The Aliens Next Door

Lorrie Moore’s stories tell truths stranger than the strangest science fiction.

Kristian Hammerstad

Lorrie Moore writes stories about space aliens. The stories tend to take one of two forms: the Invasion of the Body Snatchers narrative (it dawns on our heroine that she is surrounded by aliens, or married to one), or the A.I. narrative (it dawns on our heroine that she is the alien). The stories in the former category resemble the science-fiction film Moore describes in “Real Estate,” in her third collection, Birds of America:

She was especially stirred by a movie she saw about a beautiful widow who fell in love with a space alien who had assumed human form—the form of the woman’s long lost husband! Eventually, however, the man had to go back to his real home, and an immense and amazing spaceship came to get him, landing in a nearby field. To Ruth, it seemed so sad and true, just like life: someone assumed the form of the great love of your life, only to reveal himself later as an alien who had to get on a spaceship and go back to his planet.

Ruth finds herself in an analogous position: her husband no longer seems himself, and the house that they’ve bought, in a halfhearted attempt to save their marriage, is as inhospitable as a foreign planet. Like the spaceship Nostromo from Alien, the house even has a stowaway—a homeless teenager who Ruth discovers has been living in the attic. Tassie Keltjin, the frequently bemused narrator of Moore’s most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs (2009), experiences a similar sense of disorientation when she returns home from college, finding that “everyone here seemed a stranger, if not an outright alien.” This premise is often played for a melancholy humor, but it takes a horrific turn in Moore’s masterpiece, “People Like That Are the Only People Here”: “When your child has cancer, you are instantly whisked away to another planet: one of bald-headed little boys.”

The second category, the A.I. narrative, includes stories like “To Fill,” whose heroine wonders, “Am I from outer space?” after a botched attempt at polite conversation (efforts to make polite conversation in Moore’s stories always end catastrophically), and “The Jewish Hunter,” in which a man smiles at our heroine “as if he thought she was cute but from outer space, like something that would soon be made into a major motion picture and then later into a toy.”

All writers of fiction are, to some degree, body-snatching aliens. Although they move freely among the general population, they remain outside of it, privately observing and dissecting human behavior, before returning home to their labs to construct scrupulous simulacra of life: novels and short stories. Moore’s particular genius lies in her ability to isolate in human relationships a current of inexplicable oddity as exotic as the strangest science fiction. Because every human being is, deep down, inexplicably odd, Moore’s fiction has the additional virtue of being profoundly true.

Bark, her slim new collection, contains eight stories written in the 16 years since Birds of America. It is her seventh book of fiction; she has been alternating story collections with novels since her 1985 debut, Self-Help. Four of the stories in Bark are Body Snatcher narratives, including “Paper Losses,” in which the heroine, Kit, suspects her husband has “turned into some sort of space alien.”

“All husbands are space aliens,” said her friend Jan.

“God help me, I had no idea,” said Kit. She began spreading peanut butter on a pretzel and eating quickly.

“In fact,” said Jan, “my sister and I call them UFOs.”

It stood for something. Kit hated to ask.

“Ungrateful fuckers,” Jan said.

Kit thought for a moment. “But what about the O?” she asked. “You said UFO.”

There was a short silence. “Ungrateful fuckeroos,” Jan added quickly.

Kit is a familiar Moore heroine: perplexed, impulsive to the point of self-sabotage, willfully blind to the gradual erosion of everything she values in her life, linguistically inventive, and funny in an absurdist key. Speaking with Jan about her husband, she says: “I don’t believe in fighting. I believe in giving peace a chance. I also believe in internal bleeding … I’m also interested … in those forensically undetectable dissolving plastic bullets. Have you heard of those?”

Moore, puzzlingly, is often compared to Alice Munro, a considerably more sober, ponderous presence. A much closer literary cousin is Jane Bowles, whose acerbic, neurotic characters take wild risks, constantly confound the reader’s expectations (as well as their own), and—the rarest virtue of all—are reliably funny. At her most inventive, Moore also channels Barry Hannah’s delirious spontaneity: in Bark’s final story, “Thank You for Having Me,” the gun-wielding leader of a motorcycle gang interrupts a wedding, makes a passionate speech about how “life can get quite startling in its switches of channels,” and then departs, having realized that he has crashed the wrong wedding. The moral of this episode, as of much of Moore’s fiction, is that alienation is the only human response to a culture that has itself become as bewildering as an alien planet.

Alienation is the only human response to a culture that has become as bewildering as an alien planet.

Moore’s particular postage stamp of unreality is the Venusian landscape of the Midwest, with its “silver-topped silos gleaming like spaceships” (“What You Want to Do Fine”) and its populations of small-town “dimmerwits from outer space who’d forgotten to get back on the spaceship and so the ship had left without them” (A Gate at the Stairs). But there have been some changes in the atmosphere since Birds of America. The stories are looser, less prone to synthesis than to dissolution. And her characters have aged.

Gone are the 20-something singles, young married couples, and new parents who populated her earlier stories. “Debarking,” “Referential,” and “Subject to Search” concern the “geriatric” dating lives of her aging characters. In “Wings,” a woman in her late 30s forms an unlikely, and vaguely romantic, alliance with an elderly widower who is close to death. “Thank You for Having Me” is about a single mother and her adolescent daughter: “Mothers and their only children of divorce were a skewed family dynamic … Perhaps they were more like cruddy buddy movies, and the dialogue between them was unrecognizable as filial or parental. It was extraterrestrial.” (This is the collection’s lone A.I. story.) The narrator attends a wedding, but has lost all sentimentality about romantic relationships. “It felt important spiritually to go to weddings,” Moore writes, “to give balance to the wakes and memorial services.” The narrator fixates on a mildly daft divorcé, a member of “the older generation”—a generation among which she counts herself. “They can’t take any change,” she says, a statement that can be applied to most of the characters in this collection. “There’s too much missingness that has already accumulated. They can’t take any more.”

Politics increasingly pokes through the fabric of Moore’s more recent work. Like A Gate at the Stairs, which is bookended by September 11 and the death of Tassie’s brother in Afghanistan, the stories in Bark are punctuated by intermittent reports from the headlines. But the passing references to Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo Bay, the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, and the recession are not intended to add perspective to the private crises her characters face. In fact, a character warns against this on Bark’s very first page:

“Here’s what you do for your depression … I’m not going to say get some perspective by watching our country’s news each evening and by contemplating those worse off than yourself, those, say, who are about to be blown apart by bombs.”

The bulletins from the outside world instead emphasize how profound is our capacity to adapt, to take for granted, to willfully ignore. In “Paper Losses,” Kit takes a final vacation with her husband to a Caribbean resort. He has presented her with divorce papers, but they have promised their children the vacation, so they go—a last hurrah. At the resort, Kit notices that their fellow tourists are reading books about war. Kit is an accomplished self-delusionist, but even she can appreciate the irony:

On the beach people read books about Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocide. This was to add seriousness to a trip that lacked it. One was supposed not to notice the dark island boys on the other side of the guards and barbed wire, throwing rocks.

Moore is not merely a brilliant noticer. She is also brilliant at noticing those things that “one was supposed not to notice,” namely our seemingly limitless capacity for cruelty, apathy, and violence. In Bark’s three best, most complete stories, Moore merges her two modes; her characters are unsettled both by those around them and by themselves. Ira, the recently divorced hero of “Debarking,” is dumbfounded by his own behavior: “He had no idea why he said half the things he said.” He is even more mystified by the behavior of Zora, an eccentric divorcée who strikes him as “stupid or crazy” but nevertheless inspires in him a crushing affection. In “Wings,” KC’s daily conversations with the doting widower Milt give her life a desperately needed structure, though when he makes a flailing sexual advance, she unravels. “You’re completely crazy!” she yells at the dazed old man. She returns home, where, acting no less recklessly, she punches her baffled boyfriend in the face.

And in “The Juniper Tree,” a beautiful, rending fable, Moore’s narrator can’t bring herself to visit Robin, a dying friend, until it’s too late. She is consoled when a dead Robin returns to visit her. In the story’s last scene, the narrator recalls their final encounter before Robin went to the hospital. After a short conversation over an untouched lemon-meringue pie, Robin suddenly pushes the pie into her own face. “What the fuck?” says the mystified narrator. A reader may ask the same question of many of the things that transpire in Bark. But the initial surprise of Moore’s effervescent, jarring stories ultimately yields to a response that, far from mystification, is its mirror opposite: enlightenment.