In a story in her newest collection Lorrie Moore violates one of Elmore Leonard’s hallowed rules for writing fiction: Never use the word “suddenly.” Whether that--or a tendency for wordplay and characters whose quips are sometimes too clever by half--will turn you off Bark, Moore’s first new book of stories since 1998, will probably depend on how much of a fondness (or tolerance) you’ve developed for this kind of stuff since her earliest work in Self-Help.
I’ve developed a sort of accommodating response to it, and her collection Birds of America, which appeared about fifteen years ago, gave me ample reason to look forward to the release of Bark. That and the fact that I’ve attended some of her readings in the interim (note: she'll be appearing in New York Thursday night at Barnes & Noble in Union Square) and have followed her writing in places like the New York Review of Books; her description of the language of film theory as prose that often has “the forensic caress of an appliance warranty” was one of my favorite lines of late 2013. And also that she makes a good and I think necessary case for the continued publication of collections that don’t necessarily hew to the current fashion for books of thematically or otherwise “linked” stories:
My students are very attached to these thematic collections — they think that’s what the publishers want. … But I never think of a collection as a form or a genre. I think of a collection as literally a collection — a temporal document. You put together what you’ve written over a decade, and there it is. I think each story should begin in a completely pure and independent way. Now, it will have things in common with other stories — it just will, because it’s coming from you. But stories have so much in common already, because they’re from one single writer, that there’s no reason to artificially make them talk to each other.
All well and good. But so then what about Bark itself?
Well, there are only eight stories in it, which some fans and critics have made complaining noises about, as if the years since Birds of America haven't brought the novel A Gate at the Stairs and the aforementioned reviews and essays. One of the stories—"Wings"—is quite long and was, as Moore has noted, originally envisioned as a novella. Some of the stories date as far back as 2003, and all but one have already appeared elsewhere, four in the New Yorker. There are all the recognizable traits of Moore’s fiction: mordant observation, sick or impaired children, and divorced and/or unmarried and/or romantically defeated women and men (although some of these are now considerably farther along in years than before). Subject matter is leavened by humor, humor shaded with mortality. One story ("Paper Losses") can stand alongside the best in Birds of America, while another ("Foes" ) manages to make sympathetic, or maybe a little more understandable, the rage directed at the current president and at "the liberal agenda" by linking it to inchoate fear generated by the 9/11 attacks. And even in stories that aren't a hundred percent successful, like "Wings," there are passages like this:
Perhaps everyone had their own way of preparing to die. Life got you ready. Life got you sad. And then blood started coming from where it didn't used to come.... KC herself imagined dying would be full of rue: like flipping through the pages of a clearance catalog, seeing the drastic markdown on stuff you paid full price for and not gotten that much use from, when all was said and done. Though all was never said and done. That was the other part about death.
If you don't like the title of the collection or the sometimes forced manner in which Moore tries to use versions of "bark" thematically, there's enough to outweigh that. I read Bark over a couple of days, wondering at the end of each story if I should go on. But I did, and then the book was over--maybe kind of suddenly, in fact.