‘Bark’ chronicles contemporary quests for happy endings

03/21/2014 1:00 PM

03/22/2014 8:47 PM

Lorrie Moore’s wise and trenchant new collection of stories gilds her reputation as one of the most elegant and insightful fiction writers of our time: a witty observer of contemporary life, finely attuned to absurdity, gently ironic and appealingly sly.

Her emotional landscapes are rutted and treacherous, yet her characters, bumbling toward love, are romantic, nostalgic “suckers for a happy ending.”

Kat and Rafe, in “Paper Losses,” are on the brink of divorce for reasons Kat cannot fathom. Rafe suddenly seems like a different man, a space alien, as Kat’s friend puts it, or maybe, Kat thinks, he has a brain tumor. What else could have changed his love to rage?

They had met as peace activists in college, but now Rafe sequesters himself in the basement assembling model rockets, and the kind of violence they once protested continues to flare. On a last family vacation at a posh Caribbean resort, Kat notices sunbathers on the beach reading books “about Rwandan and Yugoslavian genocide” while deliberately turning away from “the dark island boys on the other side of the guards and barbed wire, throwing rocks.”

She is baffled by her 5-year-old twin daughters, who bury their Barbies in the sand and gleefully unearth them, their macabre play eliciting smiles from adults nearby “reading of holocausts.”

Kat longs for marriage as a refuge, but for her, and the culture as a whole, there is no refuge from surging hostilities, personal and political.

In “Debarking,” Ira, newly divorced, begins dating Zora, a pediatrician, just as a new bombing campaign begins in the Middle East. Zora’s hobby is carving wooden sculptures of naked boys, and her impulsive behavior, which includes a decidedly erotic relationship with her teenage son, leads Ira to conclude that she is crazy.

“Sanity’s conjectural,” a friend of his suggests, and Ira concedes: “Especially now with all that’s happening in the world, I can’t live without some intimacy, companionship, whatever you want to call it, to face down this global craziness. I can’t live without love in my life.”

Love, though, is fragile and no defense against craziness that is so pervasive it is, if you are in the right mood, hilarious. In “Wings,” KC walks her boyfriend’s dog, Cat, past a billboard that reads “HOSPICE CARE; IT’S NEVER TOO SOON TO CALL” standing next to a traffic sign warning, “PASS WITH CARE.” “Surrealism could not be made up,” she thinks. “It was the very electricity of the real.”

Moore’s wry take on reality is nowhere more evident than in “Referential,” her reimagining of Vladimir Nabokov’s unsettling “Signs and Symbols.” Nabokov tells the story of a Russian immigrant couple, bewildered both by their exile in a strange land and the madness of their adolescent son.

A psychiatrist has diagnosed the boy with “referential mania”: trees, birds, numbers — everything becomes a sign, meant for him to decipher. Moore transposes the story to her own bewildering world, where “desperations were separate, not joined,” and characters struggle to wrest meaning from often impenetrable signs, including signs of love and solace.

“Living,” the boy’s mother thinks, “did not mean one joy piled upon another. It was merely the hope for less pain. ” But her hospitalized son might have learned something that she has yet to discover: as Ira put it, “life was long and not that edifying, and one sometimes had to make do with randomly seized tidbits.”

“Life got you ready for dying,” KC observes in one sad moment. Yet Moore’s characters reach out longingly for one another, eager for joy, determined to find a spot of sunshine, grateful, in the end, for the gift of being alive.

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