Lorrie Moore’s Bark is her first short story collection in fifteen years, but the author, while growing deeper in her craft, has not moved far afield from her previous obsessions. The stories have become darker and more haunted than those of Birds of America and Self-Help, now even with literal ghosts. The collection is best summed up by the final story’s lesson, that “Every day there was something new to mourn and something old to celebrate.”
Bark is a collection about loss, particularly the losses that come with middle age and beyond. Loss of love and relationships, of virility, innocence, beauty, life. “No bark is worse than a bite,” Milton of “Wings” says, “A bite is always worse.” But, for characters whose teeth have fallen out, the bark is all they have. They must use it, even if it is ineffectual. Even if all that comes back is an echo.
Moore’s collection is firmly set in America of the recent past, a time of decline and uncertainty. The characters degrade along with the state of the world, like Ira in the (inexact) title story “Debarking,” who responds to his divorce, the war in Iraq, his withdrawing daughter, and his strange girlfriend with the same combination of befuddled hurt and ineffective gestures. The controlling metaphors for his situation are a dog who has been debarked and a man who is unable to debark a plane, a play on the title of the collection that continues throughout these stories in the ineffective, hurt, and ashamed.
Part of the loss and complication of Moore’s middle-aged characters are their troubled and troubling relationships with their teenage children, from the weirdly intimate mother-son relationship of “Debarking,” the antagonist mother-daughter relationship in “Thank You For Having Me,” or the grim loyalty of a mother to her mentally ill son in “Referential.” These children, caught in that uncomfortable space between childhood and adulthood, remind their parents of both their own lost youth and their own imperfections, whether directly or indirectly. The children are both well aware of their parents’ failings and blissfully apathetic to the hurt they have the power to cause.
As in Moore’s previous collection, characters use art to respond to death and the degradation of the body. However, in Bark, art has become insufficient. As in “The Juniper Tree,” art is all the women have to offer in the face of the death of a colleague and friend, but it is not enough to overcome loss or erase past selfishness. Banter is the primary defense of these characters, a desperate need to be clever, clever, clever, to keep the mind too busy to dwell on the tragedies around them. Characters trade jokes and verbal tricks, each one-upping the funny, like a Twitter conversation between struggling comedians. The narrative voice too, carries this desperate, dark humor as an ironic light against the dark. Moore’s humor works best in the unexpected revelation or juxtaposition, as in the speech by the head motorcyclist wedding crasher in “Thank You for Having Me” after firing a gun in the air:
I have a firearms license and those were blanks and this is self-defense because our group here has an easement that extends just this far into this driveway. Also? We were abused as children and as adults and moreover we have been eating a hell of a lot of Twinkies.
The motorcyclist turns away from the trauma in his words as fast as he can, redirecting his audience to Twinkies, redirecting away from the dark. And for these characters, the dark is deep in the modern world. Most of the stories reference current events, from the War in Iraq to George W. Bush’s re-election, Barack Obama’s initial campaign for president, September 11th, the death of Michael Jackson, and the leaked photos of soldiers humiliating and dehumanizing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. The characters feel these events deeply, but none touch the characters directly. The events are too far away or above or below the characters for them to do anything to help or hinder the great machines of politics and war. The characters can barely struggle through with their own lives. The ineffective gesture, the well-timed line, the groping for personal connection, is all they can manage.
The final controlling theme of the collection is that of distance, particularly between people and times. In “Paper Losses,” Kit continually talks of her soon-to-be ex-husband with space metaphors, rockets and aliens, dehumanizing him in her struggle to comprehend these final days of their marriage. Similarly, liberal Bake of “Foes” draws back from his table mate in disgust, then pity, then a confused mix of the two when the “brisk young Asian woman” he is at first attracted to turns out to be a lobbyist, then a conservative lobbyist, then a conservative lobbyist burn victim, then a conservative lobbyist burn victim who was burned in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon. This transformation through revelation captures Moore’s talent for mixing the tragic and strange and funny and heartbreaking, sending Bake back into the arms of the safe and familiar. This transformation also shows the way many of the stories drift between past and present and future, casting and re-casting the present moment with moments from the past or knowledge of the decay that will inevitably overtake all.
Moore’s writing is, as ever, funny, lovely, haunting, moving. It doesn’t break new ground from her previous collections, but it does dig deeper into the ground they have already broken. Moore’s imagination continues circling death and decay, the role of art, the value of humor, and the struggle to live in a rapidly spinning, teetering world.
Bark, by Lorrie Moore. New York, New York: Knopf. 208 pages. $24.95, hardcover.
Kelsie Hahn holds an MFA in fiction from New Mexico State University. Her reviews have also appeared in Puerto del Sol, The Collagist, and Necessary Fiction. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, 1/25, NANO Fiction, SpringGun, and others. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Stephen Cleboski. More at kelsiehahn.weebly.com.