Thursday, October 15, 2015

In "Birds of America" the language soars

Now that I've read (and written about) Stanley Fish on sentences, I've been thinking about my sentences and have become sensitive to other writers' sentences. Fish talks about the
importance of first sentences, and I've just finished reading a short story collection that is a model of how to write a first sentence that pulls the reader into the story.

—In her last picture, the camera had lingered at the hip, the naked hip, and even though it wasn't her hip, she acquired a reputation for being willing.

—It was a fear greater than death, according to the magazines.

—I tell them dance begins when a moment of hurt combines with a moment of boredom.

—When Olena was a little girl, she had called them lie-berries—a fibbing fruit, a story store—and now she had a job in one.

—Her mother had given her the name Agnes, believing that a good-looking woman was even more striking when her name was a homely one.

Five first sentences from the first five stories in Lorrie Moore's Birds of America. All different, all engaging. Indeed, I imagine that one of the challenges of writing so well at the sentence level is that readers will pay more attention to the writing than to the story. It may be a problem for Moore because more than once I was stopped by an absolutely lovely sentence, a perfect metaphor and briefly pulled out of the story.

But for Moore, I'll let it pass. It's a little like complaining that the meal was so delicious I couldn't eat.

While there are certain repeating themes in these dozen stories—people who are lost, couples who find it hard to live together, families in crisis—there is also lightness and humor. A woman who mourns the death of her cat goes through the five stages of grief: Anger, Denial, Bargaining, Häagen Dazs, Rage. And while I responded more to some stories than others, that I think is the nature of a story collection and another reader will find a story that did not engage me to be the best in the book.

I tell aspiring writers to read the best stuff they can get their hands on. One cannot do better than study Birds of America for its range, for its language, for its structures.

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