Shocks of Recognition

Lane Christansen/Chicago Tribune/Getty Images
Lorrie Moore, Madison, Wisconsin, 2009

Who could have guessed that the terse, rather rude-sounding monosyllable bark might have such resonance? There is the harsh, heart-tripping bark of an excited or angry dog, and there is the equally harsh and heart-tripping bark of a human being speaking in anger; there is the bark of a tree, a sort of tough, calcified skin from which tenderness has vanished; there is the ominous, archaic bark—a fragile vessel to transport us on a river journey, just possibly on the River Styx.

There is also the embarrassment of barking up the wrong tree—like the self-deluded, aging pop singer of Lorrie Moore’s “Wings”: “She’d spent a decade barking up the wrong tree—as a mouse!” There is the “outer bark of the brain—and it does look like bark”—see Moore’s “Thank You for Having Me.” Less obviously, there are disembark and debark with their suggestion of departure tinged with repudiation, as in the midlife/post-divorce crises of “Debarking,” the first story in Moore’s mordantly funny and heartbreaking new collection.

In the frequently anthologized “How to Become a Writer,” from Moore’s first story collection, Self-Help (1985), a favorite among creative writing students, writer and reader are forcibly yoked together in the ambiguous pronoun “you.” The young, hopeful writer is urged to “first, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/ missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the world. Fail miserably.” The writer is urged to major in child psychology; she takes writing seminars that give her no hope; she is said to be “self-mutilating and losing weight” but she continues to write, living for those “untested moments of exhilaration when you know: you are a genius.”

A tour de force of low-keyed irony, “How to Become a Writer” progresses in brief, ironic vignettes drawn from a number of years in the quasi writer’s life, but it is only in the interstices of her comical self-absorption that we learn that she has an older brother fighting in Vietnam, and that her father is evidently an adulterer; later, we learn offhandedly that the brother has returned from Vietnam a “cripple” and that her parents’ marriage has ended in divorce. The fledgling writer has a gift for sardonic observations if for little else. The humor of “How to Become a Writer” is this very myopia: the writer looks in vain for inspiration, concocts absurdly melodramatic stories about subjects of which she has not a clue, while her true subject is in front of her, unheeded: the tragically disabled brother, the broken marriage and its effect upon her mother. Asked by a boyfriend “with a face as blank as a sheet of paper” if writers become discouraged, she is compelled to give a snappy reply: “Sometimes they do and sometimes they do. Say it’s a lot like having polio.”

Self-pity conjoined with a lack…

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