From “Paper Losses,” also me versus Lorrie Moore: “Rage had its medicinal puposes, but she was not wired to sustain it, and when it tumbled away, loneliness engulfed her, grief burning at the center in a cold blue heat.“
Days after reading Lorrie Moore‘s latest collection Bark—and still lugging it around with me, because it gave me a disquieting conundrum that very much needed solving—I ran into Petra. We talked about a great many things, about cabbages and things, and she saw Bark, and she asked me how it was. I let loose everything that I had love about it, and even more lengthily about why it hurt me so. Petra laughed, asked, “Sasha? Have you outgrown Lorrie Moore?” I let that one sink in. And then I had to nod. I had outgrown Lorrie Moore.
That is: Lorrie Moore has evolved into something I no longer recognized. Something that, certainly, the seventeen-year-old me who first read her wouldn’t ever have gotten close to. I’ve dug up my notes from when I was reading this—back at the start of March—and it was mostly of disquiet, a rather cautious disappointment. And that’s what I remember most about Bark, two months later: That it was the book that made me realize the love I had for Lorrie Moore—fierce and ardent, and had been for the past eight or so years—had tamed. Possibly even fizzled.
She remains her occasionally awkward self, that touch of quirk—that singular voice of hers I have long relied on. Her “Debarking,” about a middle-aged man and his certified crazy-ass girlfriend, is one of the most awkward stories I’ve ever read. And sad. And pathetic. Bark is full of sad and pathetic characters that hardly ever reached for funny. To laugh at them was to do so right after a wince and a cringe. That was one of the consolations I’d found with Lorrie Moore—she can give us a cast of losers, but you’re always having fun with them because there’s something about being sad and pathetic in this crazy modern world of proving you’re not sad and pathetic. Still, there are moments like this:
There was sex where you were looked in the eye and beautiful things were said to you, and then there was what Ira used to think of as yoo-hoo sex: where the other person seemed spirited away, not quite there, their pleasure mysterious and crazy and only accidentally involving you. “Yoo-hoo?” was what his grandmother always called before entering a house where she knew someone but not well enough to know whether they were actually home.
Lorrie Moore, however, can still define me, damn her eyes: “She was in contact with her turmoil and with her ability to survive. How could that be anything less than emotional brilliance?” Damn her sorry eyes.
Eight stories, after so many years. Moore owed me more than throwaway lines, no matter how robbing of breath they could be. “The Juniper Tree” is confounding dreck. It’s ridiculous. It’s not fun-ridiculous, it’s not quirky-ridiculous, it’s not the kind of ridiculous that makes you wonder about life and all the bewilderments it throws your way. It’s a fucking train-wreck, is what “The Juniper Tree” is. It starts with a woman missing the death of her colleague because she was on a date with that colleague’s ex. And you think the story goes down some logical narrative path, but it refuses to. Our girl is picked up by two other colleagues: A one-armed dancer and a painter with short-term memory loss. They go to the deceased’s house and say goodbye to her ghost and I was so angry. “Foes” is just as estranging, if only because it’s such an adult Moore. That is: Boring, clerical-issues Moore. Politics! Lobbying! The peculiar comforts of a long marriage! I don’t care! “Subject to Search” is lazy and hollow. It’s a story about a woman—in possession of the internal neuroses so particular to Lorrie Moore heroines—and her boyfriend who is in the “international intrigue business.” Why did you even bother with this set-up? Why did I even keep reading this? Why was this written? Was it to examine layered secrecies? Was this ludicrous set-up just a hint about adultery? Why not just go ahead and do that, dammit. See, quote: “The more lovely a secret was real the less you spoke of it. But as the secret came to evanesce, as soon as it threatened to go away on its own accord, the secret itself grew frantic and indiscreet—as a way to hang on to its own fading life.“
“Referential” may read like a Lorrie Moore story, but its focus has never been a Lorrie Moore focus. It’s about a mother and her psychologically unwell son. It read like Alice Munro at its best moments, like uninspired women’s fiction at its worst. And it retained, all throughout, such a heavy and hurtful and pained and compensating-for-something voice and tone. It was like Lorrie Moore had all the joy sucked out of her narrative voice deliberately, and adopted something appropriate to Such a Serious Topic. It had moments of almost blinding clarity, yes—when, for example, the mother thinks of her son thus: “Once her son had only wanted a distracting pain, but then soon he had wanted a tear a hole in himself and flee through it.” And, also: “Loving 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. One could hold the cards oneself or not: they would land the same regardless. Tenderness did not enter except in a damaged way and by luck.” That hurt a lot, that did. And I’m so confused.
“Thank You For Having Me” is a story about a slapstick-awkward wedding. It’s like Lorrie Moore was trying to remind me what a fun girl she is. No. The story us entirely forgettable except perhaps for this quote: “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 tires, 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.” Fine. And then—I hold a special place in my heart for “Wings,” the longest story in the collection and my most hated. It was horrid. It was very, very, very unpleasant, full of dumb people doing dumb things for the dumbest reasons—all of that coming together to form a dumb, sad, sorry life we suffer to witness. It’s a story you read cringe-ing. For all it unpleasantness, though, it yields some of the most competent prose in the collection. Even beautiful, like: “She’d been given something perfect—youth!—and done imperfect things with it. The moon shone whole then partial in the sky, having its life without her.“
“Paper Losses” was the most devastating of the eight—a mere eight!—stories. I’m wondering if this alone was worth the rest of it. If it was worth the disillusionment, haha. If it was worth learning that Lorrie Moore had changed, and that I had changed, and that our changes couldn’t align any longer. “Paper Losses” is the kind of story you need to take deep, bracing breaths while reading. It’s heart-rending, more so because it speaks of something inevitable—a demise of a love. (Once, the heroine opines, “It was both the shame and the demise of them that hate like love could not live on air.“) (Once, the heroine scoffs, “Like a person, a marriage was unrecognizable in death, even buried in an excellent suit.“) If Lorrie Moore wanted to push us both into the drab and lifeless world of adults, she could have done so with the fire and the ferocity in this story. Here is where her characters are most alive, most angry, most unflinching. No allowances for quirk, no leeway for the pathetic. It’s such a sustained rage, an uncompromising rage. This is Lorrie Moore at her most ruthless—naturally, determinedly so—and I loved it. It’s Lorrie Moore at her best, oddly.
Later, when she had learned to tell this story differently, as a story, she would construct a final lovemaking scene of sentimental vengeance that would contain the inviolable center of their love, the sweet animal safety of night after night, the still-beating tender heart of marriage. But for now she would become like her unruinable daughters, and even her son, who as he aged stoically and carried on regardless would come scarcely to recall—was it past even imagining—that she and Rafe had ever been together at all.
Damn. What do I do with myself now.