Books: What we talk about when we talk about happiness

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore Faber pounds 9.99
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The Independent Culture
In a sense, all of Lorrie Moore's stories are about the same thing. Her characters are trying, as one of them says, to get all their birds in the same yard. Happiness is perhaps too much to ask for, but tidiness would be a start. Not all the stories are about endings, but they all could have been; they are endings forestalled and put off one more time.

Moore's stories are not neatly packaged, twist-in-the-tail narratives, but more like slices of wurst, with the raw ends showing up the constituents. Her writing is beautifully honed, she is in perfect control of her voice, which is rich and lyrical without gushing. She faces the quotidian disappointments and accommodations of life head on. She's given to titles like "Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People" and "Whatever You Want to Do Fine", just in case you thought her ear for expression was mere serendipity.

She has an unflinching eye for the casualness of tragedy. More than one of the stories concerns characters who have a child who is growing up without them. Damaged children recur - a Down's syndrome sister in one, a seven-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis in another, a long-dead sister in a third who is remembered coming home from the hospital iron lung, and dying of polio upstairs.

In the best of the stories, "People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling In Peed Onk" (you get a translation of the title in the course of the story: "Peed Onk" is Paedeatric Oncology), the child, or the child's ill- ness takes centre stage. An unnamed Mother (that's all she is any more, a mother with a capital "M") discovers blood in her baby's nappy and he turns out to have a malignant tumour on his kidney. In pitilessly even prose Moore takes us through the hell of waiting to see your baby die. Almost the worst thing is how normal the whole business comes to seem. The Mother notices that all the other mothers wear sweat-pants, and she thinks if she adopts the uniform she can begin to be like them with their positive attitudes, their "determined pleasantness", and their bromides - "One day at a time. You need a brain for that?". A couple of pages later she has assimilated the significance of the sweat-pants as she leaps out of bed at four am when she hears her boy stir. This is a world where a child dying at age nine is accounted a triumph because the doctors gave him only six months four and a half years ago.

And yet despite these sometimes awful things, the lives of Moore's characters are mostly not that bad. They are generally solvent, and have loving relationships with husbands, mothers, sisters, friends. Only those relationships fail to mesh quite comfortably on the intimate level where it matters most. They fail on a prepositional level; a woman is peripherally involved in a political campaign, disliking people who "never spoke to you. They spoke toward you. They spoke at you. They spoke near you, on you." Yet life goes on. Moore's characters make the best of it, they do have choices and they get on with their lives. They still have purposes and time off from their agonies, but even their playfulness has a note of desperation. You look at these people and you think about your own life and you thank Providence that Lorrie Moore didn't write your story.