Delicate Edible Birds
And Other Stories
by Lauren Groff
Hyperion, 320 pp., $23.95
Like a dutiful girl of the post-Cosmo age, Lauren Groff writes to an audience of her peers: a certain type of female reader and teacher. It is too bad, for her short stories are otherwise captivating and lyrical.
The first story in this collection, "Lucky Chow Fun," demonstrates Groff's ability to capture the atmosphere of Richard Russo territory with the sardonic voice that allows the reader to feel the pang of the misfit girl. By page six I had written "Lorrie Moore" in the margin. (The protagonist, the only female on the high school swim team, is called "Moby Dickless.") Moore is a writer I admire very much, but Groff's credit to her and several other workshop participants at book's end confirmed my suspicion of excessive workshopping. Whenever I encountered the current de rigueur coupling of startling adjectives ("That winter I learned the dark strain of recovery"), I found myself wanting to swoop this young woman out of the workshop and politically correct classroom and thrust her into the world.
Characters otherwise endearing become vehicles for political pieties. But this follows the current trend. In a world made meaningless, presumptively because of social injustice, characters become amoral automatons subject to their whims and impulses. They find themselves coupling with other characters without a clue as to why--and without a trace of guilt. This is what passes for sophistication when the cardinal sin is considered to be the imposition of moral judgment on individuals. The stories seem written made-to-order for deconstruction by class/race/gender. In "Lucky Chow Fun," for example,
The one black family who lived in Templeton during my childhood promptly pulled up roots and moved away after a year, and there were only three Jewish children in school. The only Asians were preternaturally cheery. . . . This was a town that clung ferociously to the shameful high school mascot of the Redskins, though if we were any skins, we should have been the Whiteskins.
Groff denies the freshman the pleasure, though, of coming up with a line like "Dark secrets lurk under the postcard prettiness of Templeton" for a paper on, of course, "Race in 'Lucky Chow Fun.'" Patriarchy is also targeted. The husbands are buffoonish dictators, whether of a country in the southern hemisphere or of the nuclear family. Or else they passively observe their wives' paramours at parties in their own homes. The nice man in the racist town of Templeton is gay.
Groff's stories play out a feminist drama of plucky women rebelling against patriarchal forces, a narrative much loved by women inclined to look to Oprah for affirmation. The female characters become artistic, mad, and promiscuous. On Groff's literary Sex and the City set, men cannot resist women who are braver, smarter, and more sexually aggressive than they are. Men are subject to the sexual allure of these women and give up marriages and money for them--and weep when they cannot satisfy them. When they can, their insensitivity leads the female characters into the arms of other women.
The promiscuous Bern in the final story is particularly annoying. One of her admirers muses: "When he looked at Bern, Viktor saw the future, and it was lovely and clean and as equal as things between men and women, between prole and patrician, could be. And he also saw that any impulse to pin her down would only make her flitter away." Bern sees herself as the plucky war correspondent at a time when women aren't taken seriously. As French villagers evacuate when the Nazis move in, we get the point of view of one of Bern's married lovers: "[Bern] moved close to Parnell and looked up into his face and he saw the kind of searing look she gave him when she wanted to take him into a corner and have her furious way with him. As always, he was taken aback, though he would have complied, had there been any chance, but he looked around at the boiling mass of humanity."
At this point I wished for Flannery O'Connor's diabolical Bible salesman to come on the scene and teach Bern a lesson. Well, there is a Nazi sympathizer (the Communist sympathizers are good guys, natch); but even he is not so much an agent of evil as a manifestation of social forces, the patriarchy, as the clumsy description of Bern's "punishment" tells us.
The one story that has the most potential to plumb the tragic element, of a young wife's selfishness that leads inadvertently to her husband's death, ends predictably, despite authorial protestations to the contrary. To wit, the last paragraph of "Watershed":
There is no ending, no neatness in this story. There never really is, where water is concerned. It is wild, febrile, kind, ambiguous; it is dark and carries the mud, and it is clear and the cleanest thing. Too much of it kills us, and not enough kills us, and it is what makes us, mostly.
Two more sentences continue the meditation--on water.
Groff does what too many writers do today: She offers clever meandering meditations on the ultimately inconsequential. When such a philosophy is combined with sermonettes on political correctness, the reader asks herself why she should bother to read contemporary fiction.
Mary Grabar is a writer in Atlanta.