I don’t know if you’re susceptible to other views. I like to think, as a rule, I’m not really. I’m fairly happy about my own critical faculty and I’m usually okay about disagreeing with the great and the good when they hate a book I like or vice versa. A strange thing happened when I read Lorrie Moore’s first short story collection in over a decade, however. I read the book and enjoyed the book – and then I read Michiko Kakutani’s review. Now, I’m not really a fan of Michiko Kakutani and there have been countless Kakutani reviews I’ve read over the years and disagreed with (Kakutani is one of those reviewers whose reviews help guide me towards or away from books – if Kakutani likes a book, I usually don’t; if Kakutani dislikes a book, I’ll probably enjoy it). But for some reason the Bark review resonated with me. Kakutani mentions ‘impulsive, almost twitchy attempts at humor’ – and I’d recognised that too (and wondered, not having read any other Moore short stories previously, if that was one of her things). Kakutani then goes on to talk about glibness – particularly the collection Anagrams, which I haven’t read, but which was in Kakutani’s view, ‘undermined by glibness and an almost compulsive need to tell jokes’ – again, there were moments in Bark where I could feel the author trying to make jokes and the jokes didn’t always quite come off. Kakutani also praises Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, a novel I’d read and liked. The review pinged around the inside of my skull and derailed my first few attempts to sit down and review Bark for Bookmunch (which hopefully explains why this review is ‘late’ in the old review cycle – I’ve been mulling).
So. What do we have here? Eight stories (which some people have said is not a lot for a book that was so long in the making but we’ll agree a book is ready when an author feels it’s ready), three of which appeared within her Collected Stories three years ago. ‘Debarking’ concerns a divorcee called Ira and his relationship with a possibly unbalanced woman called Zora. The key line of the story would be:
“He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good looking.”
Kakutani particularly disliked ‘Debarking’ and her view sent me back to the story and, in the midst of what felt to me quite human drama and comedy, there are moments of thoughtfulness and intelligence and, for me, strong writing. Here is Moore on time:
“The illusion of time flying, he knew, was to make people think life could have more in it that actually could. Actually time flying could make human lives seem victorious over time itself. Time flew so fast that in ways it failed to make an impact. People’s lives fell between its stabbing powers like insects between raindrops.”
Re-reading, with a particular eye on whether the story works, on whether the writing is good, on whether the constituent parts hang together as an effective whole, I thought: yes. ‘Debarking’ works for me.
The second story, ‘The Juniper Tree’, concerns a woman whose friend is dying in hospital. Our narrator lives and works in a small college town and shares with us the fact that she and her friends often end up dating the same men, consecutively, because the pool to draw from is so small. Its brevity, coming hard on the heels of the almost 50 page ‘Debarking’, and its odd, prosaic supernatural element (our narrator is taken, in the company of friends, to meet with her friend who died the previous day), make for a slightly higgledy-piggledly read. The wisdom the story wishes to share appears to be:
“I needed new friends. I would go to more conferences and meet more people.”
The more I read this story (and I’ve re-read it three times so far in the run-up to writing this), the weaker it feels. Sorry Lorrie. Thankfully ‘Paper Losses’ and ‘Foes’ are much better. Each story has bittersweet humour, and deals with marriages of different kinds, and each story is better for being placed alongside its neighbour. In ‘Paper Losses’ a marriage has come to an end but a couple agree, somewhat angrily in the case of the man, to endure a holiday that had been agreed months before in the ‘gringo enclave’ of La Caribe (‘Paper Losses’ is full of icepick sharp apercus, delivered, at speed, in passing, it feels witty in a very stylish, New York way). Moore is terrific when it comes to describing Rafe, the husband:
“What is wrong with you?” she said. Of course, she blamed his parents, who had somehow, long ago, accidentally or on purpose, raised him as a space alien, with space alien values, space alien thoughts, and the hollow shifty character, concocted guilelessness, and sociopathic secrets of a space alien.
“What is wrong with you?’ he snarled. This was his habit, his space alien habit, of merely repeating what she had just said to him. It had to do, no doubt, with his central nervous system, a silicon-chipped information processor incessantly encountering new linguistic combinations, which it then had to absorb and file. Repetition bought time and assisted the storage process.”
‘Foes’ which follows (and which I’d read before, some years ago) concerns a chap called Bake McKurty, a ‘biographer of Georges’ (Boy, Washington etc) is invited to a fundraiser for the Lunar Lines Literary Journal, not as someone expected to part with cash but rather as one of the prize chimps (‘we’re the seeing eye krill,’ he says to his wife, ‘we’re the ox-peckers’), a contributor whose presence is expected to help elicit funds from the captive wealthy. The meat of the story concerns a conversation Bake has with a person who he feels politically distant from – and there is a pay-off that upsets Kakutani – but for me the best parts of the story come in the humour and the tenderness that exists between Bake and his wife. At the climax of the story, as they make their way home, Bake feeling chagrined at what he perceives to be his error:
“She kept her hand there on his leg, and on top of hers he placed his, the one with the wedding ring she had given him, identical to her own. He willed all of his love into the very ends of his fingertips, and as his hands clasped hers he watched the firm, deliberate hydraulics of its knuckles and joints.”
It may be that you don’t look for truth in your writing, merely entertainment or intellectual challenge (or some third thing) – but I like truth when I see it and these lines are as rich and warm and succulent as anything you would find in Raymond Carver or William Trevor.
‘Wings’ – another substantial story – concerns KC and Dench, a young woman and a young man, who were both once in a band together, in gradually tightening financial straits, and the friendship that grows between the young man and a much older neighbour. Again, the deliberate and measured way in which we learn about the woman’s past is set against the careful and judicious detail she notices about the world she moves through. In some ways, it is Moore’s take on Harold and Maude – but the Harold and Maude aspect is only one part of what feels like quite a rich stew. The way in which KC vacillates in her feelings towards Dench (who seems pretty useless and possibly a bit villainous too), knowing he’s no good for her but not able to completely walk away because possibly she loves him but certainly she has hopes that she can change him or their collective circumstances for the better. This is another story that improves on re-reading.
There are three shorter short stories at the close of the book. ‘Mania’, the shortest story in the book, is busy – as ‘The Juniper Tree’ felt busy – but heartfelt. A woman is preparing to visit her son, who is troubled and kept in a home, in the subject of Pete, a man she has been in her life for four years but who, we quickly sense, is looking for an out, is in what Moore comes to call ‘a condition of romantic overlap’. In ‘Subject to Search’, a couple who have known each other a long time and always possibly harboured feelings towards one another (despite the fact that when she was married he was coming out of a relationship and vice versa) manage to get away from it all for a few days. It is there, whilst as a reader we are brought up to speed with their story, that we learn Sam is a high up in US intelligence and has to be called home as the Abu Ghraib shit (which we somehow know without it being explicitly said) is about to hit the fan. The story also pinwheels into the future (as ‘Paper Losses’ did earlier in the book, in a subtle expert way) and we know that this, the few days they have managed to make for themselves, will be the only days they have. The last story in the collection, ‘Thank You for Having Me’, is, along with ‘The Juniper Tree’ one that didn’t work so well (and as I’ve read and re-read the book, it has become curious to me how I re-read the two stories I dislike the most more than the stories I like, as if I’m wrong, looking to find the snag that makes the point of them make sense – the point eludes me and troubles me). ‘Thank You for Having Me’ concerns the death of Michael Jackson, the relationship between a mother and a daughter, and their attendance at a wedding party. It also includes a sly Whitney Houston joke (that had me wondering if it actually was a joke – was the story written before Whitney Houston’s death?).
So it’s fair to say that I vacillated myself about Bark and read and re-read, as I’ve said. I think in part this vacillation arose from the fact that I have only read Lorrie Moore’s novels previously and not her short stories and she has a particular style and I wasn’t grounded in enough of her history to know whether my initial enjoyment was true or not. Having visited with the book for a wee while, I’ve come out the other side and have shaken my own hand and agreed that Bark is good, for the most part, I enjoyed the majority of the stories and I would happily read more (the Collected Stories on my shelf is winking at me as I write this). And just as I arrived at this point, I saw this in the Guardian and thought o goodie! The critical community largely agrees with me too. Phew. All is good with the world!
Any Cop?: I continue to feel that I don’t have the measure quite yet of Lorrie Moore but that just means I’d like to read more – which must, in turn, mean that she did a good job with Bark (as if Bark was not good I wouldn’t want to continue to dip my toe in the proverbial waters now would I?).