Once upon a time, my friend Emily, who is from Iowa, met a woman at a party in New York. The woman asked her where she was from, and she said, “Iowa.”
“Where?” the woman asked.
“Iowa,” Emily repeated.
“Oh honey,” the woman said. “Out here we call it Ohio.”
I’ve been telling that story for years as a so-absurd-it-must-be-true sign of the East Coast’s ignorance of the center of the country. So imagine my surprise this week to discover that in fact I had stolen that anecdote almost word-for-word from a Lorrie Moore short story called “Agnes of Iowa.” Not on purpose! I really thought that the story had been told to me by an old friend. And in a way, it was: Like most people I know who love Lorrie Moore stories, I view Moore herself, though we’ve never met, as a wise, funny friend who’s much smarter about human nature than I’ll ever be.
She’s still smarter than me. But with Bark, her new collection, she’s a different, more difficult friend. For starters, she hasn’t got the time or energy for me that she used to: This slim volume of eight stories is Moore’s first collection in 16 years (though there was a novel, A Gate at the Stairs, in 2009). And while I was pining away for the Lorrie Moore of Birds of America, she was busy turning herself into someone else entirely.
Moore’s tart, punny voice is identifiable from story to story, but her subjects and her style have evolved substantially over the nearly 30 years since her first collection, Self-Help (made up mostly of stories she wrote in the MFA program at Cornell). The reader-friendly forms and transparent structure of her earlier stories has given way to denser, more adventurous storytelling. Where once her stories were light breezes—albeit ones that would occasionally blow up into gales—now they are complex weather systems: swirling, variable, dangerous, and difficult to anticipate more than 36 hours in advance.
Consider “Paper Losses,” the most brutal of the stories in Bark. If Moore had written this story in her 20s or 30s, the married couple heading for divorce, Kit and Rafe, might have presented their takes in competing narration or through a second-person instructional. We might have seen the characters share affection even as the marriage fell apart, and we might have felt, along with the characters, a kind of gentle sadness for the inevitable failure of these two humans to build a life together that could last. The story, no matter how dark, would have been threaded with bright spots: jokes, comic riffs, and, above all, memories of the deep affection Kit and Rafe shared.
Not anymore. “Paper Losses” begins with the outright declaration that Kit and Rafe want to kill each other and gets grimmer from there:
He was prickly and remote, empty with fury. A blankness had entered his blue-green eyes. They stayed wide and bright but nonfunctional—like dime-store jewelry … Occasionally he catcalled and wolf-whistled across his mute alienation, his pantomime of hate momentarily collapsed. “Hey, cutie,” he would call to her from the stairs, after not having looked her in the eye for two months. It was like being snowbound with someone’s demented uncle: should marriage be like that? She wasn’t sure …
It had been a year since Rafe had kissed her. She sort of cared and she sort of didn’t. A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: to choose the best unhappiness.
Unlike in previous Moore stories, these jokes neither set the story aloft nor leaven the story’s sadness. These are grim jokes, dark as the grave, reflexive shrugs from a character who no longer sees the point. “People will do anything, anything, for a really nice laugh,” Moore wrote in one of her first stories. In Bark, people who’ve done anything, anything, now face the results.