What lengths will we go to in order to avoid being alone? Why are we so hell-bent on love? These are age-old questions, ones that philosophers, poets and priests have been unable to answer. Moore’s rendering of scenes, her dramatization of the beginnings and endings of love, is nothing short of a profound examination of the quintessence of the human condition. Why do we love? Why do we tell stories or create art? We are trying to close the gap, between self and other, between idea and reality, between life and death. –Richard Farrell
Alfred A. Knopf
Hardcover, 192 pages, $24.95
The landscape of love, booby-trapped with the broken-hearted and littered with deteriorating destinies, is familiar territory for Lorrie Moore. Moore’s latest collection of stories, Bark, explores the underbelly of Eros with wit, wisdom and unflinching honesty. Each of the eight stories in Bark, her first story collection since the wildly successful Birds of America, contends with romantic relationships, most in some state of decline, a few in outright freefall. But lest this all sound too heavy, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about Lorrie Moore here, a writer who delights in the uncanny juxtapositions of humor and pathos to tug a story along. Her verbal pyrotechnics and structural harmonies can always make you smile, even amidst the bleakest affair of the heart.
“I can’t live without love in my life,” says Ira—the protagonist in the opening story, “Debarking.” Ira, recently divorced, has reached an existential conclusion: even bad love is better than no love at all. A middle-aged Jewish man thrust back into the dating scene, Ira skips Passover Seder in order to meet a woman at a Lenten dinner with his Christian friends. To mask his nervousness, Ira cracks resurrection jokes. “Then he began milling around again, apologizing for the Crucifixion. ‘We really didn’t intend it,’ he murmured, ‘not really, not the killing part? We just kind of got carried away’” Ira seems hell-bent on his own comic demise until he meets Zora, another divorcee, who laughs at his oddball jokes, sparking off their bizarre coupling.
Over the course of this 46-page story (the first of two very long stories in Bark), Ira and Zora contend with families, dating rituals and sex, and in most cases, without much success. After the aforementioned dinner, Ira sends Zora a short note and his phone number on a postcard with a picture of “newlyweds dragging empty Spam cans from the bumper of their car.” Moore makes the vivid image of this postcard resonate with irony and meaning. The postcard is funny, but also loaded. Are the newlyweds destined for unhappiness? Is all love like a string of empty Spam cans? And why a postcard? For Ira, the hapless and hopeless romantic, a postcard represents the “geometric halfway point between stalker and Rip Van Winkle.” Desperate but cautious, Ira tries to make all the right moves. But Moore wants us to remember that there is nothing rational about human desire, and she constantly pricks at every attempt to make it so.
A few days later, Zora replies in kind, also sending Ira a postcard, but her message copies the very words he wrote. “Wasn’t that precisely, word for word, what he had written to her? There was no too, no emphasized you, just the exact same words thrown back at him like some lunatic postal Ping-Pong. Either she was crazy or stupid or he was being too hard on her.”
Zora’s strange mimicry hints at what might be a profound emptiness behind the ritual. Maybe all the moves a lover makes are for naught. Maybe the palace is only a façade. Moore’s exploration of zany relationships (few are zanier than Ira and Zora’s) reveals much confusion about the nature of love. What’s happening here? Why is everyone acting, playing a part in a carefully orchestrated dance without music or steps? To mix the metaphor a bit, if love is a mirror, a reflection of the lover cast back upon himself, then the expected response is one of the familiar, some ting of recognition. But Moore’s mirrors belong in funhouses. The reflections they send back distort, and the images are grotesque parodies of any romantic ideal. Rather than recognition, Ira finds perversions, warped emotions, and confusion. Nowhere is this more evident than in the wonderful scene when Ira finally calls Zora to ask her out on a date.
He phoned Zora four days later, so as not to seem discouragingly eager. He summoned up his most confident acting. ‘Hi, Zora?’ This is Ira,’ and then waited—narcissistically perhaps, but what else was there to say?—for her response.
‘Yes. Ira Milkins.’
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. “I don’t know who you are.’
In this story about acting, about seeming, about playing games with the heart, misapprehension shatters hope. This reversal, Zora’s failure to recognize Ira, underscores not only the narcissism of falling in love (don’t we all expect to be loved back?) but also the more desperate need to be noticed, to be seen and heard by another human being. We can’t be loved without first being visible, but if all we present is a mask, then when are we ever truly seen?
Moore takes the idea of invisibility to a much higher level in “Paper Losses,” a shorter story (at 12 pages) than “Debarking,” and one that deals with the end of love, rather than its beginning. Kit and Rafe are a married couple in the process of splitting up. They’ve stopped having sex, stopped talking, and even stopped caring about these things. Rafe descends nightly into the family basement to assemble model rockets, and the lonely house fills up with fumes of paint and glue.
She seldom saw him anymore when he got up in the morning and left for his office. And when he came home from work, he would disappear down the basement stairs. Nightly, in the anxious conjugal dusk that was now their only life together, after the kids went to bed, the house would fill up with fumes. When she called down to him about this he never answered. He seemed to have turned into some sort of space alien. Of course later she would understand that all this meant he was involved with another woman, but at the time, protecting her own vanity and sanity, she was working with two hypotheses only: brain tumor or space alien.
The epitome of dissolution is not fighting. When couples argue, they are still holding on to something. But when silence prevails, when a person stops answering, when muted apathy fills the home, there isn’t much to be done. The lover turns into a space alien, a creature so utterly foreign as to be unrecognizable.
Rafe serves Kit with divorce papers while he’s still living in their home. “‘Honey,’ she said trembling, ‘something very interesting came in the mail today.’” But before Kit and Rafe can call it quits, they must decide what to do about a previously-planned family vacation. Kit decides she wants to go. “What bimbo did he want to give her ticket to? (Only later would she find out.)” This is vintage Lorrie Moore. Circumstance beats down her characters, but never defeats them.
The vacation, naturally, is a disaster. Kit loses her luggage and must wear gift shop clothes. Rafe continues to ignore her, even in the bright sunshine of the Caribbean. With characteristic humor, Moore takes a few shots at the notion of the idyllic family vacation: “They all slept in the same room, in separate beds, and saw other families squalling and squabbling, so that, by comparison theirs—a family about to break apart for ever—didn’t look so bad.” This subversion—the divorced family appearing more normal than the happy family—reiterates the theme: love is a confusing mess.
At one point, Kit thinks, “This at last was what all those high school drama classes had been for: acting.” Appearances can be contradictory at best, outright lies at worst. And everything about their vacation (no less their marriage) involves keeping up appearances, about pretending, even at the bitter end. Miserable families pretend to be happy and disintegrating families pretend to be intact.
When they left La Caribe, its crab claws of land extending into the blue bay, she was glad. Staying there she had begun to hate the world. In the airports and on the planes home, she did not even try to act natural; natural was a felony. She spoke to her children calmly, from a script, with dialogue and stage directions of utter neutrality. Back home in Beersboro she unpacked the condoms and candles, her little love sack, completely unused, and threw it all in the trash. What had she been thinking? Later, when she learned to tell this story, as a story, she would construct a final lovemaking scene of sentimental vengeance that would contain the inviolable center of their love, the sweet animal safety of night after night, the still-beating tender heart of marriage. But for now she would become like her unruinable daughters, and even her son, who as he aged stoically and carried on regardless would come scarcely to recall—was it past even imagining—that she and Rafe had been together at all.
If natural was a felony, it’s no wonder that Kit began to hate the world. She will invent a story to contain the mystery, the inviolable center of love. Perhaps this is the best we can do, but Moore shows us that it’s nowhere near good enough. Love, ever elusive, can only be glimpsed in our messy, fumbling pursuits of it, or in the way we ruin it.
What remains, then, is a high-stakes quest for companionship. Kit, Ira, maybe the rest of us too, are all trying to stave off the cold loneliness of the world. What lengths will we go to in order to avoid being alone? Why do we continue to seek out love? These are age-old questions, ones that philosophers, poets and priests have been unable to answer. Moore’s rendering of scenes, her dramatization of the beginnings and endings of love, is nothing short of a profound examination of the quintessence of the human condition. Why do we love? Why do we tell stories or create art? We are trying to close the gap, between self and other, between idea and reality, between life and death. In Bark, the closer the characters get to the unbridgeable chasm, the more desperately they chase, and the more certain their own isolation becomes. Love proves almost impossible, so everyone wears a mask, which defeats the very purpose, in almost solipsistic logic. The manifestation of the act—the eventual coupling between Ira and Zora, the decoupling of Kit and Rafe—verges on the farcical. Luggage is lost, empty Spam cans are tied to bumpers. Lovers remain forever strangers.
Still, it would be an over-simplification to say that all of the stories are strictly love stories. Moore is too sharp a writer to be so easily categorized. In “Foes” and “Subject to Search,” Moore dabbles overtly in contemporary politics. In “Juniper Tree,” she summons her inner Dickens and tells a delightful ghost story. “Wings,” the other novella-length story in the book, is about a washed-up musician who befriends an elderly philosopher. It is probably my favorite in the book. Of course, the friendship goes wrong when the geezer philosopher tries to stick his tongue down the woman’s throat. We just can’t seem to get this stuff right.
Bark contains heartbreaking, hilarious, and honest stories. It is a wise meditation on the human struggle for affection, for identity, and for meaning. Less transcendent than Whitman’s barbaric yawp, more restrained than Ginsburg’s howl, Moore’s bark sounds a weary note. Like a dog tied to a tree, we bark, hoping only to be heard, to be released from the ties that bind. Or perhaps bark refers to the tree itself, to the hard outer core which protects the inner pulp, the life force flowing through each of us, so fragile, so hidden beneath an impenetrable shell. “The end of love was one big zombie movie,” Moore writes. Perhaps. But in every zombie movie, a human or two always survives, someone to wander through the chaos and squalor, seeking, holding out, carrying on. Whatever holds us back, whatever constrains us, also reminds us that there is something more out there, something worthwhile beyond the chain, inside the bark. Despite the misery, despite the empty-Spam-can destiny that surely awaits the seeker, the pursuit continues unabated. We bark, or we die. Moore puts it more eloquently, if not a bit more bleakly:
Living did not mean joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain, hope played like a playing card upon another hope, a wish for kindnesses and mercies to emerge like kings and queens in an unexpected change of the game. One could hold the cards for oneself or not: they would land the same regardless. Tenderness did not enter except in a damaged way and by luck.
Richard Farrell is the Creative Non-Fiction Editor at upstreet and a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq (in fact, he is one of the original group of students who helped found the site). A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he has worked as a high school teacher, a defense contractor, and as a Navy pilot. He is a graduate from the MFA in Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. His work, including fiction, memoir, essays, interviews and book reviews, has appeared in Hunger Mountain, New Plains Review, upstreet, Descant, and Numéro Cinq. He teaches at Words Alive and the River Pretty Writers Retreat in the Ozarks. He lives in San Diego.