It’s so exciting when a new book by an author I love catches me by surprise. From time to time I Google authors like Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, Erlend Loe, etc., just to see whether they sneaked behind my back and published something new without notifying me, but I’m aware that I have to be patient at least a few years between two books. So even though Lorrie Moore’s novel “A Gate at the Stairs” (the only book of hers I didn’t like that much) came out five years ago, I found out about “Bark” by accident and was overjoyed.
I got to know Lorrie reading her short-story collection “Self-help”. I liked the story “How to Become a Writer?” so much that I spent hours translating it into Serbian, but here I am, ten years later, still not happy with how my translation came out, so I doubt it will see the light of day in any literary magazine here any time soon.
Then came “Like Life”, “The Birds of America” and “Anagrams”, all of which I loved. Her focus is a lot on women who struggle to find love and meaning, kind of my preoccupation for a large part of my 20’s. Though there’s a lot of humor in her books, especially in very witty and entertaining dialogues, it seems to me that her books are getting much darker with years. In “The Birds of America” there’s a story about a woman whose baby died, and I heard that Lorrie, too, experienced the same tragedy. I like the writers’ private lives to remain unknown to me, so I can’t be sure what happened, but I can definitely sense the depth of some loss in her writing.
It seems to me that in “Bark” she came the farthest to that dark place. She never loses that comedic element and there are times when I feel like some funny remark is out of place and unnecessary, put there only for the indulgence of the author who can’t help it, but the overall feeling I get after reading each story is one of sadness, loss, missed opportunities, wrong decisions.
In almost every story in “Bark” Lorrie follows a couple and watches their relationship fail. Sometimes the blame is on them (mostly on the man), but most of the time it’s outside circumstances such as sickness, depression, bad timing. The emphasis in each story is on time passing, and there is even a nice little poem that kind of sums up the book and is written by one character’s little daughter. The poem goes like this (and is quite beautiful, I think):
Time standing still.
What is the difference?
Time standing still is the difference.
The girl’s father says that he has no idea what the poem means, aside from showing his daughter’s geniality, but I think he knows because he feels the time acutely, how his happiest moments in life were while he was still married and the family was a unit. He laments the past and the fact that the happiest time is behind him, so what is there to look forward to?
Lorrie also became more political than she ever was in any of her earlier books, as far as I can remember. In almost every story there is a reference to the war in Iraq, the brutalities of American soldiers in Iraq, or the terrorist bombing the twin towers. The aggression of the outer world parallels the horror of time passing and the shells of our lives that remain.
Adding to the beauty of this tragic-comic blend that Lorrie knows how to mix really well is the beauty of her sentence and unexpected, fresh phrases such as: “She fixed him with a smile, repaired him with it.” Of course, there’s a slight chance that this is not fresh at all and that it’s only original to me because English is my second language. 🙂 Similarly to my experience with reading Jennifer Egan’s books, I also encountered many words in “Bark” that I’ve never heard before and her writing seems very rich, thought-through and deeply felt.
At the end of my copy of the book there are some questions that are meant to prompt the reader to think more carefully about the book and, reading the questions, I realized that I’d need to read the stories at least once more to get to all the layers of meaning Ms. Moore put into her writing. I’m not even sure why the title – Bark. There’s a photo of trees on the cover, and in one story there’s a reference to our brain and how it looks like a bark. Maybe it’s also a reference to time and what it does to the surface of things, or more importantly, what it does to what’s inside.
Though I enjoyed reading this book, I’d rather recommend short-story collections “Self-help” and “The Birds of America” to first-time readers of Lorrie Moore.