Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

"Bark" by Lorrie Moore (Faber and Faber, 2014)

8 stories, 5 previously printed (The Guardian, Harper's, New Yorker (twice) and The Paris Review). It's her first collection for 15 years. As well as "Bark" appearing in various guises there are rings, cancer, Montessori, divorce, and lonely women who miss being touched. And of course, lots of one-liners. Some are serious and part of the plot - "Like everyone he knew, he could discern the hollowness in people's charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself" (p.7) but when on p.14 I read "'Are you homosexual?' she had asked. 'You must tell me now. I won't make the same mistake my sister did.'" I felt that the only point of the preceding dozen lines was to get this joke in. The topic and sister don't appear again.

"Juniper Tree" is strange - a ghost story? - but I didn't enjoy it.

In "Paper Losses" a woman goes on a pre-booked Caribbean holiday with her husband and 2 children even though they're about to divorce. A masseur places hot stones down the woman's spine. "As each one lost its heat she could no longer feel it even there on her back, and then its removal was like a discovery that it had been there all along: how strange to forget and feel it only then, at the end; though it wasn't the same thing as the frog in the pot whose water slowly hearts and boils, still it had meaning, she felt, the way metaphors of a thermal nature tended to" (p.75). At the end, back home, "she unpacked the condoms and candles, her little love sack, completely unused, and threw them in the trash. What had she been thinking?". Characters in this book are more likely to hide their hopes than their fears.

In "Foes", Bake will say anything to get a laugh. The story ends seriously - "He willed all his love into the very ends of his fingertips, and as his hand clasped hers he watched the firm, deliberate hydraulics of its knuckles and joints. But she had already turned her head away and was looking out the window, steadily, the rest of the ride back, showing him only her beautiful hair, which was gold and flashing in the passing streetlamps, as if it were something not attached to her at all" (p.94).

I like the following, from "Wings" (perhaps my favorite story - I've not read the Henry James story it riffs from), the author assisting the third-person privileged narrator

"It all may look wrong from outer space, which is where a GPS is seeing it from," Dench would say, when proposing alternatives of any sort, large or small, "but on the ground there's a certain logic. Stick with me on this one. You can have all the others."
There were no sidewalks in this wooded part of town. The sap of the stick-bare trees was just stirring after what looked like a fierce fire of a winter. The roadside gullies that would soon warm and sprout joe-pye weed and pea were still just pebble-flecked mud, and KC's dog, Cat, sniffed his way along, feeling the winter's melt, the ground loosening its fertile odor of wakened worms. Overhead the dirt pearl sky of March hung low as a hat brim ...
HOSPICE CARE: IT'S NEVER TOO SOON TO CALL read a billboard near the coffee shop in what constituted the neighborhood's commercial roar. Next to it a traffic sign read PASS WITH CARE. Surrealism could not be made up. It was the very electricity of the real. The largest part of the strip was occupied by an out-of-business bookstore whose plate-glass windows were already cloudy with dust. The D was missing from the sign so that it now read BOR ERS. In insolvency, truth: soon the chain would be shipping its entire stock to the latrines of Swaziland.

"Wings" has a joker, Milton, who's old, dying and deaf -

"Frankenstein!" she yelled. His deafness would give her a heart attack. Perhaps this was nature's plan for old people to kill each other in an efficient if irritating fashion ... Perhaps his deafness has exhausted all the other neighbors and this accounted for his friendliness to her. On the other hand, no one seemed to walk around here. Either they jogged, their ears stuffed with music, or they drove their cars at murderous speeds. One old man could not have single-handedly caused that. Or could he have? (p.114-5)

"Referential" (after VN - Nabokov) has a mad, incarcerated self-harmer who monologs in a style unseen elsewhere in the book. It's visiting time, someone's birthday.

"No candles, of course. Or forks. We will just have to grab the frosting and mash it into our eyes for blinding. Do you ever think about how at that moment of the candles time stands still, even as the moments carry away the smoke? It's like the fire of burning love. Do you ever wonder why so many people have things they don't deserve but how absurd all those things are to begin with? Do you really think a wish can come true if you never ever ever ever ever tell it to anyone?" (p.153)

On the mother's drive back "There was a storm in front and lightning did its quick, purposeful zigzag between and in the clouds. She did not need such stark illustration that horizons could be shattered, filled with messages, broken codes, yet there it was", which sounds like authorial intervention.

In the final story, "Thank you for having me", the main character thinks "If you were alone when you were born, alone when you were dying, really absolutely alone when you were dead, why "learn to be alone" in between? If you had forgotten, it would quickly come back to you. Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint. With the gun in your own hand. Aloneness was the air in your tyres, the wind in your hair. You didn't have to go looking for it with open arms. With open arms, you fell off the bike: I was drinking my wine too quickly" (p.182). The story and the book ends with a sentence that the author (in an interview) said she took a long time over - "Instead I fixed my face into a grin, and, ah, for a second the sun came out to light up the side of the red and spinning barn". It begins with iambic pentameter and has many monosyllabic words.

I still prefer "People Like That Are the Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onk" from "Birds of America". In this book her stories aren't always more than the sum of their parts.

Other reviews

  • Hope Whitmore (The Independent) (The calmness of the prose, however belies the content of the stories it tells)
  • Catherine Taylor (The Telegraph) (Moore has been accused of a restricted similarity in her themes, and of a propensity to whimsical declamations. Yet she is a forensically brave writer, acutely attuned to life’s randomness, with a semantic virtuosity rarely equalled. )
  • Joyce Carol Oates (New York Review of books) (readers of Lorrie Moore are likely to recognize her prose instantaneously: a unique combination of wit, caustic insight, sympathy for the pathos of her characters’ lives, and that peculiar sort of melancholy attributable to time too long spent in the northern Midwest ... Of the eight stories of Bark, the longest, aptly titled "Wings," takes us on a rare flight of self-transcendence; the others are rueful journeys of self-discovery in which moments of recognition bring jolts like electric shocks)
  • Philip Hensher (The Guardian) (Though there are things to cherish in Moore's new collection of short stories, her work has started to lose its delicate balance of tone ... Still more worrying is a sense that Moore is starting to use some quite tired short-story structures. ... Eight stories since 2003 is not a great deal, especially when three of them weren't worth publishing.)
  • David Gates (New York Times) (Moore didn’t invent the breed - Beckett, among others, got there before her - but she may be the chief contemporary chronicler of those whose dread makes them unable to turn off the laugh machine. If Nabokov is Prospero, Moore is Mickey Mouse as the panicked sorcerer’s apprentice, drowning in metastasizing verbal enchantments)
  • Alan Cheuse (NPR books) (There are eight stories in Lorrie Moore's new collection, but only two of them really stand out)

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