Ira had been divorced six months and still couldn't get his wedding ring off. His finger had swelled doughily around it – a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition, he said to friends. "I'm going to have to have my entire finger surgically removed." The ring (supposedly gold, though now that everything he had ever received from Marilyn had been thrown into doubt, who knew) cinched the blousy fat of his finger, which had grown around it like a fucking happy vine. "Maybe I should cut off the whole hand. And send it to her," he said on the phone to his friend Mike, with whom he worked at the State Historical Society. "She'll understand the reference." Ira had already ceremoniously set fire to his wedding tux – hanging it on a tall stick in his backyard, scarecrow-style, and igniting it with a Bic lighter. "That sucker went up really fast," he gasped apologetically to the fire marshal, after the hedge caught too, and before he was brought overnight to the local lockdown facility. "So fast. Maybe it was, I don't know, like the residual dry-cleaning fluid." ("Debarking," p. 3)
I had mixed reactions after reading the eight stories in Lorrie Moore's first short story collection in sixteen years, Bark. It is a relatively slight collection, eight stories (two of which are perhaps more properly novellas than short stories, comprising roughly half of the book) spanning 192 hardcover pages. In these stories, Moore covers some rather sober, perhaps dark, themes on mortality and human foibles, but there was just something missing from most of these stories to make them truly memorable.
The first story, "Debarking," is perhaps emblematic of this. When I first read it several weeks ago, I recall quickly catching on to the narrative rhythm of this nearly fifty page story. The protagonist, Ira, is that sort of familiar loser most of us know in passing in our personal and professional lives: divorced, vaguely despondent, tries to use occasionally outlandish humor to make himself barely relevant in the lives of others around him. "Debarking" describes his character being stripped down, being exposed for the flawed human being that he is, with a host of characters, particularly a divorcée he is introduced to at a party and with whom he becomes briefly involved in an affair, helping lay bare just what sort of a person Ira truly is. It is a well-executed character takedown, one of the better-told in the collection, but there was also this sense of hollowness, a central emptiness that defeats purpose, that ultimately weakens this story. Ira is so commonplace that perhaps his fate just really fails to spark any sort of sympathy.
The second story, "The Juniper Tree," is a ghost story, yet it is a curiously-plotted one. The narrator's female friend, Robin, is dying in a hospital and the narrator is waiting for her boyfriend – who was an old flame of Robin's – to pick her up to take her to the hospital. She fails to go in time and Robin dies. What follows next is as much a dream sequence as anything truly supernatural, and a host of recriminations and those petty little jealousies that exist most strongly around close friends emerges over the course of an odd celebration in which Robin and other friends of the narrator flit about, often with some rather strange conversations and actions taking place. It took three readings for it all to snap into place and while the story's structure is very well-done, just like in "Debarking," the conclusion to "The Juniper Tree" fizzled out, leaving me feeling as though I had drunk soda that had been opened a week before.
"Paper Losses" was the most vicious of the stories in Bark and perhaps the best in the collection. Two soon-to-be-divorced parents take their children on a long-planned vacation. Each has plotted and schemed what he or she is going to do to the other. Moore sets the stage beautifully with this:
It was both the shame and the demise of them that hate like love could not live on air. And so in this, their newly successful project together, they were complicitous and synergistic. They were nurturing, homeopathic, and enabling. They spawned and raised their hate together, cardiovascularly, spiritually, organically. In tandem, as a system, as a dance team of bad feeling, they had shoved their hate center stage and shown a spotlight down for it to seize. Do your stuff, baby! Who's the best? Who's the man? (p. 65)
The story builds upon this mutually-nurtured hate, as it manifests itself in several ways during this excruciating vacation in which each other and their own children get in the way of the various revenge/sex plans that each has developed. This is not a rage story, however, but one of how contempt affects each spouse's views, not just of the present, but also of the past and present. It is short, sharp, and very effective. Yet its well-drawn, emotionally thwarted characters serves to point out just what was lacking in the majority of these tales: a rage, a desire to howl at the moon in frustration, a burning desire to strip away the raiments of one's life and to start anew. The near-deadness of other stories' protagonists is perhaps Bark's most noticeable flaw.
Bark ultimately is a collection that I can appreciate more than I can say that I enjoyed reading. Moore's prose is full of clever, biting wit and yet too often her characters seem too exhausted, too beat down by life for their stories to sustain any sort of interest generated by these funny asides. No story is actively bad, but rather they feel almost too well-constructed, too polished, to justify having such failed characters inhabit them. Bark's stories are "just there" and that is a shame.