Lorrie Moore’s “People Like That Are the Only People Here” may be the most ruthless short story I’ve ever read. Published in the New Yorker in 1997 and the next year in Moore’s collection “Birds of America,” it revolves around a family turned upside down after a mother finds a blot clot in her baby’s diaper.
The mother, like Moore, is a writer: “Take notes,” her husband begs. “We are going to need the money.” But it is the direction these notes take us that gives the story its pitiless edge. While the father is befriending the parents in the pediatric oncology ward, the mother is keeping her distance; “Let’s make our own way,” she declares.
Finally, the baby is released from the hospital. “There are the notes. Now where is the money?” the mother snarls, in the story’s brutal closing line.
What Moore is getting at is the way every poem, novel, essay or story walks a line between revelation and betrayal, between a character’s sharing something about her inner life and selling out the ones she loves. Such a dynamic infuses “Birds of America,” with its disconnections, its small defeats, and it also marks the eight stories in “Bark,” Moore’s first book of short fiction in 15 years.
Gathering work from the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Paris Review and elsewhere, “Bark” is in many ways a continuation of her inquiry into the gaps, the silences between us, and how, as she writes in “Referential,” “Living 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. … Tenderness did not enter them except in a damaged way and by luck.”
“Referential” is my favorite piece in the collection, a homage of sorts to Vladimir Nabokov’s 1948 story “Signs and Symbols,” with which it shares a basic narrative. Revolving around a mother’s visit to her teenage son in a mental institution, it is at heart an investigation into the impossibility of love.
“Mutilation was a language. And vice versa,” reflects the unnamed protagonist, who is wrestling with both the difficulty of her son’s condition and the dying embers of a relationship. On the refrigerator, photos of her son stare at her as if frozen: as a baby, looking “happier than most babies,” as a 6-year old, “smiling and hamming it up.”
The description is so matter-of-fact it makes your stomach hurt, the kind of pictures everyone has, and yet encoding the dreadful knowledge of what this boy, this family, has become. The mother is left to “understand anew the desperate place they both were in, though the desperations were separate, not joined, and her eyes would then feel the stabbing pressure of tears.”
Domestic life — the relationships between mothers and children, or of one spouse, or lover, to another — motivates much of “Bark,” which finds a sort of epic grandeur in the nuances of the day-to-day. In “Debarking,” one of the two long stories that anchor the collection, a divorced man named Ira becomes involved with a woman who may or may not be unstable, but still he lingers, despite her occasional cruelties.
Here too we glimpse a strange (unnatural even) relationship between a mother and her teenage son, although more disturbing to Ira is his sense that the center is not holding, that the adults have forgotten how to be adults.
“Observing others go through them,” Moore tells us, “he used to admire midlife crises, the courage and shamelessness and existential daring of them, but after he’d watched his own wife, a respectable nursery school teacher, produce and star in a full-blown one of her own, he found the sufferers of such crises not only self-indulgent but greedy and demented and he wished them all unnatural deaths with various contraptions easily found in garages.”
The progression there, the sequence of images, is vintage Moore; like Ann Beattie’s, her writing comes imbued with the odd shift, the surreal juxtaposition, the bitingly humorous aside. (“Surrealism,” she points out, “could not be made up. It was the very electricity of the real.”)
“Paper Losses” frames a collapsing marriage as extended tragicomedy; "[T]ime,” Moore writes, “was essentially a comic thing — only constraints upon it forced it to tragedy, or at least to misery. … Marriage stopped being comic when it was suddenly halted, at which point it became divorce, which time never disturbed, and so the funniness of which was never-ending.” Implicit in this perspective is the understanding that love and loss, joy and sadness, are part of one continuum.
It’s a notion Moore makes clear in “Foes,” where a second-tier biographer finds himself arguing politics with a conservative lobbyist at a Washington, D.C., fundraiser, until his antipathy, his snideness, dissolves before the sudden realization of what she has been through.
“He saw now,” Moore observes, after the lobbyist explains that she survived the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, “that her fingernails really were plastic, that the hand really was a dry frozen claw, that the face that had seemed intriguingly exotic had actually been scarred by fire and only partially repaired. He saw that she was cloaked in a courageous and intense hideosity.”
Such a turn is about empathy, about seeing ourselves in the other — or seeing the humanity of everyone. This is why we come to literature, and it lights the stories in “Bark” as if from within. The people here are adrift, not alienated so much as worn out, unsure of their next move. Life has had its way with them, and yet, they are still living, trying to get from one day to the next.
“She’d been given something perfect — youth! — and done imperfect things with it,” Moore notes of KC, the main character of “Wings,” which like “Referential” is inspired by another work of literature, Henry James’ “The Wings of the Dove.” The message is simple: I can’t go on, I’ll go on.
"[Y]ou had to unfreeze your feet,” Moore writes, “take a blind step backward, risk a loss of balance, risk an endless fall, in order to give life room.” That this goes without saying doesn’t mean that it should go without saying, which has been Moore’s point all along.
Alfred A. Knopf: 192 pp., $24.95