Feb/Mar 2014

Laughter in the Dark

Lorrie Moore's dangerously funny portraits of human awkwardness

Parul Sehgal


The known risks of laughter, according to a recent study published in the British Medical Journal, include dislocated jaws, cardiac arrhythmia, urinary incontinence, emphysema, and spontaneous perforation of the esophagus. None of this, I suspect, will be news to readers of Lorrie Moore, who has never taken laughter lightly. In her work, humor is always costly and fanged. Here’s her idea of a joke (from her 1998 story collection, Birds of America): found among the rubble of a plane crash is a pair of “severed crossed fingers.”

Bark is Moore’s eighth book—gaunt, splendid, and notable for having a significantly lower body count than usual. These stories rarely rise to the gaudy horror of her previous work. Death does not stalk her characters the way it once did. Children are finally allowed to survive to adulthood, and only animals meet spectacular ends—a decapitated deer’s neck is left “open like a severed cable bundle.”

But there is ash in the air; the September 11 attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq are a through line. We’re meant to understand that these are stories of people in wartime, peculiar people during a peculiar war, a distant, endless war. Bark alludes to Abu Ghraib, Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the recession, but current events remain for the most part offstage. Politics are invoked but rarely shape choice or fate in these stories (the way they did in her 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which dealt explicitly with immigration and interracial adoption). They fade into backdrop for the more exigent narratives: the love stories. How could they compete? Moore’s real subject has always been Heterosexuality and Its Discontents. Her chosen people are the lovelorn.

And what an irresistible bunch of characters she conjures up: star-crossed midwesterners terrifically intimidated by their children and worried about their lawns. They are sweet, in a concussed kind of way. They suffer with great Úlan. In an interview with the New York Times early in her career, Moore spoke of discovering Margaret Atwood’s work: “For the first time I read fiction about women who were not goddesses or winners. In some way they were victims, but they weren’t wimps. They were stylish about their victimization.” This could be a thrifty description of Moore’s own characters; their spouses desert them, but their wit never does. “If you’re suicidal,” says one, “and you don’t actually kill yourself, you become known as ‘wry.’” It’s as if Raymond Carver’s characters preferred wordplay to whiskey. Take the depressed divorcÚ from “Debarking”: “He did not like stressful moments in restaurants. They caused his mind to wander strangely to random thoughts like Why are these things called napkins rather than lapkins? or I’ll bet God really loves butter.”) They are prone to private revolutions, tart one-liners (“He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking”), joyless couplings. “Hey, cutie,” a man calls to his wife “after not having looked her in the eye for two months. It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: Should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure.” You’ll notice that Moore’s characters continue to sound alike—and have sounded alike for almost thirty years, since Self-Help was published in 1985. At its best, this sameness of voice and unremitting archness give her work a Wildean luster. At its worst, the compulsive punning is just punishing (sorry): “He was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.”

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Eight stills from Amy Sillman's Draft of a Voice-Over for Split Screen Video Loop, 2012, digital video, color, sound, 6 minutes 6 seconds.

Even the title is a gag. The word “bark” crops up throughout the book, in different contexts and with different meanings, connoting, most often, human laughter, involuntary laughter mingled with scorn and surprise. It’s the harsh music of this collection, which has a looser weave than Moore’s other books. From what she described as the “feminine emergencies” and experimentalism of her early books, Self-Help and Anagrams, and the hard glitter of Birds of America, she’s now settled on a simpler structure and more muted tone: An encounter with a stranger forces a muffled epiphany and a languid denouement. Again and again, she assembles the powder keg, strikes a match—and blows it out. She still writes complex melodies for the ear—the sentences are full of sprung rhythms and internal rhymes (“The yard had already grown muddy with March and the flower beds were greening with the tiniest sprigs of stinkweed and quack grass”)—but narratively, there’s less shock and more mystery. We get ragged plotlines, a ruminative homage to Nabokov, a gentle ghost story, characters suspended in amber, mystified by their own paralysis.

As a child, Moore loved seeing her parents perform in amateur theater productions. “Those Sunday afternoons of watching grown-ups put on plays—watching them fall in and out of character or burst into song or laughter—were probably the most enchanted and culturally formative moments of my childhood,” she told the Paris Review. Many of the best stories in Bark hinge on the awkward theatricality of everyday life: People stare at their wedding rings or into mirrors, struggling to remember the roles they’re supposed to play. Mothers try to speak to their children “calmly, from a script, with dialogue and stage directions of utter neutrality.”A nursery-school teacher decides to “produce and star” in a midlife crisis. In fact, the defining crisis in this book is essentially a costume dilemma: Your marriage has ended, and you can’t pull off your wedding ring. It’s what Kit fears in “Paper Losses” and what Ira endures in “Debarking.” Six months into his divorce and he still can’t get the damn thing off: “His finger had swelled doughily around it—a combination of frustrated desire, unmitigated remorse, and misdirected ambition.” (Since there are no pure victims in Moore, there’s a twist in the tale: “Actually he had once gotten the ring off in a hot, soapy bath, but the sight of his denuded finger, naked as a child’s, had terrified him and he had shoved the ring back on.”)

Civilization is precarious in these stories; the borders of the home can barely be defended: Raccoons tumble down the chimney; foul knots of entangled rats decompose in the walls. But the real threat comes from within. It’s one’s own desire to go off script, to blurt, to bark, to make the anarchic gesture, to be a bit disgusting and/or notorious. To get free. A dying woman pushes a pie into her own face. A woman flirts with a married man. A teenage girl, refusing to be merely pretty, grins hugely and lets food fall out of her mouth. This last example is totemic to Moore; she repeats it in book after book. And it’s not incidental that she endows the gesture to young girls. She seems to reserve her greatest admiration for young women, their fierce attachments to each other, their moral clarity. It’s been the subject of her novels, and it’s the closest thing to an idyll in her work. In Bark, too, the grown women may be more than a little morally compromised, but the girls are all right. They stalk around in their powerful new bodies, practical, self-indulgent, independent,” “unruinable.”

There’s a tincture of autobiography in all of Moore’s fiction. Her heroines are, like the author, writers and teachers who have felt marooned in the Midwest. They’ve aged with her and have occasionally shared her crosses: the son who suffered from cancer when just a baby, the nasty divorce. We’ve aged with her, too, and need her no less. In Birds of America, Moore shares a manifesto of sorts. One of her exiles to Wisconsin waxes nostalgic for New York, for its “determined sort of humor, an intensity mirroring the intensity of the city, and how it seemed to embrace and alleviate the hard sadness of people having used one another and marred the earth the way they had.” “People really worked at it, the laughing,” the character says. “People need to laugh.” We still need Lorrie Moore to work hard at making us laugh, to remind us that we’re frauds, we’re all just acting. To unzip words for us and let their sounds and meanings and pun potentialities jingle out like coins. To point out the silver linings even if they are, as in the case of one story in Bark, just the “early die-off of the alewives” ringing the lake, their scales glinting in the sun. She never lies to us. She never tells us the water’s fine. She says, Dive in anyway, “swim among the dying” while you can. Learn how to suffer in style.

Parul Sehgal is an editor at the New York Times.

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