After sticky notes were invented, I became obsessed with writing down my thoughts on these scraps of paper. If I wound up holding onto the book, often those notes would stay inside the front cover, much like I used to collect reviews and keep them with the book. I was later told that the newsprint would not be good for the book's shelf life, and then later learned that many of the books I was buying were also now made of newsprint, which would also not be good for the book's shelf life. This is one of the reasons why we push folks to buy hardcovers when they are on the fence, and it is one of my main worries about paperback originals. While a select number of paperback originals use a better quality of paper, at least for the first printing, many do not.
So I'm laying out my sticky notes for Lorrie Moore's Bark (photo credit Zane Williams), realizing that most of the time, I can't read my notes, particularly if I'm writing them on a bus ride or while walking. Half the reason is that I'm convinced that the action of writing it down will help me remember. This is her first short story collection in 16 years, though seeing how the stories came out is illuminating. There was about one story per year, when Moore was probably working on the novel, but then there was nothing from 2009 when the novel was published, until 2012, when there were several stories published. There were also no stories published in the three years after Birds of America came out. My fear is that I am beginning to over-analyze, a la the "Paul is dead" Beatles references.
I'm fascinated by our inclination to treat the story collections like discrete entities, even though the stories are not connected and are meant to stand on their own. It's a funny side effect of book reviewing. Every one of these stories, aside for the final "Thank You for Having Me" has been previously published, but one doesn't much see story reviews anywhere. If there is a place that reviews stories as they come out in magazines, please let me know as I'd like to bookmark it. Could it be that many people, like me, skip the short story in The New Yorker? I consider myself having read The New Yorker if I read any three pieces, excluding the cartoons and counting "The Talk of the Town" as one piece. And I still can't say, sadly, that I read it every week, but my "three strikes and you're in" philosophy has made me feel less guilty, and I've been known to share this philosophy at the front desk.
Another twist is that UK reviewers only have five new stories in Bark, as three were included in a Collected Stories collection that was not released in the United States. So when the Philip Hensher in the Guardian complains about the new collection, he's reviewing a "new" collection that is half the size of the American version, in effect.
I like my fellow Boswellians who dipped into Bark, particularly enjoyed the first story, "Debarking." Of course that makes sense. Like ordering American Idol contestants, you know that the first and last showings will make the most impact. It's about Ira, he with a messy divorce and joint custody of his daughter, trying to date (embarking?) Zora, a pediatrician, who has very, very, very, very full custody of her son, Bruno.
Endings have always been an important component of Lorrie Moore's writing. While her early work focused more the ends of relationships, death has come to play an increasingly more important role, as it does for anyone as they age, with the theme particularly apparent in "The Juniper Tree", where several friends, survivors themselves, visit the home of a deceased friend. Divorce is the order of the day for "Paper Losses", when a woman, having been served papers, decides to keep vacation plans with her soon-to-be ex, knowing in her heart that he was planning to go with whomever he was leaving her for, even though it hasn't been mentioned. Oh, if only all my friends had this sixth sense.
I'm glad Moore ended the collection with "Thank you for Having Me," the original contribution. For one thing, I've always said that the best comedies end with a party, preferably a wedding party, and I thought it was a tip to this tradition to have a wedding story. And it is sort of a comedy, Lorrie Moore style. The narrator takes her daughter Nickie to the wedding of their former babysitter, a Brazilian woman with a taste for "farm boys." Her ex, well known to the family, is the musician for the affair, and he's taking it all in stride, though his father seems particularly happy. By the end, I'd imagined an unstated subtext behind the father's sadness, though I love the way Moore never even touches upon it. One imagined that the narrator and her daughter's relationship was actually not that different from Zora's and her son's, but the whole story was from one of a completely different perspective. (UK version of Bark at left)
And that perspective shifting was something that I noticed throughout the collection. I started the story "Wings" a little unsurely, perhaps a little frustrated. It's about KC, a frustrated and perhaps washed-up musician with what I can only call a washed-up, live-in boyfriend, who befriends Milton, an elderly neighbor on one of her walks. A lot of reviewers who have had problems with the collection focused on this story, but I liked how in life, this character would have likely been cast as the villain. Chuck Klosterman talked about the way we see villainy differently in fiction and nonfiction, and it has stayed with me. (At right is my favorite foreign renaming of a Moore book, to Pepsi Hotel.)
Did I love every story? I'll admit that like in just about every collection, I liked some more than others. But that's one of the joys about reading short stories. Unlike a novel, where a weak component can destroy the entire book, stories can stand on their own, several good stories can stand even taller, and one you don't like so much can be considered a non-load bearing wall.
With that philosophy, maybe I'll get around to reading a New Yorker story.
Claire Vaye Watkins in The San Francisco Chronicle.
Daniel D'Addario in Salon.
Tricia Springstubb in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
Our event with Lorrie Moore is Monday, March 3, 7 pm. You can order signed copies through us. Please put personalization in the notes field. No messages, please.