Lorrie Moore may not be as prolific as some of her New Yorker counterparts, like the queen of short stories and Nobel Prize winner Alice Munro, but she’s no less beloved. Thus, the release of Moore’s first story collection in 16 years is an occasion indeed. Still, there are occasions and there are occasions. Sometimes you need to break out the Taittinger. Sometimes a solid Prosecco will do just fine.
I wish it weren’t the case, I really do, but Bark (Knopf) falls into the latter category. It’s a step above Korbel, sure, but it lacks the complexity and heft of a truly memorable sparkler. And if you expected a little too much out of the bottle, as I did, you’ll probably feel let down.
Moore’s stories have always been populated by quirky, damaged characters whose verbal cleverness is offset by emotional turmoil, but they’ve always been fun to hang around. (I’ve re-read most of her prior work more than once.) Yet the characters in the eight stories in Bark—most divorced, most in mid-life—are dusted with such bitterness that they’re almost unpalatable.
Take this passage at the opening of “Paper Losses,” which describes a couple’s last, terrible vacation before telling their children they’re getting a divorce: “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no-nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. …
“Married for two decades of precious, precious life, she and Rafe seemed currently to be partners only in anger and dislike, their old lusty love mutated to rage. It was both the shame and the demise of them that hate like love could not live on air. And so in this, their newly successful project together, they were complicitous and synergistic. They were nurturing, homeopathic, and enabling. They spawned and raised their hate together, cardiovascularly, spiritually, organically.”
Yes, it’s clever, and yes, it’s supposed to be over the top, but coming as it does as the third story in a row about an ugly divorce, it feels tedious instead of surprising.
Moore herself went through an ugly divorce, but so do many people, especially once middle age hits. And it’s true, the reality for most, especially women of a certain age, is they don’t get their groove back—they go on terrible dates or maybe some pleasant dates or maybe never date, and some remain bitter and some discover a new unexpected happiness and some just get by.
So it makes sense that the deteriorating relationships of middle age would be Moore’s focus, whatever her own marital status. But most of the characters who populate Bark are sadder than sad-sack. By the end of the book, it rankles.
“‘We’re all suckers for a happy ending,’” a character says at the end of “Subject to Search,” a story that of course does not have one. And while I don’t read Moore expecting a happy ending, it’s hard not to see this as a bit of Moore thumbing her nose at her readers.
It’s possible the grimness of Bark wouldn’t matter if the execution were otherwise flawless, but it’s not. Politics pop up repeatedly, and date the stories in an unfortunate way. “Foes” is the worst offender in this regard, revolving around a liberal historian battling a conservative lobbyist over dinner, but the Iraq War and Bush and Kerry and Obama all make appearances, as if, off-page, the characters all read The Nation.
You can see Moore striving to connect the two—politics and real life—but it never really works. In “Debarking,” the first story in the collection, the main character, Ira, starts dating again as the bombs start falling in Iraq. But war and divorce aren’t parallels. Bombs aren’t a metaphor. Not a good one, anyway.
This is not to say there aren’t flashes of brilliance in Bark, because there are. “Wings,” an almost-novella-length retelling of the Henry James novel The Wings of the Dove, is rather lovely.
There’s also humor—warped, but laugh-out-loud funny. In the final story, “Thank You for Having Me,” Moore writes: “The weekend her father left—left the house, the town, the country, everything, packing so lightly I believed he would come back—he had said, ‘You can raise Nickie by yourself. You’ll be good at it.’
“And I had said, ‘Are you on crack?’ And he had replied, continuing to fold a blue twill jacket, ‘Yes, a little.’”
“Thank You for Having Me” is the sweetest of the stories in Bark, the one tale that doesn’t leave a sour taste in your mouth. It’s an exaltation to living, to celebrating the happiness of others in the face of death, despair, and the general shittiness of life. The protagonist thinks:
“I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock with their names engraved so shockingly perfectly upon them it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone. … I had turned a hundred Rolodex cards around to their blank sides. So let a babysitter become a bride again. Let her marry over and over. So much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all, so let some errant inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.”
It’s classic Lorrie Moore—the stories and novels that got me through my 20s, over and over again. It has hope.
Moore recently left her longtime position at the University of Wisconsin for Vanderbilt, and I can only hope the Southern winters and Nashville honky-tonks bring a little more joy into her writing. Bark’s still better than half of everything published, but compared to the effervescence of her past work, it simply falls flat.