“‘Hope is never false. Or it’s always false. Whatever. It’s just hope,’ she said. ‘Nothing wrong with that.’” – Lorrie Moore, Bark
Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first story collection since the publication of Birds of America in 1998. I reviewed that book here when I read it two years ago. At the time I was struck by Moore’s imaginative use of language, so truthful and surprising, and her ability to use humour to give warmth and understanding to some of life’s harder truths. I was excited when I heard there was a new book. And when it arrived in my mailbox with its gorgeous cover, I couldn’t wait to get started.
Bark has just eight stories, only one of which was not previously published. I wasn’t familiar with any of them, so I just dove in and read them in order, practically in one sitting.
The collection begins with “Debarking”, first published in The New Yorker in 2003. In it, America embarks on a war with Iraq, and a recently divorced middle-aged man, Ira, meets Zora, a sexy pediatrician. Ira senses something amiss about Zora, but “Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people’s charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself.” Despite misgivings that Zora “might not be all that mentally well” — what tipped you off, Ira, her bizarre relationship with her teenage son?— Ira continues to see her, telling his friend Mike, “I can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness.”
In “The Juniper Tree”, three middle-aged women visit a friend who has just died. Like, I mean, they actually go to her house and have a conversation with her. At first I thought it was a dream, but, no. The protagonist and her friends live in a small college town where they take turns dating the same eligible but emotionally unavailable man and stave off despair with gin and crafts.
Every woman I knew here drank—daily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another. I was the only one of my friends—all of us academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or, so we imagined it)—who hadn’t had something terrible happen to her yet.
That “yet”. Although you could understand why the narrator might be worried. Her friend Robin gets cancer and dies. Of the other two friends, one has lost an arm, and the other suffered a stroke. In a bizarre visit to Robin’s house the night after she dies, the protagonist is judged for not bringing the right gifts, and forced to perform, singing The Star-Spangled Banner for her dead friend.
“Paper Losses” is about the end of a marriage. Kit and Rafe are increasingly alienated from each other, Rafe “prickly and remote, empty with fury” descending to the basement to build model rockets, “filling the house with fumes” and occasionally throwing attention Kit’s way with random, weirdly expressed affection, causing Kit to observe, “It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” No, Kit, no it shouldn’t. Kit’s inability to let go of her misplaced desires causes her to be swept along by events, and she accompanies Rafe and the children on vacation even after Rafe has served her with divorce papers, because “they had promised the kids this Caribbean vacation so what could they do.”
In “Referential”, a middle-aged woman and her lover visit her mentally ill son in an institution. His illness is not named, but he sees “veiled references to his existence” in everything around him. “Do you think of me when you see the black capillaries of the trees at night?” he asks Pete, his mother’s lover. “Do you think of my mom when staring up at the clouds and all they hold?” “We can be found,” he says, as if sensing that Pete has already emotionally left this family. “We haven’t disappeared, even if you want us to.”
“Referential” is itself referential, an homage to Nabokov, lifting plot and whole passages from his story, “Signs and Symbols”. In an interview in The New Yorker Moore said she admired “Nabokov’s adventures in language and style and naked braininess.”
The last story in the book, “Thank You for Having Me”, is the sunniest, despite its plangent tones. At a country wedding, an ex-husband plays the piano for the bride, the guests drink wine and eat misshapen chicken, and a biker straight out of a George Saunders story rides in and makes a speech. It’s a strange party, with lots of funny moments, but most importantly, with a sense of the small triumphs available to us when we dare to connect:
People shouldn’t have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses. And without weddings there were only funerals…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 a nice way to end the book, but it’s not the story that stays with you. That would be “Wings”, a retelling of Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove.
KC and Dench are down and out musicians renting a house near a hospital, lying in bed, selling their clothes on eBay and splitting their morning Starbucks. Well, Dench is mostly the one lying in bed. KC gets the coffee, taking the dog with her and chatting with Milt, an elderly neighbour she meets outside his house. As KC and Milt’s friendship progresses, Dench suggests KC encourage Milt’s feelings for her in the hopes that Milt will die soon and leave KC his money.
Spoiler: KC will eventually punch Dench in the face, but I wondered why it took her so long. She should have done it much, much earlier, possibly the day she first met him, when he auditioned for her with his “inexpressive baritone” and young, soon-to-be-dumped girlfriend waiting in the car.
But in the meantime, like Ira in “Debarking” and Kit in “Paper Losses”, KC remains infuriatingly mired in her own passivity. Dench, once appealing and charming to her, is unreadable: “She had given up trying to determine his facetiousness level. She suspected it was all just habit and his true intent was unknown even to himself.” Something is rotting in the walls of the house, “yeasty and sulphuric” and as “the lines between things seemed up for grabs” even Milt’s motivations and desires are ambiguous. It’s not until Dench reveals source of the rot in the house, in a horror movie-style gesture of cruelty, that KC finally disentangles herself from him.
As horrifying and dark as “Wings” is, it is the story in Bark that comes closest to marrying real feeling, ideas, story and language. It’s not that Bark isn’t well written. But without the warmth of relatable characters it’s like a wasps’ nest—just a hollow paper shell full of stings. Too many of the characters and situations in Bark seem contrived. Zora in “Debarking” isn’t just unappealingly weird, she’s dysfunctional and abusive, and it stretches credulity to believe Ira would stay with her just because he’s lonely and frightened by the bombing of Baghdad. Secondary characters are vehicles for clever lines that lack authenticity and aren’t charged with enough emotional juice to give the stories meaning.
I feel sad that so much good writing is adrift in these unlikeable stories. Lorrie Moore’s facility with words can still stop you in your tracks. In the best moments she employs those skills with tender precision, like when KC observes as she’s falling out of love with Dench: “You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.” But too much of the time her observations felt cynical and reductive, and her unrelieved imagery of death and decay had the effect of making me feel after I’d read the book that I’d woken up next to a corpse.
In the end reading Lorrie Moore’s Bark was a bit like KC meeting the charming but hollow Dench: “it was like walking into a beautiful house to find the rooms all empty.”