At a loss

When I found out that Lorrie Moore had a new short story collection due to be released in March, I was excited, but also worried.  I read two of Moore’s earlier books, Birds of America and Self Help, in high school, latching onto her particular blend of wit and pathos in the face of absurdity as a way to make it through some dark teenage years, and I was afraid that nothing could live up to her earlier genius.  Then my copy of Bark came in the mail, and my worries were dispelled—the book contains some of Moore’s best writing. Like Moore’s previous work, Bark revels in a kind of grim laughter, and Moore continues to be a comedian par excellence, something very rare in literary fiction.

For those who are unfamiliar with Moore’s work, a quick Google search will tell you that it is “funny”, or maybe “funny-sad”; on the one hand, this type of characterization feels reductive and condescending, especially when applied to a female author writing in the genre of the short story, one often marginalized as lesser than the novel. But on the other hand, the characterization is completely true. Bark’s stories are often plotted as dark jokes or comic gags.  For example, see the first sentences of the story “Paper Losses”: “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.” Moore’s timing is impeccable, her jokes perfectly set up, and her punch lines hilarious blows to the gut.

The humor is queered, though, by the serious situations to which it is applied; it is a comedy of the absurd grounded in real, common tragedies, such as illness and divorce, and conveyed in aphorisms and suburban slang.  The prose is surreal in the service of reality; funniness, for characters in Bark, comes at the cost of disillusionment, either with themselves or with other people.  Marriages disintegrate, friendships go south, and various conceptions of the world turn out to be incorrect.

The tendency, though, especially on the part of male literary critics, to define Moore as a writer of tragicomedies about divorce is an incomplete reflection of her work.  Moore’s stories of interpersonal relationships have always been grounded in a larger context; Bark is set, as best as I can tell, in the early to mid-2000s, and the looming presence of the Bush era wars determines much of the atmosphere.  “Debarking,” one of the best stories of the collection, juxtaposes a middle-aged divorcee reentering the dating pool with the bombing of Baghdad that he watches on TV.  These stories concern themselves with the harm that we do each other, from interpersonal conflict to war. “Mutilation was a language”, the protagonist of “Referential” observes, describing the cutting scars on her teenage son’s arms, “and vice versa”.  The implication of that “vice versa”—that “language was a mutilation”—gets to the heart of Moore’s complex, double-edged prose.

Bark, more so that Moore’s earlier collections, seems to be aware of and comment on the way its own language works and the form that it takes. The short story has always been Moore’s trademark, but here she works with the form in new ways, creating pieces that feel unified and disjointed, compressed and lackadaisical all at once; the very shortness of these stories becomes profoundly unsettling. “The Juniper Tree”, for example, is only twelve pages long.  In it, a woman’s friend dies of cancer before she can visit her in the hospital; she goes to the woman’s house in the middle of the night with a group of friends from whom she feel kind of alienated socially, and then the story ends abruptly with a memory of the dead woman. The premature end of the story echoes the premature death of the friend, and in this way translates the trauma of death and of the protagonist’s grief to the reader.

The stories feel thematically similar enough to be consumed together, but because part of what they’re doing formally is enacting dissonance—setting up expectations and then denying their fulfillment—reading them all at once is to experience over and over again the same sudden sense of loss.  Upon finishing the collection, I felt almost viscerally bombarded.  I recommend reading these stories one at a time, taking a long break after each one. Don’t read them all at once.  I did, and it was wonderful, but it was a mistake.

In “Paper Losses”, my favorite story in the collection, Kit quips that, “Marriage stopped being comic when it suddenly halted, at which point it became divorce, which time never disrupted, and so the funniness of which was never-ending.”  Similarly, one might think of Moore’s stories as halting themselves for the sake of the infinite, terrible funniness of the divorced reader; that is, the reader who gets to the end of the page and finds empty space, an awkward silence, and nothing more left to say.

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