Readers caught in the M.F.A. vs. N.Y.C. crossfire might consider absconding from no man’s land with a copy of Bark, Lorrie Moore’s first collection of new stories since 1998’s influential Birds of America. Though Ms. Moore is no stranger to M.F.A. programs—after 30 years in academia, she recently became the Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University—she’s also no workshop partisan. On the contrary, her new collection, like nearly all of its predecessors, blurs the distinction between cosmopolitan savoir faire and provincial earthiness, mostly by projecting beams of enlightened liberalism into the Middle American darkness.
This cosmo-provincialism—the defining feature of Ms. Moore’s oeuvre—may not have produced a train of best-sellers, but it has secured her omnipresence in short-story anthologies. It also colors her novels, especially 2009’s A Gate at the Stairs, an excoriation of heartland passivity that earned endorsements from fellow worldly writers like Jonathan Lethem. Not that Ms. Moore is somehow unknown to New York readers; a longtime contributor to The New York Review of Books, she has recently taken up Sontagian critiques of TV shows like The Wire and Homeland—think pieces that suggest cable television is the last remaining bridge in the culture wars.
And Bark reminds me of television, not only in the way it is billed by its publisher as an event, like a sitcom reunion, but also in how it splices MSNBC politics with the genes of Modern Family. This is not to say that Ms. Moore’s prose has dipped into the lowbrow; if anything, her fleet, wit-drunk style, her trademark Witzelsucht, has remained unchanged for decades. The concerns and registers of television have simply caught up: terminal illness, ghosts, aging, light political intrigue and, most saliently in the case of Bark, divorce.
Bark’s eight stories (four of which, it must be said, were featured in Ms. Moore’s 2008 Collected Stories) all concern literal or figurative divorce. Even its triptych of epigraphs, taken from contemporary poems, signals as much: Each suggests resilience or bitterness in the face of separation, and each delivers a slantwise pun on the collection’s title, which turns out to mean either that which is found on a tree or the sound of a dog. In the case of “Debarking,” the opener, the pun suggests both a departure and a figurative shedding of emotional protection. Its protagonist, Ira, is a well-drawn provincial Jew who shares custody of his daughter, Bekka, after a bitter divorce. In spite of its shaky political backdrop—Ira works at a historical society and is deeply concerned about the oncoming war in Iraq—the story somehow works as a polaroid of post-divorce dating life. Ira’s love interest, Zora, is a funny, somewhat sexy pediatrician who harbors an obviously unhealthy (read: Freudian) obsession with her own son in the wake of her post-divorce nervous breakdown. In vintage Moore style, the story muscles through cliché by virtue of its relentless accumulation of psychological detail, as in this glimpse into Zora’s psychosexual zaniness:
In the corner stood perhaps a dozen wooden sculptures of naked boys she had carved herself. “One of my hobbies, which I was telling you about,” she said. They were astounding little things. She had drilled holes in their penises with a brace and bit to allow for water in case she could someday sell them as garden fountains. “These are winged boys. The beautiful adolescent boy who flies away. It’s from mythology. I forget what they’re called. I just love their little rumps.”
The bare plot of “Debarking” is roughly worthy of ABC’s Suburgatory. Yet Ms. Moore imbues each sentence with a lived-in sculptural strangeness. From a writerly perspective, one gets the notion that these stories are worked over ad nauseam, written and rewritten countless times, only to produce an exuberance that is no less alive for its depiction of the deeply embittered.
Still, not every story in Bark is rescued by its linguistic ebullience. In “Foes,” a political liberal attending an obligatory fund-raiser for a small literary magazine is forced into small talk with a conservative lobbyist. The dialogue is so weak, the conservatism so cartoonish (“Where is [the president’s] birth certificate?” the lobbyist says), that the payoff—the final lines suggest the protagonist’s estrangement from his liberal spouse—is fruitless.
Worse still is “Subject to Search.” This ultra-short fiction recapitulates the romantic entanglement drawn in Ms. Moore’s essay “Double Agents in Love” for The New York Review of Books. In the essay, Ms. Moore questions the verisimilitude of the relationship between Carrie (Claire Danes) and Brody (Damian Lewis) in the TV show Homeland. If this sounds like an enormous waste of the reader’s time, imagine the same portrayed in fictional form, stripped of all context and intelligibility. The story, I think, is meant to be an investigation of language, politics and romance between two intelligence agents sometime during the Iraq War. After reading it more than twice, I am convinced it is a politically vain disaster and Ms. Moore’s worst story to date, one that marquees a tone-deaf pun on the words “Abu Ghraib”:
“I’m serious. Believe me: The name of the prison will be a household word.” And then he said the name, but it sounded like nonsense to her, and perhaps it was, though her terrible ear for language made everything that was not English sound very, well, mimsy, as if plucked from “Jabberwocky”: “the mome raths outgrabe.”
Ms. Moore seems to be aware that her weaker fictions too readily foreground her liberal pieties. Perhaps this is why her more ambitious stories (and her novels) use politics as detail or even window dressing. In “Paper Losses,” an escalating emotional bitterness between eventual divorcees is illustrated, hilariously, as total political change: “Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.”
The rest of the collection teeters between the O.K. (“Wings,” “Thank You for Having Me”), the decent (“Referential”) and the very good. “The Juniper Tree,” a ghost story worthy of Ms. Moore’s longstanding admiration for Henry James, is a sui generis subconscious dreamscape that beautifully renders the solidarity of friendship in the face of death. I know of few recent American short stories that approach its combination of hilarity and psychic pain.
Still, Bark is an uneven collection. This may not mean much for an author whose place in the canon, at least in the realm of short fiction, is certified. Sixteen years after Birds of America, Ms. Moore is still producing stories worthy of future anthologies. But we might begin to question the way in which Bark reveals its unevenness. Too much of Ms. Moore’s recent work, like most of contemporary American fiction, whether M.F.A. or N.Y.C., comes across as mediated, as an aftereffect of television politics in the wake of the culture wars. Too often, Ms. Moore’s sorry provincials are framed with clichés and platitudes only to be rescued by her frenetic observations. In “Thank You for Having Me,” a redneck wears a necktie of yellow beads made to resemble an ear of corn. Noting this, the narrator, mirroring Ms. Moore herself, bails him out: “It had ingeniousness and tackiness both, like so much else created by people.” Such lines smack overmuch of a fastidiousness that borders on opportunism, like when a president says “folks” at an election rally.
Ms. Moore, in other words, shares too liberally with her title metaphor. Bark, like a tree: too much self-protection. Bark, like a dog: not enough bite.