Lorrie Moore’s Bark opens with three epigraphs, each riffing on the title word. These quotes summon prescient contexts for the stories that follow, depicting the barks of gruff grudging arguments; the buildup of woody protective skins; and the sounds of a beleaguered yuppie dog who “barely touched / the hummus in his dogfood dish”. The latter creature, from Louise Glück’s Vita Nova, is more likely to whimper than to bark; in the rest of the poem, Glück describes his ‘Daddy’ leaving because ‘the kind of love he wants Mommy / doesn’t have, Mommy’s too ironic’. This is especially apt. The eight thoughtful stories of Bark attempt nothing less than a full-scale investigation of love and irony.
Moore’s characters inhabit skins grown thick with stale jokes, abandoned principles and dead love stories. In Debarking, recent divorcee Ira sinks into a lazy sitcom-character selfhood, “shrieking” at his own putziness. Eating out with turbulent “wacko” Zora forces him to acknowledge human intimacy in all its raw horror: “The menu, like love, was full of delicate, gruesome things – cheeks, tongues, thymus glands.” Many of these stories show Moore at her most cruelly incisive, as she elegantly reveals the organs of mouthy self-preservation beneath stiff, sarcastic relationships (Paper Losses, Referential) and hardening personalities (The Juniper Tree, Foes). Even here, Moore sometimes struggles to find the space between irony and intimacy. The reader is pummelled with quirks, one-liners and well-tuned shticks, which often have a weary, distancing effect. The sheen rubs off this verbal razzmatazz quickly, and even when the whimsy is “borrowed” language, explicitly worn by characters, it can be exhausting to live with these people. Moore’s trademark wit works best next to stabs of pathetic, frumpy affection; the wisecracking tattooed punk of Wings becomes tolerable only alongside the mild old man she befriends. The Juniper Tree is probably the best story here, suffused with a surreal longing that utterly explodes its narrator’s jaded, ironic self-justifications. It also contains the best punchline: no words at all, just a meringue pie smashed into a face and a “pie-free hand” gesturing ‘Onward’.
Words: Gill Moore
For more literary kicks, check out this month’s other book reviews: