Bark, By Lorrie Moore: Book Review


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The Independent Culture

Bark is our outer layer, the detritus of the lives we have lived until now: an immovable wedding ring on a divorcee’s finger; the grey matter which surrounds the brain. Bark protects and conceals, creating a safe layer between our lives and those of others, preventing us from getting too close. Yet a bark is also a cry, a domesticated version of Ginsberg’s howl, mellower, older, slightly muffled by age and convention, but no less desperate for this.

This we learn in this collection of stories, their titles, like that of the book, all containing multiple meanings. They invite you to come to your own conclusions.

In many ways, Bark reads like a collection of poems, mysterious – not giving everything at once – requiring you to search and wonder. I would often find myself going back and rereading passages, trying to figure out all the things they could possibly mean, peeling back the layers like an onion.

The collection does not have the frantic vibrancy of Moore’s earlier writing, it doesn’t grab your hand and pull you through a chaotic love affair of youth like “How to Be an Other Woman”, and it seems tranquil in comparison. The calmness of the prose, however belies the content of the stories it tells.

The characters are all, in one way or another, casualties of contemporary life. A writer meets a woman maimed and embittered by a terrorist attack; a security agent is whisked away from his lover to deal with reports of torture incidents in a Baghdad prison, their fragmented not quite love story framed by the callousness of news reports we know too well. A man alone in a bar sits as near to the TV as possible so as not to be able to make out the shapes of tanks rolling into Iraq. These people are drawn tenderly, their loneliness stark against the backdrop of the present, yet there is always a feeling of detachment, of disconnect, of not quite being able to reach them, as they cannot reach those closest to them.

In “Paper Losses”, a woman, unable to comprehend her husband’s cruelty, decides that he is a “space alien”. A companion to loneliness, alienation runs through this collection in which the characters crave, more than anything, a connection. Sometimes the characters come close; in one story a musician makes friends with an elderly neighbour, but the narrative stops short of sentiment, instead returning us sharply to reality with its kind of endings and half redemptions.

Most compelling is the realness of this collection, the way that even the most surreal story – in which speaking with the dead is presented almost as a matter of course – tells us truths about the awkward ways we seek to relate to one another.