illus of forest
© Illustration by Adam Hancher

Bark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore, Faber RRP£14.99 / Knopf RRP$24.95, 240 pages

Lorrie Moore is a magician. It has been 16 years since her last collection of short stories, Birds of America – widely (and rightly) acknowledged as a masterpiece. A novel, A Gate at the Stairs, was published in 2009 but there simply is no substitute for a slim volume of her tales. Bark is a collection of taut, coherent, breathtaking enchantments which – looked at individually and taken together – remind us how only fiction has the real ability to re-create the world, to slant the light and make us see ourselves, and everything around us, as if for the very first time.

There is a veneer in nearly all of these eight stories of what might be called Midwestern realism. On the surface they are about “ordinary” people living “ordinary” lives – people who are divorced, people who live in the suburbs, people who don’t have quite enough money, people who are no longer in love. It is Moore’s peculiar, elusive gift to call into question, however, just what “ordinary” might ever mean, or whether there is any such thing in the first place. Note that there is no title story called “Bark”. The epigraphs on the opening page make reference to both trees and dogs; she quotes the poet Louise Glück: “Life is very weird, no matter how it ends,/ very filled with dreams.” In the final story, “Thank You for Having Me”, a mother tells her teenage daughter that she’s learned that the outside of the human brain looks like bark: an image of the mind as both darkly guarded and strangely vulnerable.

In the opening story, “Debarking” – the collection’s title again, hidden inside another word – Ira has been divorced for six months when he starts dating a woman called Zora; though “dating” doesn’t really cover their odd interactions, which are, to a large extent, governed by her obsessive relationship with her truculent teenage son Bruno. They do manage, however, to go to bed together: “There was sex where you were looked in the eye and beautiful things were said to you, and then there was what Ira used to think of as yoo-hoo sex: where the other person seemed spirited away, not quite there, their pleasure crazy and mysterious and only accidentally involving you. ‘Yoo-hoo?’ was what his grandmother always called before entering a house where she knew someone but not well enough to know whether they were actually home.”

A great many encounters in these stories have that yoo-hoo quality. None of the characters seem to know each other well enough to know whether anyone is, as it were, actually home; every interaction veers off towards the troubling, the unexpected, the confusing, in a manner that underlines, not exaggerates, how this happens in everyday life all the time.

This unexpectedness and confusion gives these stories a dark, Beckettian humour. In “Wings”, KC and Dench are a gloomily attached couple who have given up on the dream of success – they once had a band – and are renting an apartment in a serene, middle-class neighbourhood; KC starts dropping in on an elderly neighbour when she takes her dog for a walk. KC’s life reads like a sequence of wrong turns that looked like good decisions at the time. “Surrealism could not be made up. It was the very electricity of the real.” At its end, the story does take a surreal turn: are what we read KC’s thoughts? It’s impossible to know, for all the narrator is closely aligned to KC – one of Moore’s great gifts is that her characters seem both observing and observed. In lesser hands this would be confusing: in Moore’s it is an expression of the precision of her imagination. Most overtly surreal is “The Juniper Tree”, which takes its title, and some of its imagery, from a terrifying fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm; in it the narrator fails to visit a dying friend in hospital – but is able to meet and talk with her after her death. “She was dressed as she was always dressed: in black jeans and a blue sweater. She simply, newly, had the imperial standoffishness I realized only then that I had always associated with the dead.”

Death and disappearance haunt this book. America’s political conflicts and the events of September 11 2001 have a disquieting presence here, though they are hardly referred to directly; Ira is frightened by “the coming war” and Tom, in “Subject to Search”, has inside knowledge of the torture of prisoners that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad in 2003-04 (though the place is not named it can be clearly inferred). Perhaps Moore is thought of, in some circles, as an apolitical writer: she is not.

Reading these stories is an intense, disquieting, exhilarating experience. Moore does not consider short stories any kind of quick fix, fast literary food for an age with Twitter and Facebook-shortened attention spans. Rather the opposite. “There’s a lot of yak about how short stories are perfect for the declining public attention span,” she told the Paris Review in 2001. “But we know that’s not true. Stories require concentration and seriousness. The busier people get, the less time they have to read a story . . . Shockingly, people often don’t have a straight half hour of time to read at all. But they have fifteen minutes. And that is often how novels are read, fifteen minutes at a time. You can’t read stories that way.”

Indeed you cannot. Lorrie Moore is an artist who knows the power of her art, and understands that the reader – as much as the writer – must give themselves over to the experience of the story. Find a straight half-hour. Find an hour, or even two. You will be richly rewarded.

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