Bark by Lorrie Moore, book review: Engrossing and funny but comes with a safety warning

 

Bark, Lorrie Moore’s fourth collection of stories, is heavy on poetry, though not always in a good way. Ira in ‘Debarking’ dreams about a volume of doggerel: ‘Alas, a lass’. In ‘Wings’, KC is responsible for some of pop’s most atrocious lyrics. These rhyming couplets may be bad, but they also reflect the unsatisfactory and deceptive couplings that dominate Moore’s new book. As KC puts it: 'A life could rhyme with a life – it could be a jostling close call that one mistook for the thing itself.’

The inability or reluctance of human beings to recognise the genuine article – in love mainly, but also friendship, work and politics – is one of Bark’s persistent themes.  There are ageing couples on the edge of nervous break-ups (‘Wings’, ‘Referential’, ‘Paper Losses’). In ‘Debarking’, two emotionally raw divorcees attempt to start again despite carrying more baggage than a footballer’s wife arriving at Heathrow.

If Bark sounds bleak, then, quite frankly, that’s because it is, at least on occasion. ‘Referential’ is saturated with despair: a doomed relationship is held together by a suicidal, self-harming teenager. The lovers in ‘Wings’ find a stomach churning image of their romantic stasis in a rat king: a nest of decomposing rodents conjoined at the tail.

And yet, Moore’s fondness for doubles (rhymes, puns and couples) extends to her way with dualities of tone. She is especially adept at what John Keats called an ‘amusing sober-sadness’. The effect can be pathetic. Moments of levity brought down to earth by Moore’s speciality: the melancholy weight of a final paragraph. But there are also plenty of superb comic touches: ‘When the check came, she ignored it, as if it were some fly that had landed and would soon be taking off again.’

Moore doesn’t do plot so much as provide closely-observed and carefully-meandering character studies that surprise you with a burst of drama or emotion: ‘Every minute that ticked by in life contained very little information, until suddenly it contained too much’. So a landmine of guilt awaits the narrator of ‘The Juniper Tree’. A nuanced shot of shame assaults Bake McKurty in ‘Foes’ after he misreads an obnoxious Washington lobbyist’s plastic surgery.

Bark is engrossing, very funny and wonderfully written, but it does come with a safety warning. Half of its 190 pages have already appeared in Moore’s Collected Stories (which now sounds ironic and obsolete). This superb opening quartet is also stronger than the second half: despite its aching finale, ‘Subject to Search’ offers a weak tilt at American foreign policy. Indeed, Moore’s political observations feel crude and unconvincing when compared to her supremely witty commentary on her characters’ everyday flaws, dreams and nightmares. This is where Bark truly bites.

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