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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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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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