on March 5, 2014
I'm a fan of short story collections, and I read a lot of them. I was excited to hear that Lorrie Moore had a new collection out, and I was looking forward to loving this book. Unfortunately, I found many of the stories to be disjointed and difficult to connect with on an emotional level. I can appreciate Moore's writing, which is clearly expert, but too many of these stories lack heart, and they seem filled with unnatural dialog. The two longest stories--Debarking and Wings--are the best in the collection, in my opinion, because they are long enough to make the characters seem human and alive. The shorter stories generally lack direction and purpose. If you're interested in short stories, I recommend you try George Saunder's Tenth of December or Alice Munro's Dear Life instead.
I love short stories but am never entirely sure how to review books of them. Giving the plot or a brief summary for each story seems kind of pointless and often redundant given that that information is usually available on the site anyway. In this case, I've decided instead to respond to some of the points others have made in their reviews.
Some have noted that some of the stories seem dated. Yes, they do. It's a fair point. Stories of the Democratic convention of 2008 or the war in Iraq may eventually pale, but I think they're still fresh enough not to seem hopelessly antiquated.
It's been noted that the book is short. Yes, and I wish it were longer. But I don't know that it's fair to knock a book for its length if the quality is there. I believe it is here.
The endings have been faulted here. I have to confess that I don't really understand this complaint. One of the many beauties of the short story is the diversity of endings. Sometimes, short stories wrap everything up with a nice bow. Other times, they simply end. And there are a variety of possibilities in between. I did not have a problem with the endings.
Some have said that these stories don't represent Moore at her best. Agreed. But even Moore at less than her best is wonderful to read. Indeed, her stories always (including here) seem welcoming. As someone else put it, and I second the point, Moore is a master at drawing you in, at giving you a full character in a paragraph. A student of the craft of short story writing would do well to study these, and those who simply enjoy reading should be rewarded.
Finally, my favorite of the lot is "Foes," in significant part because the distance between the events in the story (Barack Obama's election) are sufficiently distant to allow a more objective reading experience, meaning that whatever emotions I may have, one way or the other, about that election did not interfere with my enjoyment of the story.
I know this is a nontraditional review, but I really do have trouble writing reviews of collections. So perhaps I'll end with this point: I really enjoyed this collection, and, though some stories were clearly better (for me) than others, I did not find a clunker in the lot.
Full disclosure: I've been a fan of Lorrie Moore's short stories since the early 1990s, find her sardonic humor and wit are part of her appeal; the other part is that she has the rare talent to pack enough thematic and psychological complexity in a short story that I would typically expect in a novel (I'm thinking of her masterpiece "Real Estate" from her earlier collection Birds of America).
Like most collections, Bark has some hits and misses so I find it absurd to tack off stars if a few stories don't rise to the level of excellence that I expect from a master like Moore. And also it is true, as other reviewers have written, that some of the stories feel over a decade old.
But having said that there are enough highlights in this book to make it compelling reading and worthy of recommending. My very favorite story, the first one, "Debarking," is about a romance between a sympathetic, nebbish, neurotic divorcee Ira and Zora who has a mind-baffling, at times ambiguous, at times disturbing relationship with her teenage son that is so unsavory on so many levels that it impedes Zora's ability to carry on a real relationship with Ira or any man. It's hard to know how pathological Zora's connection is with her son but we are left with layers of ambiguity to sift through in a 37-page story that had me wanting for more, perhaps a 150-page novella.
Other stories with similar power are "Wings," about a stagnant couple who haven't grown beyond their years of playing "rock stars," and the final story, suggestive of her vintage works, the collection's funniest tale, "Thank You for Having Me," which takes place at a country wedding in which the musician is the ex husband of the bride.
Getting a collection in which I like a little more than half the stories which are better than most collections out there compels me to give this book a very high recommendation.
on March 23, 2014
Lorrie Moore has become all attitude, and unfortunately the attitude is brittle, and for this reader shallow, cynicism -- so self-imitative that pretty quickly she becomes like an undergraduate writing under the influence of earlier Lorrie Moore.
This is not to say that I failed to laugh out loud on occasion. I concede that she enjoys a measure of success as a stand-up comic.
Lorrie Moore is one of my all-time favorite writers and Birds of America is one of my top 5 favorite books of all time. I have to say that Bark was probably my least favorite of all of Moore's books. I love Moore's weird characters and humor, but some of these stories just felt too out there to me. They were also incredibly politically-charged, which I'm not generally a fan of. But worst, the book felt about 8 years too late. Has she just been hanging on to these stories for that long? Sadly, it was short, too. Really, really short... I wanted more Moore!
However, if you're a Lorrie Moore fan, you should definitely read this. Her voice is still there with her quirky humor that feels so real. The characters are, for the most part, the types of characters you'd expect from Lorrie Moore's writing and I did find myself laughing and saying "Yes!" often, which is what I love about Moore. I just didn't feel that way throughout the entire book, like I did with Birds of America.
I'll read anything from Lorrie Moore and I hope she comes out with another book soon!
on March 12, 2014
Thinking about writers having a "recipe" for their stories is a little depressing, but it's also why we love them. I expect humor from Lorrie Moore--dark and full of puns. I also expect loss, embarrassment, emotional turmoil, people who can't get started, who look at the world around them and can't imagine how they fit into it. So why don't I just reread Self Help, yeah? Nope. Not good enough. I am a reader, and readers are insatiable people. We chew and swallow and reach for another. We want repetition and not repetition. We want something like Self Help, but of course not too much like it, because then we'd have to criticize the staleness, wonder with grand pretension if Moore has anything left in her, if the creative well has run dry. We'd say silly things like, "Not even Lorrie Moore is Lorrie Moore!", and it might actually be a little true.
There's a part of me that's still not completely sure why this wasn't a home run. For lack of a less tired expression, I can't put my finger on it. When something doesn't meet my expectations, I ask myself, in a spell of democratic goodwill, Were my expectations unreasonable, or did the author let me down a bit? In this case, it might be a healthy dose of both. I haven't read Birds of America yet, but basically everyone wet themselves over it, so I got to thinking that Moore can do no wrong. She's far too clever and witty to become a cliche. She doesn't suffer from common writerly insecurities or obstacles. That's a problem of mere mortals. Clearly, Moore wields a pen of the gods. Oh, what's that you say? She's got a new collection coming out, after 15 years? Well, of course it's going to be perfect, I've already decided. I mean, nothing's changed since 1990 right? I think I'll preemptively write a positive review now to, you know, save time...
But no, the stories laid flat for me. They didn't seem aggressive enough--altogether less bark and less bite than I expected. I wondered while I read, where is the gripping urgency of a writer who has a bone to pick with the world? Where is the sharp sense of one's being violated, ruthlessly, by life and all its cruelties and failures? I wanted to feel how the socially acceptable can be grotesque when considered in an alternative light. I wanted Moore to leave nothing un-tortured, present no element without immediately perverting it in the next sentence. I mean, what more can a girl ask for?
But there are a handful of stories in this slim 8-story collection that I'd just tag plain unmemorable: "Paper Losses," "Referential," "Thank You For Having Me," and sort of "The Juniper Tree" (though that one tows the line). Not to say really any part of them is "bad," but I had to go back and remind myself what they were about, often skimming three quarters of the story before something triggered my memory. Which means nearly half the collection disappeared into the black hole-like parts of my brain. I'd remember mini episodes from the stories--flickering, hardly a seeable image at all--without a clue which story they came from. I felt like I was being mildly antagonized by the indistinctness of it all. Like when you (or maybe just me) walk into an office on a mission to find a particular person working in a cubicle and suddenly you're faced with banks of nondescript cubicles, and the melodrama of sameness engulfs you (My God, is ANYONE unique in this world?!), and you wonder with childish indignation why employees don't get their "doors" cheerfully decorated and personalized by the office equivalent of an RA. Then maybe you (read: me) wouldn't be wandering the floor like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. That kind of indistinctness.
Nevertheless, like that deranged person who seems to live on trains, "Debarking" got me chuckling in public. Take, for instance, this passage:
"He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts, like 'Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins?' He tried to focus on the visuals, on her pumpkin-colored silk blouse, which he hesitated to compliment her on lest she think he was gay. Marilyn had threatened to call off their wedding because he had too strenuously admired the fabric of the gown she was having made; then he had shopped too long and discontentedly for his own tuxedo, failing to find just the right shade of 'mourning dove,' a color he had read about in a wedding magazine. 'Are you homosexual?' she had asked. 'You must tell me now. I won't make the same mistake my sister did.'"
Love it. L-O-V-E it. Even if a story has little to show for plot, humor is kind of like that big blow up mattress thing that firefighters set up next to burning buildings so people can jump to safety...Humor Saves.
About "The Juniper Tree" - I'm going to read it again after some time has passed (heck probably the whole collection too), but on the first read, this just seemed kooky. Short and kooky. I know it's more than that though. It conveys the sad inevitability of moving on. Or maybe not moving on, but just being at a different point in your life than someone you were once close to, and so you're not able to really comprehend that person anymore. Or you can comprehend them, all too well, but they're receding from life, and you're going forward, which is an action that requires one to disassociate, to pretend you don't understand. Or this story says nothing about any of that. I'm the kind of reader whose own reverie often impinges on whatever I'm reading, whether it actually relates to the book or not.
"Wings" was like good in terms of writing but a dud in terms of story. I finished it and thought, Really? That's it? I can't possibly be the first person to say this story was a cliche. I'm not giving any details, but like, this is a plot that's been plotted before...
I liked "Foes" and "Subject to Search." Both involve 9/11 and the war in the narrative and seem to focus on the ways people were compromised by these events. There's a part of me (a little part I'd like to beat into submission for the sake of my devotion to Moore), that can't help calling it a tad contrived though. Moore chose extraordinary circumstances to enter that political dialogue, and I often find the extraordinary less genuine. But the stories were, nonetheless, interesting.
In conclusion: Yes this wasn't to die for, no I'm not divorcing Lorrie Moore.
I have read all of Lorrie Moore's short story collections and have enjoyed them greatly, except for this book. I love her novels, especiallyA Gate at the Stairs (Vintage Contemporaries) and Anagrams. This collection, however, seems postured and very self-aware. It feels like the words were chosen so carefully that they lose their organic feeling. At times, I felt impatient to finish the story I was reading.
Many of the stories deal with themes of isolation, loneliness, anger, and bitterness. There are betrayals in relationships and self-soothing with alcohol. So many of the people, especially women, have been burned by their partners that I wonder if Ms. Moore thinks intimacy between the sexes is at all possible. The relationships portrayed in this book are so banal and shallow that I finished it with a feeling of hopelessness.
In 'Debarking', Ira is recently divorced from Marilyn and feels very hateful towards her for breaking up their marriage. He begins dating a woman named Zora who has a bizarre relationship with her son, making intimacy with Ira impossible. The backdrop of the story is the Gulf War. Ira feels that in wartime it is better to be with someone than to try and deal with the world on your own. 'Referential' deals with a woman whose 16 year-old son has manic depressive illness and her lover is pulling away from her and her son. 'Wings' is about KC, a woman whose band has fallen apart. She lives with Dench in a very meaningless relationship. She meets an elderly man named Milt with whom she begins a friendship. Their friendship becomes an epiphany for her. In 'Paper Losses', Rafe and Kit's marriage has turned into an ambiance of hate and accusation. Divorce is imminent. "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."
Not one of the stories grabbed me and I didn't care about the characters. It felt like Ms. Moore was trying too hard and the stories just did not flow. I wanted otherwise, but sadly, that was not the case.
on February 26, 2014
It seems that a lot of collections that get rave reviews from others do nothing for me. There's this dry, detached style that seems to be getting a lot of attention lately, and I don't see what all the fuss is about. I'm talking about stuff published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and literary publications like Tin House or One Story. Side note: I've found stories to love in all of the aforementioned publications, so please don't think I'm knocking them. It's just that sometimes I read something and think, You're a world-class journal and can choose from the best of the best, and this is what you chose to run this month?! And then I wonder if I'm missing something because it falls so terribly flat for me.
This, sadly, is how I feel about Lorrie Moore. Is she a bad writer? Not in the least. But her writing makes me feel...well, nothing. Moore has a solid vocabulary, sure, and she tells stories about real things happening to real people, and her work isn't bad, per se. I just wouldn't recommend it. And I can't put my finger on why. I crave short fiction that just needs to be devoured and that, by the end, leaves me stunned by what I've just experienced. For me, with the exception of one story, this collection didn't come anywhere near my admittedly-high standards.
A bit more (more/Moore! ha!) about the collection itself. The stories are mostly realistic ("The Juniper Tree" features a seance-y scene that's sort of dreamy and surreal) and focus on the personal aspects of the everyday: marriage, divorce, single parenting, mental illness. Basically, this is a collection of people surviving all the things life throws as them. Although the subject matter isn't bad, the characters aren't likable. And I'm not talking about that King Joffrey, love-to-hate-them kind of thing. I simply didn't care about any of them. (Maybe liking characters is too important to me. I'll have to examine this in a future post.)
The one exception: "Wings," an excellent story about a struggling musician past her prime who gets close to an elderly neighbor in the hopes of being left an inheritance. It's full of people looking for something -- or someone -- to use, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It's got the heart of a novel but the length of a short story, and it really stands out.
All in all: If you've enjoyed Moore's other work, you'd probably enjoy this. (I read A Gate At the Stairs, and the style is the same.) Personally, though, I wouldn't recommend it.
on January 27, 2015
Read It: Do you like short stories? Specifically in collections? If the answer is, “Why, yes. Yes I do,” then read Lorrie Moore’s Bark. As one of the leading American short fiction writers of our time, Moore is worth picking up. A word of advice for this, and any, collection, don’t read it in one sitting. After finishing a story, set the book down before beginning the next one. These stories shouldn’t be read like chapters in a novel.
Don’t Read It: Steer clear if you just battled your way through a messy divorce or breakup, because Bark might pitch you over the edge. Despite the occasional quips and black comedy, this collection isn’t a happy one. You might try something on the lighter side or maybe try hitting up the nearest bar instead, both of which will probably be more uplifting than several of the stories here.
Similar Books: Amy Bloom’s shorty story Silver Water would be a great place to start after reading Bark. Bloom’s ability to use humor to punctuate rather than diffuse an intense story is one of the skills of hers, and of Moore’s, that I love. Also make sure to check out any films written and/or directed by Nora Ephron for witty dialogue and similar content to Bark‘s.
Check out the full review on my blog: http://litbeetle.com/2015/01/27/on-lorrie-moores-bark/
on June 19, 2014
Although I have been huge fan of Moore's earlier works such as: Like Life and Birds of America, I find Bark to be lacking in emotional integrity (as with her previous novel). I have become uninspired by these last two publications, and, although a few witty lines and images show up here, this collection seems to be missing the craft and attention to understated metaphor use I once applauded in her writing.