Some people like to throw chocolate chips into everything. Pumpkin bread? Sure. Banana bread? Well, yeah. Pancakes? Shudder. My boys were at a sleepover this past weekend where the dad made pancakes with chocolate chips in the pattern of a smiley face. At a certain point one thinks that one should put the chips away.
And so it is with the fiction of Lorrie Moore, not with chocolate chips, but with jokes and puns. Many of her female characters make puns and crack jokes, really clever ones. I find it a bit tiresome, although I usually like these neurotic women. I've read Self Help, Birds of America, and People Like That Are the Only People Here. (The title story is amazing.) She has a comic genius, rare for a critically acclaimed woman writer.
But her work isn't comic through and through, just studded with bits of it, so you can be lulled into not expecting the darkness that is coming. One day eight years ago, I was lounging about on my easy chair, seven or eight months pregnant, with my toddler playing at my feet, as I read the short story collection Birds of America. The main character in one of the short stories is at an outdoor party, and she picks up a baby to cuddle. She trips over something and the baby lands on a stone wall and dies. I slammed the book shut, sentenced it to rot next to my old college copy of Joseph Fielding, and didn't look at it again for five years.
Now I've started her new book, A Gate at the Stairs, with more than a little intrepidation. I'm less hormonal--well, no, just differently hormonal. But what intrigues me is that she goes really easy on the chocolate chips and engages life more directly, or at least her characters do. The comic edge is definitely still there, but more deeply embedded in the narrator's sensibility. However, according to reviews in Slate and Harper's, something really bad goes down, in the last third of the book. To a small child.
Meanwhile, I have a bag of chocolate chips in the freezer, ready and waiting.