Book Review: Bark by Lorrie Moore
It will surprise exactly no one that one of the first things I did upon arriving in Boston was to arrange a book club. And so it was that Monday evening found me sitting in a booth at Trident with five friends discussing Lorrie Moore’s first story collection in 16 years, Bark.
Only here’s the thing–we didn’t actually spend that much time talking about the book. And yes, probably part of that was it was our first meeting and we didn’t all know one another so we needed some discussion and ice breaker time. Another reason was that this is a dynamic and spirited group of women and we were perhaps too busy having fun to talk about the business at hand.
But really, if we’re being honest, I think we didn’t spend much time talking about the book because there wasn’t that much to talk about. Though we’d all finished the book relatively recently, the stories seemed to have drifted out of our brains as soon as we’d finished reading them. This is never a good thing in a story collection. There were some enduring images and characters, but most of the collection felt dry and maybe a little preachy.
Lorrie Moore is not for the faint of heart. Her writing is sharp and dark, often punctuated with her trademark black humor. Most of the characters in her stories are middle-aged and stranded in a kind of misery fostered by unhappy marriages, cruel divorces, and bland suburban existence. They are not easy stories to read for those of us, say, in the midst of those cruel divorces or unhappy marriages–but it’s not supposed to be easy. It’s all part of the circus. Maybe we’re supposed to feel comforted that we’re not alone in this pain, but I don’t think that’s the end game here. I think what Lorrie Moore does is remind us of the absurdity of our issues–for instance, in the first story, “Debarking”, Ira is a newly-divorced man who can’t get his wedding ring off his finger. How’s that for symbolism? But instead of beating that dead horse, the story opens up into Ira’s relationship with a woman who appears to be in love with her teenaged son. It’s creepy and weird and unsettling and you don’t quite know what to do with it, but there it is–life can be creepy and weird and disconcerting and there’s nothing we can do about it.
“Paper Losses” is perhaps the most sad story in the collection, telling the story of a couple who takes one last vacation with their kids before divorcing. The narrator grapples with the realities of the impending divorce, the absurdity of the language of it (“irretrievably broken”), her undesirability to her husband, who’s been having an affair with another woman. It’s poignant and sad, but not sappy–before the announcement of the divorce, the narrator acknowledges that she’s come to hate her husband during the years of their marriage, hates every thing he does and says, though they rarely speak to one another.
Not all of Moore’s characters are alone and depressed–“Foes” is a quiet story about an older couple at an uncomfortable political gala, and “Thank You for Having Me” is a story of a backyard wedding interrupted by a biker gang. One of my favorites was “Wings” in which the lead, KC, meets an older man, Milt, while walking her dog around the neighborhood. KC, an aging musician with a deadbeat boyfriend, forges a friendship with Milt that ends up changing her life.
Though Moore writes realism, “The Juniper Tree” veers into surreal territory. It’s unclear what’s happening and is one of the collection’s weakest points. It’s a departure for Moore, a ghost story in the midst of stories about the living.