Lorrie Moore likes TV. She has written hearty endorsements of The Wire, Friday Night Lights, Homeland and Top of the Lake, and lauded Girls creator Lena Dunham’s work, somewhat incongruously, as “unwatchable in the best way.” Her 2013 Robert B. Silvers lecture at the New York Public Library, “Watching Television,” laced a treatise on narrative art with Moore’s personal TV history, from a childhood snatching illicit episodes of Gilligan’s Island, through a period of “pious speeches against television,” to the medium’s current Golden Age (“with Showtime and HBO … its Scheherazade”), where she finds herself a converted celebrant and fan.
Of course, Lorrie Moore is best known as the author of books: three novels and, now, with the recent publication of Bark, three collections of stories. The winner of an O. Henry Award, a Lannan Fellowship and a Rea Award for achievement in short fiction, Moore is an expert chronicler of failed and flailing relationships, of people bewildered by grief, loneliness and estrangement; she’s also one of the funniest writers alive. At her best, that blend of the comic and tragic – or at least humour and sorrow – as it plays out in the bedrooms of small-town America casts her as something like a poppier, prime-time Alice Munro, complete with celebrity cameos and uproarious laugh-track.
Bark opens in typical Lorrie Moore territory: the harrowing, humbling world of adult dating. Debarking provides the biggest laughs in the book; it’s also the story most suggestive of TV. Newly divorced Ira’s awkward blunderings at love are the stuff of several recent American sitcoms – The Office, Parks and Rec, 30 Rock – and the characters banter like Aaron Sorkin dialogue at its snappiest.
Jokes: When Ira’s daughter speaks of her dislike for her mother’s new boyfriend, Ira responds with, “‘Bummer…’ his new word for ‘I must remain as neutral as possible’ and ‘your mother’s a whore’”; later, he watches helplessly as Zora, his girlfriend, first plays footsies with and then wrestles her adolescent son – on her bed. But the story is not all wisecracks and slapstick; there are moments of poignancy here too: “[Ira] could discern the hollowness in people’s charm only when it was directed at someone other than himself… And so Zora’s laughter, in conjunction with her beauty, doomed him a little, made him grateful beyond reason.”
Yet this statement also seems to apply to the book itself: looking beyond the cosmetic glimmer of Lorrie Moore’s sentences at times reveals something essentially hollow. If television’s primary goal is to keep us watching television, something similar can be said of Bark: its stories tend to feel like easily consumed entertainments, with intimations at wisdom and meaning just compelling enough to keep us reading.
This is most evident in Foes, in which a left-leaning couple attend a fundraiser, and the husband, Bake, finds himself sitting beside – horrors! – a Republican. He and this woman, “an evil lobbyist” (her own words), trade jabs in typical, zippy Lorrie Moore fashion. When the lobbyist reveals a grudge against presidential candidate “Barama,” Bake responds, “Being black really is the fastest, easiest way to get to the White House… Unless you’re going by cab, and then, well, it can slow you down a little.” The story shifts from jags and mutual distaste to a revelation that forces Bake into a position of empathy. Foes echoes Lorrie Moore’s mistaken praise of Homeland – a preposterous if occasionally enjoyable series – for its ability “to take received ideas and transform them;” not only does the transformation feel banal, more like a slumping across some narrow ideological aisle, but the takeaway turns entirely solipsistic: “‘Don’t ever leave me,’” Bake is inspired to beg his wife on the drive home.
If the epiphanies were mutual – that is, if the “other side” were ever afforded agency to also change – this tendency might be forgivable, even interesting, but the political (Abu Ghraib, the invasion of Iraq, Obama) rarely offers more than a backdrop to self-reflection. While Bark seems to be concertedly exploring politics as the window-dressing to a certain type of contemporary life (in Paper Losses we find: “On the beach people read books about Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocide… to add seriousness to a trip that lacked it.”), the result is to distract from rather than distill the characters’ experiences. Not that fiction need be a call to radicalism, but politics shape who we are and how we understand ourselves, and their inclusion in Bark feels more perfunctory than fully engaged.
At her best (e.g., People Like That Are the Only People Here from 1998’s Birds of America), Lorrie Moore focuses her enviable gifts intensely, microscopically, on human lives. She can be a master of irony, using it to illuminate the vast gaps between people, between language and understanding, and what deep sadness persists in those spaces. And when her stories really sing she tempers her instincts to the glib and jokey, or uses humour sparingly, with palpable sadness behind it.
The two best stories in Bark – Referential, cribbed from Nabokov’s Signs and Symbols, and Wings, which riffs on Henry James’ The Wings of the Dove – subdue the book’s predominant manic tone. In the former, a mother struggles to care for her “deranged” son; in the latter, a failed musician strikes up a relationship with a dying elderly neighbour. In each story, Moore proves as skilled at capturing the traumas of physical illness as she does the various ailments of the human heart, and the results are moving, difficult and wise: “Living did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain.”
Notably, both Referential and Wings are born from literary sources. And they are also the two stories in the book that feel the least like TV.
Pasha Malla is the author of People Park and The Withdrawal Method. He is a frequent Globe Books contributor.