Searching for the Magic in Lorrie Moore’s ‘Bark’

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There’s something about mentioning Lorrie Moore that conjures up very visceral reactions in my friends. Their voices get higher, their eyes widen, sometimes they make noises that I can describe only as flinging a long string of vowels out of their mouths, while other times they simply say things like, “OMG.” Even many of the most critical of the critics, the most venomous of cultural vipers, are seduced by Moore’s charm. And for that, I always give her the benefit of the doubt.

Moore is fiction’s holy tent revival. People flock to her, and they want to worship. The sort of undying love readers have for Moore has always left me curious; it acts as its own selling point — if it can make my peer group go googly-eyed, then I should probably pick up her books. But I need something beyond wild recommendations: I want to hear Matt Berninger of The National singing about how we’re wide awake in a fake empire when I read her books; I want to feel the way I do when I encountered Marc Trujillo‘s painting, 4504 Van Nuys Boulevard, in a 2008 issue of Harper’s. That painting is, by design, nothing special: two everyday people getting their tickets at a movie theater at dusk. The streets behind them are desolate, and the only other person around is behind the glass taking their money. But for such a mundane setting, it is transcendent. I’m sure the painting is ripe for the same kind of analysis as Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, with critics speculating on the specific stories that inform the work, but the takeaway from The National and Trujillo, for me at least, is that America is a lonely place.

I want to feel that song and that painting when I read Moore’s novels and stories, and I have come close to it in the past, but I’ve never quite been able to conjure that spirit. This might be more about me as a reader or a person, and less about Moore as a writer — I should add that I recognize Moore is a writer of immense talent, I’ve just never felt the emotional connection others have with her writing — but the importance, for readers, of connecting with a work is undeniable.

I read Bark, Moore’s latest collection of stories, twice. There are eight stories, just over 200 pages, and since I’ve been living through a winter that doesn’t want to end, rereading an author who I want to better understand doesn’t strike me as strange. About the stories, Moore tells me via email that she “wrote them over a ten year period, from 2003-2013.” I find that fascinating, the amount of time she had to tinker with them. Yet there is not one common theme. Moore covers 9/11, the economic downturn, a “No Hillary no way” bumper sticker in “The Juniper Tree,” and the war in Iraq. I get the feeling that Moore attempted to synthesize the major issues of our time, but I have trouble finding the overarching meaning in her approach. Alec MacGillis, in his review of the book for The New Republic, called the allusions “superficial,” writing that Moore utilizes “references with which a talented writer can adorn her tales of domestic anxiety — without even bothering to check whether those references are remotely plausible.”

I’m not sure I agree with that. Writers like Moore write without concern for plausibility. They write what they know, and they write what they see. Throughout Bark, I never once get the feeling that Moore is trying to play on the largely liberal sensibilities of her readers. People are lonely in real life; couples break up; people grieve over the loss of somebody they knew; these are things that happen, and those are the things Lorrie Moore is more interested in as a writer. Yet as a reader, I do want to know what I should be paying attention to beyond all that, to glimpse some deeper truth while reading the stories she labored over for such a long time, interrupted though they were by her teaching duties and 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs. Although Moore said in a 2001 Paris Review interview that she doesn’t write books to “grow” her themes, I wonder if the strange and impossible-to-ignore events of the last two decades have changed her process.

Despite enjoying the stories in Bark, I was left with that same feeling I’ve experienced in the past reading Moore. I felt like I went to church with all the people I care about, I sang the hymns, I praised the Lord and screamed “Amen” along with the crowd. But I still left grasping for a deeper meaning. I figure, since I had the opportunity recently to talk to Moore, I should press her about the themes in her work. I asked if there was something deeper that I should be feeling. She replied, saying, “I think everyone’s work comments in some way or other. Mostly there are a lot of questions without answers.” That’s how I’ve always felt about Moore’s books, but hearing that straight from the writer, I am inclined to believe that perhaps the wondering is the point. To me, her work is a question without an answer, and maybe sometimes that’s what we should just let fiction be.