Dead frogs and rat kings: Bark by Lorrie Moore

A new collection of short stories by the Orange prize-winning American writer startles with its glittering precision.

Agony analyst: in Bark, Lorrie Moore writes about the intimate warfare of relationships
Agony analyst: in Bark, Lorrie Moore writes about the intimate warfare of relationships

Bark 
Lorrie Moore
Faber & Faber, 192pp, £14.99

“If you’re suicidal and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry’,” says a character in Bark, Lorrie Moore’s latest collection of short stories. A mood of lacrimae rerum spiked with fou rire is the prevailing emotional climate of Moore’s fiction; her lapidary combination of diamond-sharp observation and jewelled prose inspired the novelist Jonathan Lethem to describe her, in a line quoted on the cover of the new book, as “the most irresistible contemporary American writer”.

Moore’s first volume of stories, Self-Help, was published in 1985. Since then she has published three further volumes – Like Life (1990), the bestselling Birds of America (1998) and The Collected Stories (2008) – plus three novels, Anagrams (1986), Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) and A Gate at the Stairs (2009), shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

In this latest collection, a rumbling apprehension of political malaise joins the recurring themes that Moore lists in her introduction to The Collected Stories: “birds and moons, and space aliens, and struggling artists of every stripe, as well as much illness and divorce and other sad facts of family and romantic life”.

The Iraq war provides a tetchy ground base for an excruciating first attempt at post-divorce dating in “Debarking”. In “Foes”, the rebarbative manner of a female political lobbyist at a fundraising dinner attended by an uneasy mix of literary and business types is explained by her having been burned in the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.

“How could someone have come so close to death, so unfairly, so painfully and heroically, and how could he still want to strangle them?” thinks her interlocutor, an uxorious biographer of George Washington, much given to fey banter with his wife: “Any faux pas?” she asks on the way home. “Beaucoup verboten foze,” he answers. In the penultimate story, “Subject to Search”, the chap with the snappy line about wryness and suicide is Tom, a military intelligence officer who reveals the story of the Abu Ghraib human rights violations to his distracted sweetheart over what was supposed to have been a romantic lunch in Paris.

The repeated juxtaposition of the mass catastrophe of war with the intimate warfare of relationship breakdown is evidently designed to lend an extra resonance to both; but, oddly enough, the effect of fixing the stories in a historical moment is to diminish rather than intensify the power of the narrative. Moore is fascinated by time – “We cheat the power of time with our very brevity,” she has a divorced father announce to his young daughter – and her writing is most vivid in those stories in which the strange unsatisfactoriness of human relationships is not pinioned to external events.

Here she finds again the crystalline note of authenticity that makes her writing so exhilarating. A soon-to-be-divorced woman reflects that living with her estranged husband is “like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle. Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” In “Wings”, KC, a 38-year-old singer poised to admit to herself that her life has been a failure, thinks of Dench, the man with whom she has been sweetly on the skids for years:

She was helpless before the whole emotional project of him. But it didn’t preclude hating him and everything around him, which included herself, the sound of her own voice – and the sound
of his, which was worse.

Of the eight stories in Bark, four have already been published in volume form: “Debarking”, “The Juniper Tree”, “Paper Losses” and “Foes” were included in The Collected Stories. To read this volume is to see a writer returning to certain images like a composer to a leitmotif. Bad, fruitless springs abound – a surprising number of the stories are set in March, that ambiguous month with its specious promise of hope: “the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass”, as one of Moore’s jaded divorcees puts it.

There are references to her masterful 1997 story set on a children’s oncology ward, “People Like That Are the Only People Here”, in “Debarking” and “Wings”, where an elderly man recalls that his paediatrician wife “began to shout out the names of all the sick children who had died on her watch” shortly before her own death. Expiring baby creatures make a metaphorical appearance here and again in “Paper Losses”, and the image of a frog comfortably but fatally immersed in slowly heating water occurs a couple of times.

There are moments when both imagery and plot can seem overworked. In “Wings”, an appalling smell emanating from the walls of KC and Dench’s rental house turns out to be coming from a “rat king” – a litter of moribund rats, inextricably bound together by their tails – in a manner that is rather too portentously suggestive of yet another toxic relationship breakdown.

Yet Moore’s mastery of language can still startle with its glittering precision: a child leaning against his mother is “naked as a cello”; bridesmaids wear pastel dresses, “one the light peach of baby aspirin, one the seafoam green of low-dose clonazepam; the other the pale daffodil of the next lowest dose of clonazepam”. This new volume may not represent Moore at her fiercely brilliant best, but even when slightly off-form she commands our attention.