LORRIE MOORE’S characters do two things compulsively: they read emotional undercurrents, whether they want to or not, and they engage in private wordplay as a shield against all the information coming at them, as a way to ward off feeling too strongly in response — but also as a kind of boon companion to consciousness itself. If we are cursed with cognition, we might as well make it funny.
Moore’s distinctive staccato voice announced itself in her first collection, Self Help (1985). Putting most of the stories in that book in the second person, Moore clearly enjoyed addressing the reader as “you.” In “How to Be an Other Woman,” for instance, her protagonist offered mock advice to young females looking for love in the go-go, hard-knock 1980s, an every-man-for-himself kind of decade, one in which the political winds seemed to grow colder with every passing year. While dispensing tips, Moore’s tone revealed her belief that, really, there is no good advice for young women or for anyone else; we are always on uncharted ground. If we live in a wilderness, we have no choice but to entertain ourselves in any way available.
Moore was from the start extremely entertaining and clever as well; the second-person voice allowed her to grab the reader, pull her close and speak as though no boundary between them existed, while at the same time distancing herself from her own experiences:
After four movies, three concerts, and two-and-a-half museums, you sleep with him. It seems the right number of cultural events. On the stereo you play your favorite harp and oboe music. He tells you his wife’s name. It is Patricia. She is an intellectual property lawyer. He tells you he likes you a lot. You lie on your stomach, naked and still too warm. When he says, “How do you feel about that?” don’t say “Ridiculous” or “Get the hell out of my apartment.” Prop your head up on one hand and say, “It depends. What is intellectual property law?”
So much territory covered in that short paragraph, each sentence a building beam in a fortress of sensibility. Moore’s scalpel-sharp, self-critical voice predated Sex and the City and Girls, of course, TV shows that frequently ask similar questions about similar kinds of women, such as “How can a smart girl be so dumb?” With Moore’s debut it was as if Nora Ephron had turned to fiction instead of soft commercial movies and become a harder, more brilliant version of her journalistic self. And never grown rich.
In the literary world, Moore became something of a celebrity, publishing four story collections, three novels, and a children’s book. She had been winning awards since she was 19 and has continued to rake them in. When she showed up to read at university towns across the country, auditoriums were packed. She’s certainly one of the finest short story writers in the country, and although Birds of America spent some time on the bestseller lists, she’s not had a breakout collection like George Saunders did with his Tenth of December. When The New York Times Magazine profiled Saunders last year, it titled its piece: “George Saunders Has Written the Best Book You’ll Read This Year,” and suddenly every reading group in the country was ordering it. He spent 15 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list, peaking at number 2. Moore has never had such a run — her bestselling book, Birds of America, was on the list for three weeks and peaked at number 14 — but where she is known she is well known.
Birds of America (1998) contained a story that Moore first published in the New Yorker and that brought her a lot, if not a Saunders-amount, of attention. It was a piece that challenged her quipping capabilities and indeed all distancing techniques and coping mechanisms known to man. For “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” Moore pulled out her longest lens, naming the characters Mother, the Oncologist, the Radiologist, the Husband, and the Baby. Shepherding her two-year-old through a series of treatments and tests for renal cancer, the Mother is literally inconsolable. She is tethered to a continuum of pain; the story starts with: “A beginning, an end: there seems to be neither.” And yet the Mother must still construct jokes, no matter how brittle or unfunny, most of them about murder or suicide. The Husband keeps suggesting that the Mother, a writer, take notes for an article, an idea she finds contemptible. Not knowing what else to do, she takes notes. “People Like That” is excruciating; it brings to mind David Foster Wallace’s description of depression: “a double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible.” Even upon being freed from the scene, the Mother vows she will not even glance back in its direction. “For as long as I live,” she says, “I never want to see any of these people again.”
Though “People Like That Are the Only People Here” represented a logical extension of Moore’s style, it was, as we pray any unbearable period will be, an anomaly; it remains the sparest of her stories. In Bark, her first story collection in 15 years (there was a novel, A Gate at the Stairs in 2009), we meet characters who absorb all manner of knocks and shocks with ruefully companionable humor and wordplay. Unsurprisingly, the mortality issues of people in their 40s and 50s are especially richly observed and the milieu is often a smallish non-coastal town (Moore taught at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for 30 years; she has just moved to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee). Her two strongest stories frame the book (and both of them make something of the word “bark”); in between are many memorable characters and situations, including a CIA operative who, because of Abu Ghraib, must cut short his Paris assignation with a new mistress/old acquaintance, and a broke musician who pretends to herself that her growing closeness with a frail, lonely, and financially solvent elderly neighbor is something other than a possible way out of her poverty.
The first story, “Debarking,” is characteristically three parts dark and two parts funny. It features Ira, a likable Jewish fellow struggling for equilibrium after the end of a 15-year marriage. He’s aware that he is depressed and that his first plan for recovery — snipping the breaks on his ex-wife’s car — is unacceptable. When invited to a dinner celebrating Lent he apologizes to the other guests for the Crucifixion. He promptly falls in love with the only person who finds this funny, a sexy pediatrician named Zora in whom he sees signs of instability even while she is still laughing at his Crucifixion joke. His dossier of her peculiarities grows thick. When the check arrives at the end of their first date, she looks at it as if “it were some fly that had landed and would soon be taking off again.” When he asks what he can bring to dinner at her house, she says, “Oh, perhaps you could just bring a small appetizer and some dessert. And maybe a salad, some bread if you’re close to a bakery, and a bottle of wine. Also an extra chair, if you have one.”
Given his loneliness, though, he is no match for her black hair and hazel eyes, “like orange pekoe tea,” even after he meets her teenage son Bruno, who is petulance personified. Zora has a penchant for wrestling with her son and for making little wooden sculptures of nude boys with “tightly molded buttocks and sprouted, mushroomy phalluses.” It is March 2003, and Ira is unsettled by the lead-up to the Bagdad invasion; he wishes the month “had a less military verb for a name.” Once the bombing starts he soldiers on with Zora, feeling a desperate need for closeness. She can be horribly cruel, like when she hideously contorts her face to show him what he looks like while having an orgasm. The following month, she gives him a long speech about why she wants to break up and then shouts, “April Fools!,” which he does not find at all funny. “He had never been involved with the mentally ill before,” Moore writes, “but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking.” Instead of breaking up with Zora he starts smoking her hashish and taking her sleeping pills.
When we leave him, though, drinking in a bar and shrieking at the televised bombings, it is with some sense that he will snap out of it. We identify with another barfly, who says, “somebody slap that guy.”
Bark begins with divorce and ends with a wedding. That last story is titled, with Moorean triple meaning, “Thank You for Having Me.” It is one of Moore’s richest tales, featuring a full cast of characters and a shimmering sense of life passing in all of its aching beauty. The protagonist might well be an adult version of the character from “How to Be Another Woman.” Divorced with a grown daughter of her own, she errs on the self-effacing side, frequently annoying Nicole, the snarky and confident daughter — confidence seems to have skipped a generation, or perhaps her daughter is busy with the task of not becoming her mother. “I watched her broad tan back and her confident gait. She was a gorgeous giantess. I was in awe to have such a daughter. Also in fear — as in fearful for my life.” As usual, it is pleasant to be in the mind of this woman. When learning of the death of Michael Jackson, she thinks: “Every minute that ticked by in life contained very little information, until it suddenly contained too much.” Having been abandoned with a young child, she read and rejected a lot of self-help material, wondering: “If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really absolutely alone when you were dead, why ‘learn to be alone’ in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you.”
Our protagonist is happy to attend this nutty, complicated nuptial, the second union of Nicole’s former babysitter, a sexy, restless Brazilian named Maria. The groom is a farmboy and a musician, as was the bride’s first husband, who is now serving as wedding band and best man. His father is still brooding about losing this lovely daughter-in-law, and he roams the periphery misty-eyed with some iced gin; our protagonist sees him and notices a new eye job: “He would rather look startled and insane than look fifty-six.” She also notes the bridesmaids in pastels: “one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the new lowers dose of clonazepam.” She is filled with tolerance toward youth and foolishness, and everything and everyone:
I had seen a dozen people become hunks of rock with their names engraved so shockingly perfect upon them it looked as if they had indeed turned to stone, been given a new life the way the moon is given it, through some lighting tricks and a face-like font. I had turned a hundred Rolodex cards around to their blank sides. So let a babysitter become a bride again. Let her marry over and over. So much urgent and lifelike love went rumbling around underground and died there, never got expressed at all, so let some errant inconvenient attraction have its way. There was so little time.
A change of weather and a near-violent episode threaten to destroy both the wedding and the protagonist’s mood, but she is quickly back to being herself, standing next to a stranger in the food line, saying, “You know, when you’re hungry, there’s nothing better than food.” It may not be entirely clear why this is wisdom, but as in the bulk of Moore’s work, it is.