The arrival of a new short story collection from Lorrie Moore is by anyone’s measure a Big Event in the world of literary fiction—and not just in Moore’s new hometown of Nashville. Widely considered one of the great voices in contemporary American literature, Moore is the author of two novels and four earlier collections of short fiction—the form in which her talents shine brightest. Birds of America, her previous collection of short fiction, dates back to 1998. Moore already had a fan base then, but Birds of America really put her on the map, solidifying her reputation as “a writer at the peak of her form,” as Geoff Dyer wrote in The Independent, and earning praise from numerous critics and fellow writers. Dave Eggers hailed the book as “written beautifully, flawlessly, carefully, with a trademark gift for the darkly comic and the perfectly observed.” In its pages, Moore performed a sort of tightrope spectacle, toeing the line between tragic and comic with a grace few writers manage. Stories with heartbreaking premises, delivered with a heaping spoonful of wry wit: this is Moore’s brand of genius.
She reveals this trademark pivot between wit and woe in Bark, a small volume of eight stories. In its relatively diminutive size, it closely mirrors Moore’s earliest books, including her first collection, Self-Help. That book is regularly acknowledged today as one of the finest examples of stories written in the second person—the “how-to” narrative—and it has spawned, or inspired, numerous imitators.
Though there’s none of that second-person experimentation in Bark, this book delivers the pleasure of encountering anew the unique style and sensibility that first charmed readers of Self-Help, combined with a matured and sometimes prickly perspective, keen to the absurdities and anxieties of the past decade-plus. “I can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness,” one character confesses to a friend. That desperate need is something of a universal for the characters in Bark, many of whom grapple with crises of heart and home while equally, wearily beset by the big-picture stressors of a tumultuous decade: weapons of mass destruction, economic collapse. Even the death of big-box bookstores lurks in the background: In “Wings,” the sign on a shuttered Borders store has lost a letter and now reads “BOR ERS.” And there you have Moore’s vision of the world: if bleak or chilly, then also seared with humor and wordplay.
That world, that vision? It’s one where “stressful moments in restaurants” make a character think, “Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins?” Where a character is “working on a modest little volume of doggerel, its tentative title: Women from Venus; Men from Penis. Either that, or Soccer Dad: The Musical.” Where a wife muses that her husband’s smile “was just a careless yawn, or was his smile just stuck carelessly on? Which was the correct lyric? She did not know.” And where, observing an old man’s liver spots, another woman thinks, “[I]f only they weren’t signs of looming death they would look appealing and whimsical and young people would probably want them—give me a liver spot!—as tattoos.”
In another context, such witticisms might serve as little more than cute asides. But in Moore’s stories they are a counterweight, extending levity in a world of imminent threat, of death in the wings, of a constant, low-level anxiety. Here be dragons—or, rather, sick children, disappointed adults, friends lost to illness far too young, the widowed facing the ends of their lives, everyone lonely in his or her specific way.
Doomed pairings are a dominant theme. In the opening story and one of the collection’s finest pieces, “Debarking,” a lonely divorced father gamely suffers an awkward romance with a fellow divorcee who has an unhealthy attachment to her teenage son. The hashish and sleeping pills the two share are good—the intimacy less so. In “Paper Losses,” another story of soured marriage left to “anxious conjugal dusk,” a marriage that has become “like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle,” a couple takes their children on a last-gasp vacation to a Caribbean “gringo enclave,” where “One was not supposed to notice the dark islands boys on the other side of the guards and barbed wire, throwing rocks.” According to the wife, Kit, “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: to choose the best unhappiness.” In “Referential”—an homage to Vladimir Nabokov’s story “Signs and Symbols” (both were published in The New Yorker)—a widow feels her boyfriend of ten years drifting away even as he acts as a surrogate father to her disturbed, hospitalized teenage son.
Into such dark circumstances—real and metaphorical death shrouding all—Moore injects her humor. Or, sometimes, it’s the other way around, and she catches you off-guard with a stealthy gravity, making your heart skip a beat while your mouth is still curled into a delighted grin. In “Foes,” some very funny repartee between a writer and a political lobbyist at a fancy D.C. fund-raiser swerves into the near macabre when the lobbyist reveals a terrible incident from her past: “He saw now that her fingernails really were plastic, that the hand really was a dry frozen claw, that the face that had seemed intriguingly exotic had actually been scarred by fire and only partially repaired…. Pity poured through him. He’d never before felt so sorry for someone. How could someone have suffered so much? How could someone have come so close to death, so unfairly, so painfully and heroically, and how could he still want to strangle them?”
Bark may not be a cheerful little book, but it is a wise one, an unflinching one, and often a very funny one. And it is a brilliant display of Lorrie Moore’s utterly distinctive voice, one whose individual works feel like facets of a singular gem.
[This review was updated with new event information on September 12, 2014.]
Susannah Felts is a writer, editor, and educator in Nashville, as well as co-founder of The Porch Writers’ Collective, a nonprofit literary center. She is the author of This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record, a novel, and numerous journal and magazine articles.