May 2014

Arts & Letters

Lorrie Moore’s ‘Bark’

By Catherine Ford
Faber; $29.99

Recently, a journalist asked Lorrie Moore why it had taken her 15 years, after her remarkable Birds of America appeared in 1998, to produce another story collection. “I don’t know, I’m slow,” she joked, smiling graciously. “I’m burdened.” She also reminded him that she hadn’t been idle – her novel A Gate at the Stairs had appeared in 2009.

Moore, 57, the acclaimed American author of four story collections and three novels, is a literature professor of some three decades and a single mother of a 19-year-old son – a first-rate slacker! Her short fiction, widely considered to be the finest of her generation, has specialised in skewering just such exchanges between men and women – equals in every sense, except where workload, status and reward are concerned.

Comprising just eight stories, Bark is slimmer than Birds of America but just as unsettling. Moore is a fierce, extremely funny writer, and she takes no prisoners. In ‘Debarking’, Ira, a newly divorced single father, dates Zora, a divorced paediatrician, who is not-so-comically over-involved with her teenage son. Ira and Zora’s increasingly desperate courtship, played out as the Bush administration invades Iraq, analyses American neuroses and pathologies so sharply it pays to read it thrice.

In ‘Foes’, a socially awkward biographer is seated beside an “evil lobbyist” at a literary fundraiser in Washington, DC – “hedge funds and haiku!” The biographer also proves to be breathtakingly insensitive, despite his leftist credentials. During a night of escalating bad taste, he tells his neighbour why he isn’t famous: he jokes that he won the Nobel but the award came “in the shadow of 9/11 … right as the second tower was being hit”. When Moore strikes at the political heart of her nation, she can inflict as much damage to its insularity and absurd preoccupations in 40-odd pages as many novelists manage in 300.

The post-feminist ghost story ‘The Juniper Tree’ shows three women marking the death of a friend. They bemoan the entrapments of home and work, as well as their inadequacies “as a pit crew, for ourselves or for anyone else”. ‘Referential’, about an institutionalised young man whose mother’s partner no longer wants responsibility for him, elaborates on a common theme in Moore’s work: incompatible parents and the resultant heartsick children.

But ‘Wings’ is Moore pure, a story in which the technique is so dazzling that its two musicians, lost in a haze of frustrated ambition and lonely hardship, are more than mere characters. Moore has referred to it as a failed novella, but she can’t be right all the time.

Catherine Ford

Catherine Ford is a freelance journalist. Her books include NYC and Dirt.

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