Warning: “Bark,” Lorrie Moore’s new collection of short stories, is not something you’d want to give to the newly engaged — unless your intent is subversive and your humor, like Moore’s, is mordant. When the subject is marriage, her bite is right up there with her bark.
Of the book’s eight stories — four of which were first published in the New Yorker — most address the bitter disappointments of romantic relationships with her trademark sardonic wordplay. Seesawing with uncanny adeptness between facetiousness and earnestness, she keeps readers slightly off balance as she works her way through moving portraits of vulnerability, awkwardness, resignation and melancholic fortitude.
Take “Thank You for Having Me,” the only previously unpublished story. It’s about a lonely single mom who, with her sniping 15-year-old daughter, attends the second wedding of the girl’s Brazilian babysitter. The narrator, whose husband abandoned her, can’t help but be a little cynical: “The bridesmaids were in pastels: one the light peach of baby aspirin; one the sea-foam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam. What a good idea to have the look of Big Pharma at your wedding. Why hadn’t I thought of that?”
Yet when the narrator discovers that the bride’s first husband, clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with the story’s title, is not only playing in the band but serving as best man, her toxic wit dissolves like one of those soothing pills, at least momentarily: “This seemed remarkably sanguine and useful as well as a little beautiful. I wondered how it was done. I myself had never done anything remotely similar.” But in the very next breath, she lets her true colors shine — and they aren’t pastel — by tacking on this classic Moore zinger: “ ‘Marriage is one long conversation,’ wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was forty-four, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really get to be.”
For Moore, divorce, not diamonds, is forever. This theme is echoed in “Paper Losses,” about a spurned wife who is bitterly coming to terms with her husband’s defection after having been “married for two decades of precious, precious life.” That second “precious”: priceless.
In an exercise that might seem academic in a lesser writer’s hands — and unlike anything in her most recent books, which include “Birds of America” and “A Gate at the Stairs” — two of the more interesting stories in “Bark” are closely based on classics. While they stand alone just fine, it’s Moore’s variations, some subtle, some pointed, that imbue them with intriguing layers of significance.
In “Wings,” Milton Theale, a lonely, elderly widower, replaces the fatally ill young heiress Milly Theale from Henry James’s “The Wings of the Dove.” Milton strikes up a friendship with KC, a young musician walking her dog in the neighborhood, where she and her deadbeat boyfriend have landed in a seamy rental. As in James’s novel, characters’ motives are hardly pure. But Moore leavens her ironic morality tale with dark humor, including the juxtaposition of a billboard and nearby traffic sign that read “Hospice Care: It’s Never Too Soon to Call” and “Pass with Care.” She also pulls off a surprising twist on the Master’s sobering ending.
In “Referential,” Moore’s re-working of Vladimir Nabokov’s 1948 short story, “Signs and Symbols,” the impact is again in her altered climax. Both versions open with a man and woman visiting an “incurably deranged,” suicidal 16-year-old boy in a “facility.” Nabokov’s married couple, the boy’s parents, are Russian refugees from Nazism whose lives remain filled with hardship. Moore replaces them with a long-widowed mother and her boyfriend, who had become “a kind of step-father” to her troubled son but, out of work since the economic downturn, has drifted away.
In both versions, the mothers search old baby pictures for warning signs they might have missed. Nabokov’s character resignedly accepts that “after all, living does mean accepting the loss of one joy after another,” while Moore’s realizes that “living did not mean one 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.”
In other words, lots of parallels, right down to the three heart-stopping phone calls with which both stories end. In Nabokov’s version, the first two calls are wrong numbers, and he leaves us hanging on the third. Although both stories are about hope and resignation, in Moore’s clever, modern twist, the calls sound the death knell for a relationship. It’s a fittingly plaintive note for this powerful collection about the difficulty of letting go of love.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post and other publications.