By Lorrie Moore. Bond Street, 208 pp, hardcover
The stories in Bark, the fourth collection from American writer Lorrie Moore, date back as far as 2003. I don’t know whether that indicates a five-year period of writer’s block—between 1998’s Birds of America and “Debarking” first appearing in the New Yorker—but either way, it’s no accident that the new book opens at the dawn of the Iraq War. Over time, Moore’s fictional muse has started to wander: from people to politics.
Normally, this wouldn’t be that big a deal, but Moore is among the best chroniclers we have of a certain kind of doomed relationship, where grief and loneliness are inescapable, and where wit (especially in the form of puns) is less a coping mechanism than a terrified laugh into the abyss. In Bark, that abyss has relocated to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
“Debarking” is the earliest of the eight stories, and, perhaps for that reason, has some of the strongest traces of Moore’s earlier writing. In it, a divorcé named Ira struggles to court a pediatrician who has the strange habit of spontaneously wrestling her teenage son. Moore is reliably sharp about the ways middle-aged men and women become efficient when sizing up new partners. Ira mentally praises Zora’s “strong aquiline nose”, then immediately appends: “probably a snorer”. Here, war is a distant, rumbling subplot; Ira is only able to dish about Zora to a buddy after they both scrutinize Dick Cheney’s tax return, “which had just been reprinted in the newspaper”.
But it isn’t long until that ominous shadow begins to grow, and the spectre of U.S. politics comes to dominate much of the rest of the book. “Subject to Search” features an American intelligence strategist eating a quick lunch before heading back to handle fallout from Abu Ghraib. Then there’s “Foes”, a flimsy vignette about a left-wing writer who gets seated next to a Republican at a fundraiser, first published in the Guardian on November 1, 2008—as the newspaper described it, “on the eve of the US election”.
Politics clearly weighs on Moore, so it makes sense that she’s taken to the page to help make sense of the issue. But in the end, she has far less to say about it than she does about the many ways men and women fail to fall in love with each other.
Two stories, “Referential” and “Wings”, pay explicit homage to the world of literature (Vladimir Nabokov and Henry James, respectively). They’re also among the most effective pieces in the book. If those kinds of anchors are what’s required to lure Moore’s attention away from the op-ed pages, well, I’ll take what I can get.