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The Book We're Talking About: 'Bark: Stories' By Lorrie Moore

02/25/2014 09:27 am ET | Updated Feb 25, 2014
Knopf

Bark: Stories
by Lorrie Moore
Knopf, $24.95
Publishes February 25, 2014

The Book We're Talking About is a weekly review combining plot description and analysis with fun tidbits about the book.

What we think
The epigraph for Bark, Lorrie Moore's first collection in 15 years, is comprised of three quotes, two about dogs and one about a tree. Disparate topics are cleverly brought together, hinged by a flimsy connector: bark. That's what Moore does, and, at her best, does well: draw straight, clear lines between big themes.

The first story, "Debarking," likens returning to the dating scene after divorce to the beginnings of the Iraq War; both, according to protagonist Ira, are oddly hollow experiences. Both also seem to be fodder for jokes and clever but empty wordplay, as Ira observes, "March still did not look completely like spring... He wished this month had a less military verb for a name. Why March? How about a month named Skip?" These musings, which make up the bulk of Bark, are humorous, even laugh-out-loud funny, but they fall just short of substantive.

These clunky jokes are endearing when coming from the book's younger characters, such as Ira's daughter, who rolls her eyes at anti-war signs. To one reading "WAR IS NOT THE ANSWER," she scoffs that war is the answer; "It's the answer to the question What's George Bush going to do real soon?" This sort of observation is charming when muttered by an eight-year-old, but vacant otherwise.

The second story, "The Juniper Tree," seems to grasp at some sort of truth about the absurdity of middle age. The story's climax happens when an ordinary conversation between friends—female faculty members living in the same small university town—takes a turn for the weird when one of them inexplicably pushes a lemon meringue pie into her own face. The event is head-scratch-inducing, and little else, like a private joke left unexplained.

Most of the remaining stories follow suit. In "Paper Losses," a couple that met at a peace rally undergoes a Cold War of their own. Unrealistic puns ensue.

In an interview with The Paris Review, Moore was asked about her use of humor. Though her characters often tell bad jokes, relying too heavily on levity and wordplay, the interviewer notes that Moore's humor seems to come "from somewhere else." To this, Moore replies, "Most of the humor I’m interested in has to do with awkwardness; the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times—times of collision, emergency, surrealism, aftermath, disorientation."

The moments in Bark that adhere to this method are the collection's strongest. When Ira writes a letter to a romantic interest, she responds with the same note, verbatim—"Had such fun meeting you at Mike's." Writes Moore, "Either she was stupid or crazy or he was already being too hard on her."

The collection's final and strongest story, "Thank You for Having Me," takes its title from a T-shirt worn by a man performing at a wedding. The betrothed are his ex-wife and his close friend; he's the best man. He plays a "slow, melancholic version of 'I Want You Back.' Except he didn't seem to want her back." The ridiculousness of the set-up seems somehow fitting in the context of a farm wedding, which may be the best setting for a Lorrie Moore story. Her hilarious coincidences and peculiar, awkward moments seem more at home there than they do in everyday life.

What other reviewers think
Entertainment Weekly: "If you had to criticize one thing about Lorrie Moore — and I don't know why you would, because she's awesome — it might be that her humor and her world-weary sense of the absurd are almost too distinctive."

The New York Times: "Most of the stories in “Bark” are set in the tundra of middle age, and deal with divorce, death, disillusion or other sorts of hurt. There are some deeply affecting moments here — mostly involving children — but they remain just that: moments, islands in stories that, for the most part, are heavy-handed and forced."

The Boston Globe: "Where rationality drops off, her tales begin. There’s never been a writer quite like Moore, one who can raise such heavy-sad zeppelins on the helium gusts of voice alone."

Who wrote it?
Lorrie Moore is the author of three novels and four short story collections. She's a recipient of the O. Henry prize and the PEN/Malamud Award. She's been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner award. She is a Professor of English at Vanderbilt University.

Who will read it?
Those interested in reading humorous literary fiction, especially about domestic disputes. Fans of short story collections.

Opening lines:
"Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off."

Notable passage:
"Although Kit and Rafe had met in a peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nuke signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke. Married for two decades of precious, precious life, she and Rafe seemed currently to be partners only in anger and dislike, their old lusty love mutated to rage."

Rating, out of ten:
6

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