Schadenfreude Unlimited!: A Review of Lorrie Moore’s Bark

Almost all of our sorrows spring out of our relations with other people.

— Schopenhauer

An avid reader friend once said to me with airy confidence, “I read fiction to learn about my life.” At the time I wrote this down because, though I was sure it didn’t apply to me, I wanted it to be true.

We might read Lorrie Moore to learn about our lives.  It often seems like one can’t help but become a better person for reading her fiction. Her stories and characters cry out to us of human frailty, of messy lives lived without plan, maybe just like our own. One of her collections is titled Like Life.

The Moore voice characteristic in Bark: Stories, a new collection of eight, and Moore’s fifth, has the register of the narrator in her 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs. That novel revels in the coming of age of Tassie Keltjin, who in one memorable outré gesture uses her friend’s vibrator to stir her chocolate milk. (Just Google “Moore chocolate milk vibrator.”) Beyond the odd gestures—a hallmark for the Moore doyenne—Tassie is as beige and non-descript as a cardboard cutout, neutered and neutral. But surface character traits can be deceiving; as evinced in the stories of Bark, it’s in a character’s desire to connect that the real fun begins.

A typical Moore character exhibits a keen, if often thwarted, self-awareness; society’s expectations, self-doubt, and incipient despondency prevent this character from full self-knowledge. Her characters are ruminative, verbal, cautious and, dare I say, admirable—whom I somehow picture as a friend’s younger sister whose inviolable innocence maintains itself by the very relationship I have to her as a stand-in sibling. This innocence is often tenuous, as if apprehended with the measureless awe of an infant from within the confines of a full body suit. I feel protective. Maybe I’m a sucker for that coy, witty, and insidious voice.

In “Referential,” Moore rewrites and re-imagines, with keen acuity, the odd Nabokov story “Signs and Symbols,” with a more visceral apprehension of the story’s subject, that of a mentally troubled son’s hospitalization. This character suffers that affliction of the self-referential—that everything is about himself, a malady Moore characters frequently have in common.

The unnamed narrator of “The Juniper Tree” confides, of the story’s rag-tag misfits—her community of friends by proxy—that they were all “academic transplants, all soldiers of art stationed on a far-off base (or, so we imagined it)—who hadn’t had something terrible happen to [them] yet.” Visiting their friend, Robin, who has become a ghost—Moore employs a silly and sly magical realism. The dead friend, appearing appropriately ghostly, explains her situation:

“No hugs. Everything’s a little precarious, between the postmortem and the tubes in and out all week. This scarf’s the only thing holding my head on.”

The narrator, as becomes apparent through her interactions, bears the brunt of being an outsider, and is the butt of a long-standing joke. Her motto might be, if life brings you lemons, make gin rickeys. Among other defeats, the narrator’s self-esteem is demolished by the recollection of Robin’s off-hand remarks. She eventually finds cognizance and asserts herself through the offering of a song to the dead friend, though she comes to her senses about this group long after she should have.

The tension in Moore’s stories often comes from this animosity between characters, the dynamic that may—though most likely may not—send them packing. Like the bitter husband and wife of “Paper Losses” whose marriage, to the wife, is akin to “being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle.” We are witness to characters whose wariness puts them at the mercy of relationships they will “make do” with, dispensing to themselves twee, tea bag wisdom. That’s often the whole story, without which there would be no Moore-verse. The absence of which is a black hole. (After all, Stephen Hawking has just informed us there are no black holes.)

In “Debarking,” a nebbish divorced father reenters the dating pool with cringe-inducing results. With no illusions about his prospects, Ira Milkins seems contentedly resigned to his ill luck, as he clings to his own heart like a flotation device:

His heart rose to his throat, then sank to his colon, then bobbed back up close to the surface of his rib cage, where his right hand was clutching at it. Were there paddles somewhere close by that could be applied to his chest?

On the opposite extreme, in “The Juniper Tree,” the heart is a stone:

At this my heart sickened and plummeted down my left side and into my shoe. My appetite, too, shrank to a small pebble and sat in stony reserve in the place my heart had been and to which my heart would at some point return, but not in time for dessert.

All of this quiet desperation might seem off-putting, but for the humor, ladled out generously with Sisyphean resignation, and a cheerful tone.

The things I love about Lorrie Moore are the things I also occasionally hate. Hate is too strong a word. More like a marriage: These are things I am put off by, but will live with for the sake of the greater good. (Okay. Hate.) But just when I’m annoyed by another cute word game, I feel the perplexing gravitational pull of her characters. Frankly, reading Moore involves Schadenfreude, that savoring of other folks’ troubles. For all of this, Moore empathizes with her characters. We are aware of them like those involved in a car wreck we slow down to catch a glimpse of.

Occasionally Moore is over the top, reminding once again of A Gate at the Stairs, with the death of the brother who fought in Iraq, and a disturbing image: the brother’s badly shattered body, in shower cap and reversed hoodie, and audacious Tassie crawling into the casket. Even this touch of the morbid cannot unhinge Tassie’s love, lifting the gesture into the elegiac. In “The Juniper Tree” a reattached arm is described as offhandedly as if it were a hangnail. In another gasp—Moore often employs mild shock to effect her imagery—a character notices the street “glistening with the flat glossy colors of flattened box turtles who’d made the spring crossing too slowly and were now stuck to the macadam, thin and shiny as magazine ads.”

Bark is replete with Moore-isms. In a style ready-made for Twitter, you imagine Moore jotting these quips down over coffee. What she says in regard to a character who marks up her books with exclamation points, “that ran down the page like a fence by Christo,” could be an inside joke on Moore herself, an adherent of the earnest exclamation point. Then there are the ever-populous tropes, “A Freudian slip of the dumb.” There is rarely a double entendre Moore can resist:

HOSPICE CARE: IT’S NEVER TOO SOON TO CALL read a billboard near the coffee shop in what constituted the neighborhood’s commercial roar. Next to it a traffic sign read PASS WITH CARE. Surrealism could not be made up.

In the Moore-verse, Surrealism doesn’t need to be made up. These characters are always at their clever best, somehow managing to find each other in that clique coffee klatch, matching wits. Does it matter that real people do not talk this way, unless they are institutionalized? Yet Moore’s characters seem real, or genetically engineered to convey Moore’s message, which is neither pressing, nor is it news-like. It isn’t really a message, in fact, but more like the appeal of an alarm, a calling of attention to oneself: a bark.

Moore might just be telling us we’re all animals with perhaps more elaborate tools in our woodsheds. It’s little surprise that these tools can’t save her characters. Or only just so.

For the uninitiated, these stylistic trademarks should be no reason to avoid Moore. She’ll expand whatever postage stamp-sized garden of humanity you will needlessly, excessively toil over with yard implements and fertilizer for a season, just to grow one fucking cherry tomato.

As the short story writer has to keep proving their mettle, so the short story is always the form that has to keep proving itself. It’s not enough that a writer be good at it, or even exceptional; they have to continuously be measured by the yardstick of the novel. And so much the worse for that short story writer who dares to stick a toe into the novelist’s pond. Yet Moore’s novels are always somehow less satisfying than her stories, and it’s in the short story mode that Moore excels.

Moore has mined this territory stateside at least as well, if not as prolifically (give her time) as her elder cohort Alice Munro in Canada. At the forefront of the short story for nearly three decades, her mode is appropriately American. In contrast to Munro, Moore is an unabashed humorist, perhaps with an asterisk, if not with a lowercase h. She is deft enough to make any aspiring humorist envious.

The stories rarely involve bold narrative arcs, and rely more on characters and a gut instinct for narrative which seemingly effortlessly leads to the shape of a story. An easy reliance on solipsism, too often daily events fill the pages—which, in the novels, can suggest aimlessness. Even with political edges, the familiar ease of tone can be too cozy when you are looking for more of a heavy fictional hit.

Moore’s stories on occasion sub narratives of a political bent, manifest in a barely concealed anger at real world dilemmas. At the time of these stories’ initial publication, in the early part of the recently past decade (half have appeared in The New Yorker), the Bush regime was at the nadir of its repressive tactics.

The reader can sense the dis-ease of the object of the protagonist’s curiosity, if unrequited affection, in “Subject to Search.” This story’s narrative propulsion sets it apart from the other stories, with its whiff of espionage and mystery conveyed through crackling, pressurized dialogue. The focus of this story, Tom, knows his appeal to the female protagonist who willfully submits to him on a tryst in Paris. Yet the intimacy hinted at between these two is so off-screen that the words to convey the affair leave the reader guessing as to how far it has really progressed. Moore is apt delineating a character through dialogue and mannerism, as when Tom projects his angst—preoccupied by his involvement with “international intrigue” —by pulling a bay leaf out of his couscous: “‘Bay leaves are bullshit,’ he said, flinging it down on his plate.”

“She has a vision of the world that is like a novelist’s, and a typical story contains a novel’s breadth and satisfactions, in miniature, fitted in like a ship in a bottle, or a beautiful bonsai tree.” I left the direct reference off intentionally, as the quote is Moore on a review of an Alice Munro collection. The quote seems applicable to Moore herself, the difference being that Moore’s stories accomplish similar feats in half the words. Where Munro allows herself an unhindered rumination, Moore winds her narratives into tighter confines. Both writers tend to dispense with what we might think of as self-consciously lyrical writing, though it surfaces, but not in excess, and not at the expense of getting to the point. Tempered by humor to neutralize shock and awe, we witness Moore the humanist. In “Thank You for Having Me,” the narrator casts a frank and wistful eye on her life:

Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand. Aloneness was the air in your tires, the wind in your hair. You didn’t have to go looking for it with open arms. With open arms, you fell off the bike: I was drinking my wine too quickly.

You may read fiction to learn about your life, but with Lorrie Moore, you might read her to remind yourself that no matter how bad life gets, her characters have it worse than you.

Robert M. Detman has fiction and reviews in over two dozen journals. His short story collection was a semi-finalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press.