I used to enjoy short fiction a lot. I respect those who can write it, and I respect those who read it with any kind of frequency, because the form lends itself to a kind of sadomasochism that I just don’t see in other formats: each short story carries in it all the gravity and pain of a novel but in a shorter space. It’s like fitting all the punches of a twelve-round boxing match into three rounds. I feel winded and bruised after reading the eight dour short stories in Lorrie Moore’s most recent collection Bark, and I may need more than ice to soothe my battered soul. (I’m thinking a nice fluffy young adult novel, or maybe a Dr. Seuss book.)
If anything, Moore is consistent. The stories in Bark tell tales of departures: spouses leaving spouses, people dying and leaving behind unimaginable voids in their surviving friends, more spouses leaving spouses. Moore seems to return again and again to the concept of loss, and sometimes to the deathly frightening idea of loss, which can be worse than the real deal. Before you go thinking Moore is just a butt-load of bitterness and depression (that’s only half the butt-load), it’s worth noting that she writes about all this loss with a self-deprecating wit that strongly reminds of Nora Ephron. Each of these stories could be Nora Ephron short films, you know, just without the happy endings.
In the first story “Debarking,” a recently divorced father navigates the new-found bitterness of single life with the backdrop of the first Gulf War. A friend sets Ira up with another divorcee, a pediatrician who is alarmingly intimate with her teenage son. Ira fights for a place in his girlfriend’s life and mourns the loss of something that was never his to begin with. The following story title “Juniper Tree” tells a the story of a woman’s lost battle with cancer and the friends who seem to be haunted by her spirit who remains attached to her house and erratically tended garden.
By the fourth story, “Foes,” Moore’s humorous side comes out. A liberal older writer attends a fundraising event in Washington and is seated next to a young, Republican investor. The context is brimming with potential humor, but Moore is subtle; she uses little inside jokes, like writing in the passive voice to “obscure blame.” I imagine Moore writing these stories and chortling to herself with little jarring shakes of her belly. The longest story of the book is her best. “Wings” follows a middle-aged woman as she sets aside her dreams of “making it” as a musician. Instead, she befriends an elderly–and absurdly wealthy–widower, and her life seems to take on new potential. As the elderly man becomes physically and emotionally dependent on her, our narrator’s motives become hazier. The final short stories of the collection, especially the last story “Thank You for Having Me,” are more poignant and lighthearted, so at least I wasn’t left with the bitter taste of loss and separation in my mouth.
Moore delivers humor in each of her stories with a light touch–sometimes too light. Oftentimes her dark humor is obscured by themes that are repetitive and blunt as a hammer, and even in an eight-story collection, repetitive hammers can make a short book feel like a tome. I know many readers will feel bogged down by the end of Bark, especially if they (like I) tried to read it in a single sitting. I’m not sure what Lorrie Moore has been doing since the publication of her last short story collection, but I’m going to venture a guess and say she broke up and/or divorced a bunch of people. It just seems to me that these days mainstream books tell stories of new love, and literary books tell of love’s death, and Bark is a really, really literary book.
“You could lose someone a little but they would still roam the earth. The end of love was one big zombie movie.”
Read It: Do you like short stories? Specifically in collections? If the answer is, “Why, yes. Yes I do,” then read Lorrie Moore’s Bark. As one of the leading American short fiction writers of our time, Moore is worth picking up. A word of advice for this, and any, collection, don’t read it in one sitting. After finishing a story, set the book down before beginning the next one. These stories shouldn’t be read like chapters in a novel.
Don’t Read It: Steer clear if you just battled your way through a messy divorce or breakup, because Bark might pitch you over the edge. Despite the occasional quips and black comedy, this collection isn’t a happy one. You might try something on the lighter side or maybe try hitting up the nearest bar instead, both of which will probably be more uplifting than several of the stories here.
Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s shorty story Silver Water would be a great place to start after reading Bark. Bloom’s ability to use humor to punctuate rather than diffuse an intense story is one of the skills of hers, and of Moore’s, that I love. Also make sure to check out any films written and/or directed by Nora Ephron for witty dialogue and similar content to Bark‘s.