“A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: to choose the best unhappiness. An unwise move, good God, you could squander everything,” writes Lorrie Moore in the story “Paper Losses,” part of Bark, her new collection of short stories—the first she’s published in over 15 years. Lorrie Moore doesn’t seem to make “unwise moves” in her writing life; the result has been a long, celebrated career in American letters.
Self-Help, her first collection of short stories, was published to great acclaim in 1985. Through a nuanced mimicking of the instructional voice of self-help manuals, Moore prompted an insurgence of the second-person narrator in contemporary fiction. She went on to publish her first novel Anagrams; The Forgotten Helper, a children’s book; the short story collection Like Life and another novel Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? But it was her third collection of stories, Birds of America, hailed by critics and fans alike for its perfect pitch of humor in the face of sorrow, that transformed her into one of the most quintessential voices writing today and earned her a spot on the New York Times best-seller list. In 2009, Moore published the novel A Gate at the Stairs, but it is Bark—a more kindred successor to Birds of America—which has been starred by Kirkus and positioned her as the master returning to her true form.
Fearing her words will get “bollixed” over the phone, I corresponded by email with the author from her new home in Nashville, Tenn. For almost three decades, Moore taught at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but she has recently relocated to teach at Vanderbilt University. Readers may begin to wonder how the South might permeate her future writing as the Midwest did for so long, but she’s never been one to rush out new work. She published the first story from Bark 10 years ago. That seems to be a comfortable incubating period for Moore: “If you wait too long you might not recall why you wrote any of them,” she says of her short stories. However, when I asked her about some of the influences of these new stories, it appears time has taken its toll: she’s already begun to forget the specifics. “But they are all responses to something and involve situations I was thinking very deeply about at the time. One then gets very involved with fashioning the story that can contain those thoughts and feelings. But now of course I've moved on. That is the beauty of shorter narratives: they allow you to move on.”
Like most Americans, Moore is probably relieved to move on from the fraught political landscape of the last 15 years in which Bark is set. Political consciousness naturally permeates Moore’s characters, who are immersed in the wounded American psyche of a post 9/11 country at war—from a teacher who sings the “Star Spangled Banner” for a ghost to an aloof intelligence agent who gulps down some Côtes du Rhône before a mission to a cynical author who taunts a supporter at a D.C. fundraiser. Moore believes political awareness is just typical of most people. “One's life takes place in the world,” she says.
In “Debarking,” the first story of the collection, a recent divorcé up in arms over the U.S. invasion of Iraq is deeply moved by a peace protest he witnesses while driving: “No car went anywhere for the change of two lights. For all its stupidity and solipsism and scenic civic grief, it was something like a beautiful moment.” Yet the story is not about the war, it’s about the absurdities of his struggle to date again. Gleaning insight into how the mentally unstable casually date, the story brilliantly balances the light and dark at the end of the tunnel of marriage. In fact, in many of the eight stories that comprise Bark, the sweeping themes of global politics are often pushed to the backdrop of the more personal moments of “one’s life.”
“Paper Losses,” “Wings,” and “Referential” all follow characters who are unraveling from failed relationships. Breakups and divorces are fodder for much of the pain these characters endure, but there’s some comic relief in how these estranged characters are placed in strange situations. In “Wings,” a struggling musician looks after a zany old man (who turns out to be dying) as a distraction from her boyfriend, whom she no longer loves. Disillusioned by an argument with her boyfriend about whether the old man is her sugar daddy, she has the epiphany that couples might never stay together if they knew the future: “This was probably the reason nine-tenths of the human brain had been rendered useless: to make you stupidly intrepid. One was working with only the animal brain, the Pringle brain. The wizard-god brain, the one that could see the future and move objects without touching them, was asleep. Fucking bastard.”
Although readers might find themselves laughing out loud at some of Moore’s zingers, she does not consider herself a humorous writer. “But let's face it: These stories aren't all that funny. Only a little bit,” she says. The bits of humor that Moore reluctantly takes some credit for are like a flock of inflatable dinghies bouncing alongside a sailing ship. Her humor breaks the tension of heightened moments with an effect of dramatic irony that somehow seems completely sincere. As Moore carefully handles all the various emotional vulnerabilities of her characters, she is able to mash up the comic and tragic parts into one lucid whole. In the final story, “Thank You for Having Me,” a woman at a wedding is buzzed enough from champagne to look beyond her own loneliness and see beauty in a shining sun. “I think it's good to let hope have the last word,” says Moore.
Bridgette Bates is a writer and editor who lives in Los Angeles. A recipient of a Fulbright and a Boston Review Discovery Prize, her book of poetry, What Is Not Missing Is Light, will be published this fall.