Lorrie Moore’s latest offering cannot compete with her much-lauded 1998 short-story collection, says James McNair.
A slight volume
Guesting on The New Yorker magazine’s monthly fiction podcast last July, novelist Gary Shteyngart read Lorrie Moore’s Paper Losses, one of the eight set pieces in Bark, her first short-story collection since 1998’s Birds of America. After praising the New York State-born writer’s knack for knowing “when to write dialogue and when to write scene”, Shteyngart confessed that he keeps a photo of Moore by his bedside. A crush, perhaps? Yes, but of the literary sort. Shteyngart habitually writes under his duvet, and Moore’s photo, he explained, reminds him not to attempt any more short stories, less her mastery of the form show him up.
One hundred or so pages lighter, yet at times more laboured-feeling than Birds Of America, the truth is that Bark can’t quite match that much-lauded collection for quality control. Shteyngart is correct about Paper Losses, however. It’s a beautifully measured piece of writing.
At the start of the story, Moore deploys her trademark mordant wit. “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement … now they wanted to kill each other,” she writes. Later, when Kit and the odious Rafe’s holiday promise to their son decrees that they must ship their dying marriage to the Caribbean, it’s the tragicomic detail that sparks the most pathos as Kit registers her husband’s utter lack of desire for her: “Not that she looked that good: her suitcase had gotten lost and she was forced to wear clothes purchased from the gift shop – the words ‘LA CARIBE’ emblazoned across every single thing.”
In the opening story, Debarking, a divorce has already happened. We follow Ira Milkins into an on-the-rebound relationship with Zora, a woman who has a dubious over-infatuation with her spoiled son, Bruno. This backdrop allows Moore to riff on one of Bark’s key themes: namely the extent to which loneliness and/or mutual dependency cloud/override our judgement about what constitutes a healthy romantic relationship. Milkins eventually finds clarity, and soon seems happier even while resigning himself to chance encounters with his ex-wife: “Here was the person he knew best in his life, squeezing an avocado and acting like she didn’t see him.”
Less successful, for this reader at least, are Bark’s symbolism-laden but somewhat plotless The Juniper Tree, which sees a teacher visited by the ghost of her recently deceased friend, and Referential, the only story here not previously published in a newspaper or magazine. Reading the latter, I felt increasingly incensed by its growing number of similarities to Vladimir Nabokov’s masterful 1948 story Signs & Symbols … and then rather sheepish when I noticed a discreet, italicised “after VN” at the foot of the story’s last page. All the same, Referential (The clue was in the title, really, wasn’t it?) seems like the literary equivalent of a decent cover-version song: palatable, but superfluous.
Moore has always written well about music. Indeed, there’s a lovely verisimilitude to the scene in her 1994 novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? in which, one by one, women at a party quit their conversations and begin singing along to a recording of Joni Mitchell’s Little Green in a show of sisterly solidarity.
One of Bark’s best stories, Wings, concerns a thirtysomething musical duo who are mismatched both romantically and philosophically. Impoverished, living on their wits, and either deluded or quixotically stoical about their chances of success, KC and her handsome loser boyfriend Dench have their scruples tested when an elderly widower who lives in a desirable house nearby befriends, then falls for, KC.
The story itself is a tad predictable, but Moore is great on the limits of the couple’s respective gifts. “Her lyrics weren’t sly or hip or smokey, but the demure and simple hopes of a mouse,” she says of KC’s songwriting, while Dench’s vocals, she says, were “strong but inexpressive … the song had to carry the voice, like a river-current moving a barge.”
Shteyngart feeling daunted by Moore’s short-story writing is one thing, but might Moore herself be intimidated by her own back pages? Given the 14-year gap between Birds of America and the less sure-footed Bark, one could be forgiven for thinking so.
Despite this collection’s slight patchiness, at her best, Moore continues to dispense life wisdom and perfect distillations of thoughts we might already have had ourselves: “Sometimes she hated the dog,” she writes of the aforementioned KC and her mutt. “His obliviousness to the needs of others, his determined, verbally-challenged conversation about his own desires – in a human, this would indicate a severe personality disorder.”
James McNair writes for Mojo magazine and The Independent.