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Shocks of Recognition

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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 of self-awareness suggests a portrait of the nonartist: the young Lorrie Moore imagining a worst-case scenario of the failed writing life. (The wounded soldier-brother reappears in Moore’s 2009 novel A Gate at the Stairs as the object of the benumbed narrator’s long-deflected grief. What is deflected in “How to Become a Writer” is poignantly evoked in the novel, as if the writer has grown up and is strong enough now to confront her painful subject matter.)

As Coleridge famously remarked of Wordsworth that one might recognize his poetry anywhere, so readers of Lorrie Moore are likely to recognize her prose instantaneously: a unique combination of wit, caustic insight, sympathy for the pathos of her characters’ lives, and that peculiar sort of melancholy attributable to time too long spent in the northern Midwest where late-afternoon snow acquires a spectral blue tinge. Over the years Lorrie Moore’s characters appear to be keeping pace with her. As the women and men of Self-Help were appealingly young and naive, in their twenties, the women and men of Bark have become middle-aged, burnt-out, and disillusioned, yet retaining some measure of feckless naiveté; they are likely to be divorced and in ambiguous relationships with individuals of the opposite sex, in awkward relationships with children, and in guilt-wracked relationships with the foreign, abstract victims of American bellicosity:

And then he said the name [of the American prison in Baghdad], but it sounded like nonsense to her, and perhaps it was, though her terrible ear for languages made everything that was not English sound very, well, mimsy, as if plucked from “Jabberwocky.”

Of the eight stories of Bark, the longest, aptly titled “Wings,” takes us on a rare flight of self-transcendence; the others are rueful journeys of self-discovery in which moments of recognition bring jolts like electric shocks.

The hapless protagonist of “Debarking” is a recently divorced man named Ira who, unhinged by the breakup of his fifteen-year marriage, becomes infatuated with a divorcée yet more unhinged than he is:

[Zora] howled with laughter, and when her face wasn’t blasted apart with it or her jaw snapping mutely open and shut like a scissors (in what Ira recognized as postdivorce hysteria; “How long have you been divorced?” he later asked her. “Eleven years,” she replied), Ira could see that she was very beautiful….

Zora is, somewhat improbably, a pediatrician; she is eccentric, flamboyant, vulgar; she is ludicrously, and physically, infatuated with her adolescent son Bruno, who is cold to Ira. She says of divorce: “It’s like a trick. It’s like somebody puts a rug over a trapdoor and says, ‘Stand there.’ And so you do. Then boom.”

As their relationship develops erratically Ira thinks of Zora that she was “either…stupid or crazy,” yet can’t seem to resist her sexually. He complains to a friend that “she might not be all that mentally well.” Ira is humiliated by Zora’s tactlessness and by her obsession with her son, yet

I can’t let go of hope, of the illusion of something coming out of this romance, I’m sorry. Divorce is a trauma…. Its pain is a national secret! But that’s not it. I can’t let go of love. I can’t live without love in my life.

In the foreground of “Debarking” is Ira’s unraveling postmarital life; in the background is the onset of the Iraq war (“He turned on the TV news and watched the bombing. Night bombing, so you could not really see”). Ira’s closest friend, Mike (though Moore’s characters are dying of loneliness they seem not to lack the sort of exemplary wise, caring, and witty friends more often found in literature than in life), tells him, “Sanity’s conjectural.” After Zora confides in Ira about her nervous breakdown and her prescription anti- depressants, she goes on to tell him much—too much—about her morbid dependence upon her adolescent son, in effect rejecting him even as, perversely, she has become at last emotionally intimate with him. Ira yearns for love—but not at such a humiliating cost: “He had his limitations.”

As its title suggests, “The Juniper Tree” is a fairy tale of a distinctly contemporary sort, set in a midwestern purgatory for women:

That was how dating among straight middle-aged women seemed to go in this college town: one available man every year or so just made the rounds of us all…. Every woman I knew here drank—daily. In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found….

The narrator, a musician, is distressed to have failed to visit a friend named Robin Ross, who has died of cancer in the local hospital, and in a vividly rendered dream she and two other women friends make a pilgrimage to Robin’s house to offer the deceased gifts. We learn that the narrator has been jealous of Robin, who has “dated” a man with whom the narrator is currently involved; she resents “sharing” a man with anyone—“I’m not good at it in the least.” She is the only one of her friends, all of them “academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base,” to whom “something terrible” hasn’t yet happened: a dancer, Isabel, has lost her arm in a car crash; an artist, Pat, has had a massive stroke and has only intermittently recovered.

In death Robin looks as she’d looked in life except for a white scarf tied around her neck, “the only thing holding my head on.” Robin has the “imperial standoffishness I realized only then that I had always associated with the dead.” At the story’s end the narrator recalls the last time she’d seen Robin before her illness, when an innocently devastating remark of Robin’s forced the narrator to confront the sexual debasement she had been enduring in sharing a man with another woman. Robin tries to beg forgiveness, but the narrator will not forgive.

The most painful story in Bark is “Paper Losses,” an intimate account of the deterioration of a twenty-year marriage. Narrated from the stunned wife’s perspective, the story moves jaggedly; its structure suggests the rawness of experience before it is fully comprehended and assimilated, like “People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk” (1997), Moore’s harrowing account of the cancer diagnosis of an infant from the perspective of the infant’s desperate mother.

The wronged wife of “Paper Losses” is a clinical study in denial: she wants to think that her husband is suffering from a brain tumor or “space alien” genes he has inherited from his parents. His crude, cruel behavior to her is utterly inexplicable, as it is inexplicable that “their old, lusty love [has] mutated to rage.” (Of course, the husband is involved with another woman, and it is his guilt that has made him barely civil to the wife; but the wife won’t learn this until much later.) With no preparation the wife is served divorce papers in their home, and the husband tactlessly suggests their upcoming wedding anniversary as the divorce date: “Why not complete the symmetry? he wrote, which didn’t even sound like him.” Stricken with sexual humiliation, the wife anticipates a postmarital life when she will go on “chaste geriatric dates with other people whose clothes would, like hers, remain glued to the body.” A final family trip to the Caribbean fails to mend the “irretrievably broken” marriage as the wife had naively hoped it might, and ends with further humiliation for the spurned wife who has only the consolation, if that is what it is, of contriving a “story” out of the experience.

In “Foes,” one of Moore’s rare stories in which a husband and wife appear to be evenly, companionably matched, a politically liberal biographer has a confrontation with a conservative “evil lobbyist” at a fund-raiser for a pretentious literary journal in Washington, D.C. After they have exchanged political barbs and thinly veiled insults, the biographer discovers to his horror that the lobbyist, a woman he’d misidentified as Asian, is actually disfigured: “the face that had seemed intriguingly exotic had actually been scarred by fire and only partly repaired.” He feels pity, sympathy, and yet: “How could someone have come so close to death…and how could he still want to strangle them?”

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