We are the authors of our own unhappiness, and unhappily prolific in the creation of our work. The stories you read in Lorrie Moore's 'Bark' manage the unique feat of showing us just how skilled we are in the work of undoing the good in our lives, our species-specific skill of undercutting our own survival, and yet, in the reading, these stories are light and filled with the stuff and joy of life. Lorrie Moore embraces mutually exclusive notions with grace, intelligence and lovely writing.
For a book chock-a-block with divorce, death and deception, 'Bark' is a lot of fun to read. Moore may have a dark vision of the world, but her complicated, prickly characters ring true. They often manage to enjoy themselves, and sometimes do the right thing, making the world, their worlds just a little better in the midst of a whole lot of worse.
It helps that Moore peppers the reader with variety. There are two longer stories here that border on being novellas and have the feel of novels. There are shorter, one-stop-shopping mood pieces, smart snapshots of characters who might usually be in motion in a moment of repose and party stories. All eight stories are excellent, some are amazing, and the collection as a whole is intelligent and entertaining.
Your favorite story may depend on your personal bent, and for this reader, "Debarking" one of the two longer pieces, was the winner. It's the story of fifty-something Ira, immersed in post-divorce hysteria, (it's been a while, really), setting foot in the dating scene set against the backdrop of the run-up to one of our recent wars. Conflicts external and internal slice-and dice this rather timid gentleman who gets what he wishes for, with a side-order of increasingly creepy extras. It's funny, charming, and deeply disturbing.
"The Jumpier Tree" is a shorter work, a little nightmare of guilt brought to life. Where would we be without guilt? Our literature would surely be the worse. Moore makes a cogent argument for mixing the language of guilt with that of love. "Paper Losses" imagines marriage after divorce, like a hangover. "Foes" is the first party story, a not-so-nice trip down Surrealism Lane.
"Wings" is the other long story, much closer in length and texture to a novella, a 21st century twist on Wings of a Dove with Dench, a marginally-talented musician, attaching himself to KC, a marginally more-talented musician, and the two of them homing in on Milt, a well-to-do elderly man with a mind of his own. Moore plays this out with a sly smile and a wicked heart. It's a rich, real slice from a life that you'd rather read than lead.
"Referential" riffs from Nabokov in a nervy and tense story about how love will tear us apart, again. They should have bought the album. "Subject to Search" wrestles with spies and time, pitting one against the other in a quick-witted, acrobatic feat of prose. The collection finishes with "Thank You for Having Me," another party story, this time, a wedding. It's sweet, funny and nicely surprising. It's not the wedding you are seeking, but it's a fun gig.
Lorrie Moore's 'Bark' offers a collection of stories that are smart and engaging enough on the first read to bring readers back for a second appraisal. The characters will linger, like friends who stay at the party a bit too long, relatives whose behavior borders on embarrassing but nonetheless are loved, because they're family. It's what you do, it's what we do, because we're human. Before we start tearing things apart, we somehow manage to bring them together.