I’d always thought that if you woke one day to find yourself in a Lorrie Moore short story, you could take comfort in the fact that whilst you’d quite likely be stuck in a life you hadn’t meant to lead, alienated from those supposedly closest to you, and intimate with death and decline, you’d at least be given killer lines (or else the narrator hovering just over your shoulder would).
In Moore’s previous collection of stories, Birds of America, the sharp tang of her wit made every move of the at once strange and utterly average American Midwestern lives she chronicled something to be relished – albeit with a wince.
If you woke up in the world of Moore’s new collection Bark, that comfort could be found, but only to a degree. In fact, the opening story, “Debarking”, is such classic Moore it could operate as a key to her work. A recent divorcee, stewing in Wile E. Coyote-esque daydreams about his ex, meets an attractive though clearly unstable woman at a dinner party at which he is manically camping up his Jewishness. Not unaware of her faults, a kind of willed optimism bound up with sexual attraction keeps him turning up for dismal dates as the truth about the all-encompassing nature of her relationship with her teenage son becomes clear, not least via his encounters with her sculptural works made of reclaimed woodwind instruments, “recognizably boys, priapic with piccolos”. It’s all there – loneliness and absurdity, punctuated by moments of evanescent striving – the hope of the characters often going the way of Moore’s Midwestern Spring: “a delicate thing quickly overtaken by tornadoes”.
The narrator of “Debarking” is in a kind of double shock – on account of his emptied-out life, but also at the news of the extremity of the US bombing of Baghdad in 2003
But throughout this volume, there are new notes to be found – ones that have nothing to with punchlines. The narrator of “Debarking” is in a kind of double shock – on account of his emptied-out life, but also at the news of the extremity of the US bombing of Baghdad in 2003. In “Subject to Search”, the love interest seems to have been indirectly involved in the atrocities at Abu Ghraib; in “Foes”, a hostile right-wing dinner party interlocutor turns out to have burned at the Pentagon bombings. Here, more than in Moore’s previous books, politics penetrate the self-absorbed lives of the characters. In some ways this is a necessary step, an acknowledgement that in the decade and a half years since she published Birds of America, the US has had to confront the ramifications of its place in the world. However, it does make have the effect of making the book seem already of the past. It also – and hopefully this is partly Moore’s intention – makes you impatient with characters whose concern is not survival but the question of whether they have not been loved enough, or in the right way.
Perhaps this grappling with the iniquities of the world explains the melancholy that seems to infiltrate many of the stories here – not now quite counterbalanced by the tough humour, though there’s plenty there. It is an atmosphere best summed up through the eyes of the mother of the sectioned boy in “Referential”: “Living did not mean one joy piled upon another; it was the merely the hope for less pain.” In “Wings”, a failed singer songwriter of debatable talent, drifting through life alongside a sponging, emotionally stunted guitarist of equally debatable talent, develops a friendship with an old man that appears more fulfilling. The tale could be sentimental in the wrong hands – a Hollywood odd couple – but Moore gives the dynamic a creepy, sexual edge, and the protagonist ends up alone, hosting the families of children at the paediatric hospital. It’s a story awash with sadness and regret.
If all this makes it appear as though the book lacks pleasures, nothing could be further from the truth. Moore writes so well – she’s lyrical, surprising to surreal, full of mischief – that it’s disappointing to so quickly reach the end of this slender volume. There is something of hope too, I think, in the figure of the robust daughters who pop up here and there. There’s eight-year-old Bekka in “Debarking”, who, “in a bathtime reverie, named her five favourite people, four of whom were dogs. The fifth was her own blue bike”; the twins in “Paper Losses”, who “buried their several Barbies in the sand and lifted them out again with glee”; and the teenage Nikki in the final story “Thank You for Having Me”: a “gorgeous giantess” who has recently announced “a desire for her own reality show so that the world could see what she had to put up with.” And in that same final story, a note of fragile optimism shows that Moore hasn’t given herself over to bleakness entirely – “for a second, the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn”.
Moments like this, as well as the quieter sadness of some stories, made me wonder whether the collection should perhaps have been named after its first story: “debarking”, it turns out, is the process by which a dog’s voice is softened to make it less startling to the human ear. But Moore’s chosen adaptation, “Bark”, is more apt for a voice still rich with glorious discontent. C