Lorrie Moore's is a world not quite safe, peopled by protagonists who have lost or are losing -- marriages, political arguments, money, respect, you name it. And before you pick up Bark, Moore's latest collection, you should know these stories are straight-up sad, even if they're chockablock with witticisms that range from the dry to the politically edgy to the downright unhinged.
Now forget this caveat and go buy Bark immediately.
Moore's first collection since 1998's acclaimed Birds of America, Bark picks up themes her fans will find familiar -- failing relationships, illness and alienation among them. Debarking follows the awkward romantic efforts of the lonely Ira, a middle-aged divorcé struggling to work his wedding ring off his swollen ring finger. In The Juniper Tree, a small-town academic is visited by the ghost of her freshly deceased rival. Wings begins with a coffee run and becomes an exploration of the ethical ramifications of a washed-up musician's relationship with a wealthy, aging gentleman.
Any plot summary of these stories will inevitably cast them as bleak, and they are. But they're exceptionally fine stories -- compulsively readable and so buoyant with wit you simply can't stay bogged down for long.
In Debarking, perhaps Bark's strongest story, Jewish Ira is invited to a friend's "Lent dinner" shortly after his divorce: "He wandered back into the kitchen and, as he felt was required of him, shrieked at the pork. Then he began milling around again, apologizing for the Crucifixion: 'We didn't really intend it,' he murmured, 'not really, not the killing part?'" But if Debarking ripples with non-stop one-liners, its waters run deep, and before you know it you've swan-dived into the heart of Ira's trouble.
In all of Bark's stories, Moore uses humour to propel narrative, but it is often iridescent with subtext, fine veins that lead to storehouses of meaning.
And they do not always deal with deaths of one sort or another. Thank You for Having Me, the final story in the collection, depicts a country wedding: "The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next-lowest dose of clonazepam."
Into this Eastery portrait swoops a troop of bikers, sent to disrupt the ceremony and deliver a complex message via their football-helmeted leader: "The errors a person already made can step forward and announce themselves and then freeze themselves into a charming little sculpture garden that can no longer hurt you. Like a cemetery. And like a cemetery it is the kind of freedom that is the opposite of free."
The biker's Twinkie-tinged hysteria may carry prophetic resonances, but the messages in these stories are never straightforward, never conclusive. A refusal to offer any final verdicts on the choices of her protagonists, stubbornly brave but shivering with fragility, is part of Bark's achievement.
Untroubled, overlong, by tragedy or politics, the stories in Bark are given ample time to focus on the intriguing minutiae of fragmenting relationships (aerosol cans of bug spray too near the cake, baggage lost in transit, plastic cups of wilting mums), all couched in complex, carefully layered prose. Moore's latest cocktail is a stimulating, heady mix short-story lovers will want to get their hands on double-quick.
Julienne Isaacs is a Winnipeg-based writer and editor.