Lorrie Moore’s characters have the patience of saints. The men and women who populate the stories in Bark painstakingly maintain their innocence in the face of catastrophes both large and small, of both domestic and global import, waiting for everything to turn out for the best. Their patience seems at first passive, but choices and plans are quietly, slowly being made. The characters these eight stories are taught with potential.
The stories take place in the wake of 9/11, when the characters are forced to know something inexplicable but inevitable is occurring on the other side of the world, where they can hardly access the horror of it. Their social or domestic calamities seem equally distant from them, equally inaccessible. What the characters are patient with is what lifestyle magazines or concerned friends might refer to as “red flags”: a clearly Oedipal relationship between your new lover and her son, your elderly neighbor’s keen interest in you, your own child’s self wounding. All are patiently put up with until the characters are in situations just as inexplicable but inevitable as the war going on elsewhere.
The actual events in these character’s lives are submerged beneath the thousands of unique oddities that necessarily result from intimacy: inside jokes, mutual eating habits, and myriad opportunities for small, unexpected disappointments. In “Wings”, KC and Dench’s morning coffee ritual, initially endearing to both in its ritual and complexity, becomes a battle ground. In “Foes”, a writer at a fundraising reception loses himself in topics his wife has deemed unfit because his wife will not help him out of the conversation. In “Paper Losses”, a former peace activist discovers her former peace activist husband building militaristic rockets in their basement. There are thousands of ways to let someone down.
These minor disappointments allow the characters to stay in a patient muddle until their personal tragedy can’t go ignored. In “Paper Losses”, Kit’s brooding, rocket building husband Rafe “seemed to have turned into some sort of space alien. Of course later she would understand that all this meant he was involved with some other woman, but at the time, protecting her own vanity and sanity, she was working with two hypotheses only: brain tumor or space alien.”
Everyone’s set of memories is inviolable, and for Rafe to act like a stranger violates Kit’s memories, makes him alien to her, and alien as any stranger with whom one found herself suddenly intimate with. It’s hard not to enjoy a writer who can remind you of how coincidental your own set of memories is, the degree to which it’s a hodge podge of random but painfully important incidentals. The details of each relationship are alien, but their accumulated effect – the inside jokes, the opportunities to disappoint – is undeniably familiar.
Unique in the collection is “The Juniper Tree”, a surreal ghost story in which the narrator and two friends visit their recently deceased friend in her home. The ghost appears to them, welcoming but wearing a scarf to hold her head on, a gruesome call back to the children’s story. During the visit the narrator suffers a sort of anxiety dream; the impromptu séance is full of ceremony she wasn’t prepared for, of peace she hasn’t attained. Her ghost friend patiently dismisses her fumbling, as though Lorrie Moore is reminding us that the myriad of details that agitate her characters as easily as they agitate us, will ultimately clear.