Eight stories told with whimsical wit
By Lorrie Moore
Reviewed by Kevin Grauke
'The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things - cheeks, tongues, thymus glands."
Lorrie Moore may be the most quotable fiction writer of the last quarter-century, and it's because of lines like this, which comes from one of the eight stories in her new collection.
Ever since her debut, 1985's Self-Help (which ignited a fascination with second-person narration, for better or worse), she has come to be known just as much for the cleverness of her sentences as for her award-winning stories. (And, yes, although three of her seven books have been novels, she is a writer of short stories, first and foremost.) Bark, her first collection of stories in 16 years (!), demonstrates that nothing much has changed with Moore since 1998's Birds of America; she remains a writer whose characters often rely on whimsical wit to maintain themselves in the face of uncertainty and pain.
"If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really absolutely alone when you were dead, why 'learn to be alone' in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand."
So says the narrator of "Thank You for Having Me," and to a certain degree, it's an observation that could be made by any of the collection's protagonists. All are middle-aged or older, and all are in need of companionship. Sometimes the companionship sought is of the romantic variety, but mostly it's more platonic in nature. Confronting post-divorce loneliness or simply the inevitability of death, as well as post-9/11 and post-recession anxiety, Moore's characters don't want to face the future alone, even if that means tying themselves to less-than-ideal others.
In what is probably the collection's finest story, "Debarking," which is set in 2003, Ira is both mourning the death of his marriage and terrified by the implications of the United States' impending invasion of Iraq. He finds himself drawn to Zora, a woman he soon determines to be mentally unstable. But he doesn't care; he needs someone else too much, as he himself acknowledges to his friend, Mike: "I would stop seeing her, but I don't seem to be able to. Especially now with all that's happening in the world, I can't live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down the global craziness." To this, Mike archly responds, "You shouldn't use people as human shields," referencing, of course, Saddam Hussein's use of civilians as a deterrent against attacks upon himself and other targets during the Persian Gulf war. "Or," Mike continues, "I don't know - maybe you should."
Such badinage is common among Moore's characters, both here in Bark and in all of her previous work; they are frequently clever and funny in ways we all wish we were but rarely are. Most of the time, their quick tongues bring us pleasure, reflecting back to us our most perfect selves; however, sometimes Moore does push too hard in her efforts to amuse and impress. Her puns and wordplay do, periodically, fall flat, but veterans of Moore's work are used to this by now, and the occasional dud must be allowed to slide by with little or no grumbling. After all, so much is so good.
Nevertheless, while bons mots may be what we first think of when we think of Lorrie Moore, bons mots have never really been her central focus. Though her characters are frequently charming and droll in their thoughts and comments, their levity almost always masks a fear of something too upsetting to face directly.
In Bark, this something is oftentimes not just personal, but also political. While it goes unnamed because its name is not yet known by the world, the specter of Abu Ghraib hovers over a couple's meal in "Subject to Search." Meanwhile, in "Foes," a man discovers, much to his discomfort, that the dislikable woman seated next to him at a fund-raiser had been "burned alive but not dead" in the Pentagon on 9/11.
"What had happened to the world?" a character asks while lying in bed alone, wishing he were not. "March still did not look completely like spring, especially with the plastic sheeting duct-taped to his windows." Though the Department of Homeland Security hasn't issued any similarly silly recommendations in quite a while now, we're still enduring the consequences of that time, and this is a truth Lorrie Moore keenly understands.
Lorrie Moore: "Bark"
7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St.
Tickets: $15, $7 for students. Information: 215-567-4341 or www.freelibrary.org/authorevents.
Kevin Grauke is associate professor of English at La Salle University. He is the author of "Shadows of Men," a short-story collection.