distancing technique. You read something about “The Mother did this or that” … and she has no defining characteristics, we don’t know what she looks like … we only know what she does. You can’t really relate, and that is exactly Lorrie Moore’s point. “People Like That Are the Only People Here”. How can you relate to “people like that”? How can you see yourself in them? You can’t! They’re “people like that”. This is a bone of contention between the Mother and the Husband … the Husband has befriended many of the parents in the hospital, in similar situations – he knows their life story, he knows about their kids … the Mother has no interest whatsoever in “commiserating” with others in her shoes … “People like that”? No. She is too involved in surviving her own tragedy to try to relate to “people like that”. The Mother does not recognize her own life. The horror is so huge she cannot even begin to comprehend it, or even be with it. Baby has cancer. He is in the hospital. Mother and Husband still have not been able to process the diagnosis before this all begins. They are disoriented, freaked out – the Husband tells the Mother to “take notes” (which becomes a running motif in the story – her notes) … sometimes the Mother falls apart, sometimes the Husband does … And, at the bottom of the whole thing, is the knowledge that words cannot even BEGIN to describe their experience. Of looking at their sick son in his crib. Of facing the loss of him. The story is a fantastic evocation, I think, of the kind of disorientation that you can feel when faced with a huge loss. Something that yes, may happen to others, may happen to “people like that”, but when it happens to you … all you can do is look around you, baffled, and say, “How on earth did I get here?” There’s no weeping or wailing, nobody responds in a cliched manner … It makes me think a bit of Joan Didion’s unbelievable memoir about the year following her husband’s death – The Year of Magical Thinking.

It is not so much a memoir of grief – but of disorientation. “Magical thinking”. Things do not always hit us right away, or in the same manner. Didion finds herself staring around her, honestly believing that if she keeps thinking about the moment he fell over in their living room – if she keeps going over it – she could somehow reverse time. He can’t be dead. Her mind refuses to accept it. And yet then she has moments of searing loss and grief, when the realization that he is gone burns through her. But what I admire so much about that book is her fearlessness in describing how confusing grief can be. How lost you can be in the wake of a tragedy. It’s not what you think. It’s not ever what you think it will be.

‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’ is a book about that kind of disorientation. The Mother obsesses about weird things. Like – why all the other mothers of sick boys wear sweat pants … she doesn’t even own a pair. Should she get a pair? The Husband throws the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting across the room, shouting at the book – “Why isn’t the word ‘chemotherapy’ in that book? Why didn’t they write about THAT?” The Mother takes notes on everything the Surgeon says. The baby lies in his crib, covered in tubes, and he reaches up to his Mother – as if to say Take me! Take me!

The story is freakin’ heartbreaking – BUT it is written in a light almost hilarious manner (as the excerpt below will show). Lorrie Moore knows that “hilarity” has its uses in life, and often it shows up at the most inopportune time (laughing in church, etc.) Also – we like to THINK we will be charitable to others, especially when we are in our lowest moments … but of course we know that much of that is just a fantasy, how we would LIKE to be (I am thinking of Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte in Lorenzo’s Oil – going to “support groups” and looking around them at all the other parents as though they are crazy … who CARES if you’re having problems in the bedroom since the diagnosis? Who cares if you yourself are feeling lonely or bad? What about the research? What about the new studies? Let’s talk about THAT.) Lorrie Moore’s “Mother” does not want to bond with the other parents. The horror goes too deep for that. Instead she wonders about sweat pants and she scribbles down meaningless notes in her notebook. Like – she’s not just taking notes about what the doctor says. She’s going off on linguistic tangents … scattered, fragmentary, random questions that have nothing to do with her son’s cancer … her mind wandering. She does not know how to be like the other mothers. It’s extrememly disorienting – to be so far outside your own life.

Here’s an excerpt.

EXCERPT FROM Birds of America: Stories (Vintage Contemporaries) by Lorrie Moore – excerpt from ‘People Like That Are the Only People Here’

Take Notes.

Is fainthearted one word or two? Student prose has wrecked her spelling.

It’s one word. Two words – Faint Hearted – what would that be? The name of a drag queen.

Take Notes. In the end, you suffer alone. But at the beginning you suffer with a whole lot of others. When your child has cancer, you are instantly whisked away to another planet: one of bald-headed little boys. Pediatric Oncology. Peed Onk. You wash your hands for thirty seconds in antibacterial soap before you are allowed to enter through the swinging doors. You put paper slippers on your shoes. You keep your voice down. A whole place has been designed and decorated for your nightmare. Here is where your nightmare will occur. We’ve got a room all ready for you. We have cots. We have refrigerators. “The children are almost entirely boys,” says one of the nurses. “No one knows why. It’s been documented, but a lot of people out there still don’t realize it.” The little boys are all from sweet-sounding places – Janesville and Appleton – little heartland towns with giant landfills, agricultural runoff, paper factories, Joe McCarthy’s grave (Alone, a site of great toxicity, thinks the Mother. The soil should be tested).

All the bald little boys look like brothers. They wheel their IVs up and down the single corridor of Peed Onk. Some of the lively ones, feeling good for a day, ride the lower bars of the IV while their large, cheerful mothers whiz them along the halls. Wheee!

The Mother does not feel large and cheerful. In her mind, she is scathing, acid-tongued, wraith-thin, and chain-smoking out on a fire escape somewhere. Beneath her lie the gentle undulations of the Midwest, with all its aspirations to be – to be what? To be Long Island. How it has succeeded! Strip mall upon strip mall. Lurid water, poisoned potatoes. The Mother drags deeply, blowing clouds of smoke out over the disfigured cornfields. When a baby gets cancer, it seems stupid ever to have given up smoking. When a baby gets cancer, you think, Whom are we kidding? Let’s all light up. When a baby gets cancer, you think, Who came up with this idea? What celestial abandon gave rise to this? Pour me a drink, so I can refuse to toast.

The Mother does not know how to be one of these other mothers, with their blond hair and sweatpants and sneakers and determined pleasantness. She does not think that she can be anything similar. She does not feel remotely like them. She knows, for instance, too many people in Greenwich Village. She mail-orders oysters and tiramisu from a shop in SoHo. She is close friends with four actual homosexuals. Her husband is asking her to Take Notes.

Where do these women get their sweatpants? She will find out.

She will start, perhaps, with the costume and work from there.

She will live according to the bromides. Take one day at a time. Take a positive attitude. Take a hike! She wishes that there were more interesting things that were useful and true, but it seems now that it’s only the boring things that are useful and true. One day at a time. And at least we have our health. How ordinary. How obvious. One day at a time. You need a brain for that?

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1 Response to The Books: “Birds of America” – ”People Like That Are the Only People Here” (Lorrie Moore)

  1. The Books: “Birds of America” – ‘Terrific Mother’ (Lorrie Moore)

    Next book in my Daily Book Excerpt – on my adult fiction shelves: Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore. Excerpt from the story ‘Terrific Mother’ – the last story in the collection. ‘Terrific Mother’ opens with a scene of such…

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