Lorrie Moore’s new collection of stories is concerned with many themes, some of them timeless, others quirkier, but recognizable: divorce, antidepressants, hair, the sudden need of alcohol in step-parenting. But one of its larger subjects is men: men who no longer know how to love, men who find themselves mere cogs in the detestable societal machines they’ve created, men who join up with women for sex and become mooches. Baffled American men – baffled men everywhere. And despite being set in what seems initially a hazily-defined American Midwest, there is a great variety of situations, characters, and levels of understanding in these short tales. Middle-aged men and women try and fail to connect. Displaced female professors mourn the loss of one of their number in what becomes, surprisingly, a ghost story. A woman has to insist on going on the final family holiday of her marriage; children become very ill. Mothers share loving moments with their daughters at pretty weddings in the ‘heartland’ of America, a heartland ruffled and troubled for reasons, or one specific reason, that Moore sets out as she goes along.
The centrepiece of the collection is a longer story, ‘Wings’, about a couple that had very brief success as pop musicians. Now, they have maxed out their credit cards and are living in a rented house in a nondescript area, far from fame and the hope of it, perhaps in a place that Paul Reiser called ‘one of those big rectangular states’. The woman had the misfortune to fall in love with a supremely untalented guitarist who auditioned for her band. Now she’s stuck with him, because she’s still in love. But she manages to transform her situation, thanks to the almost random intervention of a dying senior citizen. More importantly she shakes off the frozen, defeated mind set which seems to inhabit the landscape, and to stand for the current American mentality. This is what you might call quintessential Lorrie Moore land. It’s a little like Raymond Carver’s United States, and shares an occasional border with the surreal republic of George Saunders. (You find yourself wondering how much time Moore has spent in places she didn’t want to be, and feeling sorry about it.) But the bleakness Moore works in is tempered, unlike Carver’s, with a deeper wit, and empathy: life sucks, right now, but perhaps it didn’t always, and needn’t. There are moments that can be apprehended and lived in, while you’re taking your beating.
Moore is often devastating when at her breeziest. In ‘Foes’, a writer, joking around at an awards ceremony he doesn’t want to be at, gradually realizes something quite disturbing about his gorgeous, exotic table-mate. In a beautifully off-hand and wonderfully described piece called ‘Subject to Search’, what seems like a longed-for and satisfying love affair becomes, on the sunny Boulevard St-Michel, a fractured and frighteningly immediate prelude to the revelations about Abu Grahib. Tom, his lover knows, works in intelligence, and right here in the middle of their tryst he’s been summoned back to Washington. Very quietly he tells her, ‘I said to them, whatever you do, don’t flush Korans down the toilet. Whatever you do don’t have them be naked in front of a woman. Whatever you do don’t involve them in any sexual horseplay whatsoever. Do not pantomime fellatio—which is probably good advice for everyone.’ She’s so happy that she can barely listen, or barely hear, and when he tells her that this is going to be as earth-shaking as My Lai, she dismisses it. And this is what these stories are also about: war. The wars prosecuted by the United States over the last decade, and what this has done to the spirit of the nebulous heartland Moore so bravely concerns herself with. In some of the pieces, war is safely in the background, like static, which is the way our mutual governments like it. In others, it’s as plain as if you’ve stepped on a land mine.
An important pleasure in reading Moore is in reading a writer to whom language is just as important a subject as what happens: for example, poetry, of many kinds, is a thread running through Bark. So many writers act as though the use of language is their own domain, their business alone—they’d never dream of letting their characters play with words or remember a poem fondly. Her writing, too, is a hymn to the versatility and beauty of the third person and the past tense: something you wish many novelists who seek sloppy immediacy in the present tense could learn. These stories are packed with an amazing number of poetic, aphoristic and comic zingers, but they are much more than that. A woman who finds herself eating a lot of hard-boiled eggs at a party thinks, ‘Soon no doubt I would resemble a large vertical snake who had swallowed a rat. That rat Ben. Snakes would eat a sirloin steak only if it was disguised behind the head of a small rodent. There was a lesson in there somewhere and just a little more wine would reveal it.’ Once in a while, Moore’s deep and skilful way with a joke can obscure the dense and varied meaning she musters from life, but, ye gods, is that anything to complain about in this day and age?
(This review appeared in The Herald, 2 March 2104)