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Lovely Visitors

Kevin Stevens

Bark, by Lorrie Moore, Faber & Faber, 192 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0571273904

Lorrie Moore’s fiction is full of heartbreak: dying children, parents killed in car crashes, mental illness, severed limbs, marriages that break hard and break again even harder. Her emotional landscapes are relentlessly bleak, and the moments of forgiveness and joy that occasionally illumine her narratives are not so much earned as bestowed, sparingly, by a harsh world.

Yet Moore’s stories are consistently enlightening, her prose almost sensuously pleasurable. Her humour, sympathy and, most of all, her language lift us above the desperation of her characters. Even when confronting the most horrible of circumstances – as in the widely anthologised “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, her searing story of a mother (and fiction writer) whose one-year-old son gets cancer – Moore, like Beckett, finds comedy in the utter darkness, and uses the satirical richness of language as a way of navigating apparent meaninglessness and finding, if not solace, a way of framing and confronting tragedy. As the Paris Review puts it, she has a “remarkable ability to juggle everyday outrage and high tragedy with a hand so deft that her most poignant passages are often also the most hilarious”. By means of this linguistic balance of dark feeling and sharp humour she presents her readers with a vision of human vulnerability that is her great achievement.

Bark is Moore’s first volume of short stories since Birds of America, her significant 1998 collection that won the Irish Times International Fiction prize and spent five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list – a rare achievement for a book of short fiction. Disappointingly thin, this new book contains eight pieces (one story for every two years!), half of which have already appeared in The New Yorker. The themes are familiar – the illusion of romance, the shock of self-recognition, the inexorable erosion of time. Moore’s characters have also kept pace with her years; the naive twentysomethings of her early stories have given way to the naive middle-aged, as apt as ever to make wrong choices and even more mired in relationships, familial and romantic, that are defined by guilt and antagonism.

Her language remains wonderfully descriptive: “the hammered nickel of the moon gave off its murky shine”; “the air was filled with the old-silver-jewelry smell of oncoming rain”. And her rhetoric, though fully formed and recognisably distinct in her first published stories thirty years ago, continues to feel fresh. The bright, knowing language of her characters, running against the grain of their dysfunction and despair, has the cinematic immediacy and contemporary irony of dialog such as you might hear in a film by Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach:

“Here’s what you do for your depression. I’m not going to say lose yourself in charity work. I’m not going to say get some perspective by watching our country’s news every night and contemplating those worse off than yourself, those, say, who are about to be blown apart by bombs. I’m going to say this: Stop drinking, stop smoking. Eliminate coffee, sugar, dairy products. Do this for three days, then start everything back up again. Bam. I guarantee you, you will be so happy.”
“I’m afraid,” Ira said softly, “that the only thing that would make me happy right now is snipping the brake cables on Marilyn’s car.”
“Spring,” Mike said helplessly, though it was still only the end of winter. “It can really hang you up the most.”
“Hey. You should write songs. Just not too often.”

This passage is from the opening story, “Debarking” (one of many puns that play on the book’s title), a viscerally uncomfortable account of Ira Milkins, divorced six months, who is attempting to keep his relationship with his daughter afloat while he becomes involved with exactly the wrong woman, herself rebounding from a nervous breakdown and freighted with a morbid dependence on her adolescent son. Moore, who is often praised for the range and depth of the women in her stories, is as sure-handed with male characters, and Ira’s situation is handled with great psychological subtlety and depth.

While she stays within the intimate action of her characters’ lives, Moore is as skilful as ever, but “Debarking” has a layer of background action – the onset of the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 – which is handled less dexterously. Like other stories in Bark (“Foes” and “Subject to Search”) Ira’s story is encumbered with parallels between his personal unravelling and the bombing and drama of the war.

He started up again, slowly; it was raining now, and, at a shimmeringly lit intersection of two gas stations, one QuikTrip, and a KFC, half a dozen young people in hooded yellow slickers were holding up signs that read “Honk for Peace.” Ira fell upon his horn, first bouncing his hand there, then just leaning his whole arm into it. Other cars began to do the same, and soon no one was going anywhere—a congregation of mourning doves, but honking like geese in a wild chorus of futility, windshield wipers clearing their fan-shaped spaces on the drizzled night glass. No car went anywhere for the change of two lights. For all its stupidity and solipsism and self-consciously scenic civic grief, it was something like a gorgeous moment.

The last sentence cries out for irony, but none comes to its rescue. And this in a story by the greatest ironist of her generation. The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis has noted how these “ungainly stabs at topicality” are often inaccurate, not just in Bark but more egregiously in Moore’s 2009 novel A Gate at the Stairs. Verisimilitude aside, Moore’s increasing preoccupation with global politics seems to destabilise her usual confident delivery and feels, as in the above passage, to be forcing an issue handled more subtly in previous stories: in Birds of America’s “What You Want to Do Fine”, for example, her male protagonists face loneliness and disaffection as they travel the American South together, coming across Civil War cemeteries and present reminders of war (the Gulf War, in this case) that are delicately placed to remind them, and the readers, of their mortality.

More successful are a brace of stories in Bark that pay homage to two of Moore’s literary heroes. Henry James’s Wings of a Dove is referenced in “Wings”, in which a couple of failed musicians befriend a wealthy old man with the vague hope of inheriting his money when he dies. “Referential”, which explores a fraught emotional triangle between a mentally ill young man, his mother, and her boyfriend, is based on Nabokov’s story “Signs and Symbols”. Both are very different from their models – re-imaginings rather than retellings – but with enough of the spirit of the old masters to add a satisfying further dimension. She also borrows plot devices from the originals that she applies effectively, such as the spooky persistent wrong number that concludes VN’s story and her own.

Its brevity notwithstanding, Bark is a welcome return to the short form after the misdirected and misfiring A Gate at the Stairs. Moore is not a natural novelist; she can lose her touch over the long haul. Her short stories, however, rarely fail to capture the right narrative rhythm, creating convincing predicaments that her linguistically adventurous protagonists ponder and fail to resolve. And they are highly focused. Unlike Alice Munro, she usually does not cover decades in a story. Her tales are dark flares, crackling with mordant humour and caustic comment as they explore cul-de-sacs of personal crisis.

Moore is aware of her strengths; she has said that

in discussing writing one shouldn’t set the idea of inspiration aside and speak only of hard work. Of course writing is hard work – or a very privileged kind of hard work. A novel is a daily labor over a period of years. A novel is a job. (Story writers working on a novel are typically in pain through the entire thing.) But a story can be like a mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend.

The loveliest visitors in Bark are those stories that find joy between the cracks of suffering. The concluding story (and the most recently written), “Thank You for Having Me”, begins with the narrator’s contemplation of a death and continues through painful memories of divorce and loneliness as she attends a wedding with her daughter. She is blessed, as so many Moore heroines are, with wit:

“Marriage is one long conversation,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was forty-four, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really get to be.

As she thinks back on the abruptness of her ex-husband’s departure, the “skewed … family dynamic” of herself and her daughter, and the way in which, among the people she has known, “so much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all”, her morose musings are buoyed by her creativity until at last she determines that “people shouldn’t have been set in motion on this planet only to grieve losses”. The wedding, from that point, turns redemptive, and the story ends with a mad dance of pure joy, a dance of the moment:

I needed my breath for dancing, so I tried not to laugh. I fixed my face into a grin instead, and, ah, for a second the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn.

Though these glimpses of light are rare, they are hugely memorable, and remind us that Moore’s elegance and wit, though wonderful in themselves, also drive her pursuit of loveliness in a lonely, fractured world.
7/04/2014

Kevin Stevens is a Dublin-based novelist and writer on literature, history and jazz. 

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