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Shocks of Recognition

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Two stories in Bark spring from canonical works of fiction by Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov, though each has been entirely retooled as a Lorrie Moore story. James’s The Wings of the Dove, with its labyrinthine plot of conspiring lovers hoping to acquire a fortune from a naive young heiress, is the model for “Wings,” the longest story in the collection; in Moore’s story, a couple of failed musicians—an instrumentalist and a singer—befriend a lonely elderly man named Milt with the vague hope of inheriting his money when he dies. KC is an aging girl singer perplexed by the failure of her talent, which had been promising at the outset: “its terribleness eluded her.” How pitiless Moore is, yet how sympathetic, in delineating the bafflement an individual like KC would feel:

The gardenia in KC’s throat, the flower that was her singing voice—its brown wilt would have to be painstakingly slowed through the years—had already begun its rapid degeneration into simple crocus, then scraggly weed. She’d been given something perfect—youth!—and done imperfect things with it…. Sometimes she just chased roughly after a melody—like someone kicking a can down a road.

There is a fairy-tale element in “Wings” also, in its unexpected denouement, that both mimics and repudiates the starker conclusion of The Wings of the Dove. The reader is catapulted into a future time in which KC is no longer an aging girl but a solitary middle-aged woman whose “tears had thickened her skin the way brine knitted and hardened the rind of a cheese.” Courtesy of the late Milt, KC’s life has taken an unexpected turn—she lives now in the service of others, the proprietor of a bed and breakfast hotel near a children’s hospital.

The pathos of “Referential”—based on Nabokov’s 1948 story “Signs and Symbols”—is evoked clearly at the outset: “Mania. For the third time in three years they talked in a frantic way of what would be a suitable birthday present for her deranged son.” (See Nabokov’s story, which begins: “For the fourth time in as many years they were confronted with the problem of what birthday present to bring a young man who was incurably deranged in his mind.”) Both stories recount a visit to a mental institution that ends unhappily; both stories involve an impetuous decision, clearly ill-advised, to bring the deranged boy home; both stories conclude with a mysteriously ringing telephone, somehow terrifying in Nabokov, as it is perplexing and ironic in Moore. Both stories focus upon an adolescent boy whose paranoid schizophrenia forces him to see meaning in all things: “veiled references to his existence” are everywhere. And, “Life was full of spies and preoccupying espionage.”

Moore’s story, more emotionally engaging than Nabokov’s, delineates a triangle among mother, deranged son, and the mother’s lover Pete, who has been, or has seemed, “a kind of stepfather” to the son, though Pete has never lived with the mother and son, and has ceased to show much interest in doing so. Nabokov’s coolly detached story evokes a surreal poetry to suggest the delusions of paranoid schizophrenia while Moore’s poignant story allows the reader intimate entry to a life with a hopelessly deranged boy:

A maternal vertigo beset her, the room circled, and the cutting scars on her son’s arms sometimes seemed to spell out Pete’s name in the thin lines there, the loss of fathers etched primitively in an algebra of skin…. Mutilation was a language.

But the language of derangement isn’t finally intelligible, and isn’t sharable. Brought to visit the paranoid boy, Pete is reticent, and clearly ill at ease. The boy, who has loved Pete, senses his distance, and begins to speak excitedly:

You have to look for us! We are sort of hidden but sort of not. We can be found. If you look in the obvious places, we can be found. We haven’t disappeared, even if you want us to, we are there to—

But the mother interrupts the chattering boy, for the boy is coming too close to making sense. And driving home, the mother sees that Pete, like her, is deeply unhappy, “though the desperations were separate, not joined,” and she sees that Pete will not stay the night with her, though she comes very close to asking him. But she has lost Pete, as she has lost her son; she has lost Pete because of her son, whose unhappy life is inextricably bound up with her own, as if identical with her own. A Lorrie Moore heroine is a stoic, and in this case not a wisecracking stoic: “Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope.”

Like “Referential,” “Subject to Search” is an elegy for a lost, in this case unconsummated, love between a woman and a man she has known for many years, who seems to be a covert CIA agent. The woman has lunch with him just as news of American soldiers torturing Iraqi prisoners in a Baghdad prison is about to break globally: “It’s going to be a scandal big as My Lai.” Like the elusive Pete, but far more playful and articulate than Pete, Tom is another lost love for whom a woman might grieve; of Moore’s cast of male characters, Tom is the one most a match for Moore’s droll, witty women: “‘If you’re suicidal,’ he said slowly, ‘and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’”

In a dismaying flash-forward the story takes us to a time when Tom is incapacitated with a neurological affliction that resembles Parkinson’s, and refuses to see the old friend who has driven a considerable distance to see him; but then, in a magical reversal, we are taken into the past, to a Christmas party where the woman and Tom confirm their sense of a deep rapport (“Do you ever feel that no one knows what you’re talking about, that everyone is just pretending—except for me?”) Which is the ending of the story? The tragic ending, or the earlier, happy ending? As Tom says: “We’re all suckers for a happy ending.”

The concluding story of Bark is “Thank You for Having Me”—a sweetly ironic title for an elegy of an era in a woman’s life, as in the life of a culture. The first line suggests a singular and yet eccentric loss: “The day following Michael Jackson’s death, I was constructing my own memorial.” The mourner also laments the death of an old, lost love, which is a way of lamenting her own youth: “Every minute that ticked by in life contained very little information, until suddenly it contained too much.” Not unlike other characters in Bark, the middle-aged protagonist broods on mortality with a striking lyricism:

Without weddings there were only funerals. I had seen a soccer mom become a rhododendron with a plaque, next to the soccer field parking lot…. I had seen a brilliant young student become a creative writing contest…. And I had seen a public defender become a justice fund…. I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock with their names engraved so shockingly perfectly upon the surface it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone….

“Thank You for Having Me” contains within it the germ of a mother-daughter story, an examination of the fraught relationship between a woman who’d imagined herself doomed to “being a lonely old spinster” and her fifteen-year-old “gorgeous giantess” daughter Nickie, though on its surface it’s an amusing account of an outdoor New Age wedding in midwestern farm country in which the bridesmaids wear pastel of the hues of pharmaceuticals: “one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam.” The divorced mother feels a kind of guilt for having brought up her daughter in so abbreviated a household:

Mothers and their only children of divorce were a skewed kind of family dynamic, if they were families at all…. [The dialogue between them] contained more sibling banter than it should have.

Like the rejected wife of “Paper Losses,” this divorcée recalls the rude abruptness with which her husband left her, with no warning: “He had said, ‘You can raise Nickie by yourself. You’ll be good at it.” Aloneness is the middle-aged divorcée’s most obsessive concern, a kind of compulsive mantra:

If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really absolutely alone when you were dead, why “learn to be alone” in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand.

A story about grim events, “Thank You for Having Me” manages not to be a grim story, ending with an antic dance between a middle-aged man whose ex-wife has just married another man and the neighbor whose husband left her to raise their daughter alone. It’s a dance of pure pointless joy, a dance to celebrate a wedding, a dance to celebrate the sheer fact of being alive, for now:

I needed my breath for dancing, so I tried not to laugh. I fixed my face into a grin instead, and, ah, for a second the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn.

At such illuminated moments even the consolation of the most eloquent irony can be set aside.

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