In her satirical novel I’m Dying Laughing (1986), Christina Stead lets her American humorist, Emily Wilkes, rant about the nature of the national wit:
American humour is another way of seeing the truth; and what a vision! It isn’t giggles or smut, it isn’t anecdotes about baby-sitters and chars and Uncle Brown’s habits; it is homespun, godlike truth stalking in from the plains and the tall timber, coonskin and deerhide, with a gun to disturb our little home comforts.
On television Australians get plenty of the self-mocking irony of New Yorkers or the goofy behaviour of Californians, but we may miss the savagery at the heart of American humour – an earthy Midwestern attitude redolent of tough rural life and the rigours of frozen winters on the prairies.
Though Lorrie Moore was born in a small town in the Adirondack foothills in upstate New York, her fiction gives us a taste of this sharp and grimly honest humour. Her Midwestern outlook comes from her long residence in Wisconsin, where she has taught for 30 years. Like many of her characters, she is an intellectual in exile in the suburbs of the Midwest where people have no truck with self-indulgent sophistication. She is both a seeker of some sort of wisdom from experience and the mocker of pretension, cutting it down with crackling wit. Her stories are full of wisecracks that blast apart middle class comfort. Even that term ‘wisecrack’ is peculiarly American: they are not gags, they are not jokes, sometimes they are not funny. They are clever, though, as if her characters and narrators are declaring: ‘I might look pleasant and unthreatening, but I’m no fool.’ She is not even above a pie in the face routine. In ‘The Juniper Tree’, a story from her new collection Bark, a woman pushes a lemon meringue pie into her own face, in this case apparently pre-empting the ultimate comic act of her own death.
Readers have come to expect unflagging wit from Moore. Her second novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994) brought her to international attention with its whimsically funny recollections of adolescence. Since then, she has become known as a short story writer, whose work is published in the New Yorker, with her 1998 collection Birds of America establishing her reputation. Birds of America revels in the eccentricity of the people of middle America. Its librarians and teachers, mechanics and real estate agents, make you laugh out loud when not filling you with gloomy reflections on the ordinariness of your own life. The characters have reached middle age and, with it, an awareness that their ambitions will not be fulfilled according to the American dream. Their wit asserts a resistance to their fate, and sometimes to the dream as well. There is a sense, too, that the collection is following Moore’s own experience of the middle world. Her story ‘People Like That Are The Only People Here’ – a writer’s perspective on her baby’s treatment for cancer – ends with a self-conscious mocking of the writer’s exploitation of this material: ‘There are the notes. Now where is the money?’
Global politics hardly impinge on Birds of America, but the events of September 11, 2001, have made their mark on Moore’s subsequent writing. Her novel A Gate at the Stairs (2009) is a curious conjunction of a coming-of-age novel, a satire on white middle class complacency, and a critique of the way George W. Bush’s policies cut through the lives of ordinary Americans. Her funny narrator is a twenty-year-old country girl who is attending university in a provincial city, and the novel could have been a conventional bildungsroman. But it is overlaid with the girl’s observations of the family who employ her to care for their adopted child, and it ends with a depiction of the effects of Bush’s Iraq war on the young men closest to her. Returning from Fourth of July celebrations in their small town (‘It’s a form of terrorism not to bomb this town’), the girl and her parents riff on whether America would have been better off without independence:
Would it have been so bad to have remained a colony of England? … Would it have been so terrible if every dessert was called a pudding even it if was a cake, to grow up saying ‘in hospital’, to lose a few articles, to spell gray with an e, to resprinkle the r’s to have an idle king, an idle queen, and put all the car steering wheels on the right?
It’s a joke, of course, but it sounds like American blasphemy. Reading from a country that did remain a colony, one might object that this has not prevented participation in misguided US military interventions, but one can still appreciate the way Moore’s characters recognise their responsibility.
The characters in Bark are not so fierce about US militarism, but they are older and less likely to see their peers go to war. They live their lives in the shadow of a nation that is coming to terms with its international failures. Indeed, their own domestic failures – particularly the failure of marriage – seem to reflect the bumbling of America on the world scene. Of course, the problem may lie in the ‘crazy dream of family’ as the main character in the first story, ‘Debarking’, thinks of it. Or, as the narrative voice reflects in ‘Wings’:
Romantic hope: From where did women get it? Certainly not from men, who were walking caveat emptors.
The failure of relationships dominates the stories in this collection but, in the best of them, this occurs in the context of a wider political crisis. Ira, in ‘Debarking’, works in Human Resources at the State Historical Society. He was once a community-based historian searching archives on behalf of various ethnic groups, until he realised that other historians saw this as ‘a sentimental form of history, shedding light on nothing’. Ira’s marriage has ended and he attempts a relationship with another divorcee, Zora, a beautiful paediatrician from Kentucky: ‘It’s like Ireland but with more horses and guns.’
Like other Moore characters, Zora is ‘wacko’. She has a strange relationship with her teenage son and a hobby of sculpting figures of naked boys. Ira, the historian, thinks that it may represent a new moment in social history that people torture themselves with the dream of family happiness. He tries to come to terms with political and international history, too. It is the period of Bush’s Iraq War and some people put signs on their lawns declaring ‘War is Not the Answer’. Ira’s daughter comments: ‘It’s the answer to the question What’s George Bush going to do real soon?’ Ira has the sense of ‘watching history from the dimmest of backwaters, a land of beer and golf’ – a familiar concern to anyone worrying about the world from a comfortable place in the sticks, whether in Midwestern USA or Australia.
Another marriage break-up story, ‘Paper Losses’, this time written from the woman’s point of view, begins:
Although Kit and Rafe had met in the peace movement, marching, organizing, making no nukes signs, now they wanted to kill each other. They had become, also, a little pro-nuke.
Peace and love for the world decline alongside their domestic counterparts, friendship and sexual love. Moore tells a familiar story of emotional distance and infidelity after two decades of marriage, but her eye for the ridiculous never wavers. In the divorce courtroom, Kit feels that the law treats her marriage like a failed chicken franchise, ‘forbidding her to own another franchise for six more months with the implication she might want to stay clear of all poultry cuisine for a much longer time than that’. The phrase ‘irretrievably broken’ startles her: ‘What second-rate poet had gotten hold of the divorce laws?’
These are sad, if not tragic, stories, but even the characters are aware that humour lies in the telling. The stories in Bark are lifted from the commonplace by the way the characters have the power to see the ridiculous in their situations, and the undimmed verbal skill they display through the trials of life. These qualities – the sense of the ridiculous amid crisis and the relentless wit – are Moore’s particular gift to them.
In ‘Foes’, Moore brings the political world much closer to her domesticated intellectuals. An academic biographer of George Washington is visiting Washington DC with his wife. They attend a dinner in the capital to help raise funds for a journal (‘the hustle for money met the hustle for virtue’). He finds himself sitting next to a political lobbyist with a strangely immobile face, and he spars with her about Obama, whose Presidential campaign has just begun – he calls Obama ‘Brocko’, she calls him ‘Barama’. The liberalism of the academic, who is happily married and comfortable, confronts the anger of a woman who survived the Pentagon bombing (hence the face) and is paranoid about terrorism. Moore shakes up the complacency of the intellectual, while making her own allegiance to Obama clear. At the same time, she has fun with the situation, giving the Washington biography the cheesy title Man on a Quarter, Man on a Horse and writing some lively repartee for her characters. The story works like a little comic sketch that forces its comfortable characters to peep into the abyss of post-September 11 politics and its fears of terrorism. Again, Moore aligns domestic and political stability: in the taxi home the academic jokingly (yet seriously) begs his wife never to leave him.
The abuses of Abu Ghraib break up the Paris idyll of an aging couple in ‘Subject to Search’ – he is in intelligence and is called away to try to retrieve the situation. The lovers’ missed opportunities appear to be reflected in the mistakes of the American government and its military. Other stories take a gloomier turn, with death and aging as a central focus. ‘The Juniper Tree’ is a memorial to one of Moore’s friends and offers a whimsical response to the possible meaninglessness of a life lived in the service of art in a backwater university. The surviving friends of a dead writer – a painter, a dancer and a musician – complain about being trapped in a lonely college town, but the narrator assures us that they are ‘joyful orphans’ free to do what they love. The narrator clings to the idea that somehow creativity and wit can help us fight back against convention and inhibition, even death – though the story also suggests that they may only be a cheering consolation, like the laughter of friends.
‘Thank You For Having Me’ makes a similar move. It begins with Michael Jackson’s death, then follows its narrator, a middle-aged divorcee, to a wedding where the bride shows so much enthusiasm for the celebration of her second marriage that the narrator predicts she will marry over and over again. The narrator’s sense of alienation from the celebratory elements of life is reflected in the father of the bride’s ex-husband, who is suffering one of those ‘embarrassing father-in-law crushes on his son’s departing wife’. Like most weddings, this one has bizarre elements, which shore up the sense that a wedding is its own protest against the death of life and love.
Moore has taught creative writing for decades, and in two stories she demonstrates a standard creative writing class technique by taking inspiration from the work of other writers. ‘Wings’ transforms the plot of Henry James’s Wings of the Dove (1902) so that a failed singer-songwriter, bumming in a suburban neighbourhood, wins the heart of a dying old man and moves on from her shiftless boyfriend. ‘Referential’ replicates the main incidents in Vladimir Nabokov’s ‘Signs and Symbols’, a sad little story about a migrant couple visiting their deranged son in an asylum. Where Nabokov’s couple have each other for comfort, Moore’s mother has only a feckless lover to turn to when she decides to bring her son home. Moore honours Nabokov’s story with a sensitive rereading that takes up the implications of the son’s delusions in a clearer and more thoroughly American way. It is worth reading the two stories together.
At the same time, these stories generate a few qualms about the sparsity Moore’s material. They are the work of a writer who is taking stock of the past, and it is a surprise to realise that Moore is now in her late fifties. She has not been prolific – and devoted fans need to be aware that the first four stories in Bark have already been published in her Collected Stories (2008). That means there are only four new stories in this book. While Moore’s inventive wit never misses a beat, her work has not developed into full-blown social or political satire. Instead, it follows the lives of people like Moore herself, inevitably moving to the crises of parenthood, divorce and age. In a 2000 interview for the Paris Review, Moore explained that she was not only a writer: she was a teacher, a mother and houseworker, with no Vera Nabokov to perform the daily tasks that keep life together. Like so many writers of her generation, she has been forced to teach writing at university for her livelihood. This collection raises the possibility that her working life may have not only limited the quantity of her output, but has also confined her material and her style. Several reviewers, including Philp Hensher and David Gates, have expressed disappointment with Bark, chiefly because it is a modest publication from a writer for whom they had the highest hopes.
When Christian Lorentzen can mount an attack on Alice Munro’s entire oeuvre for its conventional realism and limited subject matter, as he did in the London Review of Books last year, all short story writers may be open to criticism for the narrowness of their range or the repetitive nature of their interests. Moore’s stories in Bark focus on a small group of middle class, educated intellectuals in the provinces. They are stories that display a kind of sharp, no-nonsense humour that shines in the context of the New Yorker. It is only when they are offered in a book that questions of substance arise. Does a short story writer need to write more densely than a novelist, or publish more frequently, to somehow make up the weight? Bark is certainly not so detailed or surprising as Birds of America. Perhaps it is an interim offering until Moore produces a new turn of direction. Perhaps it is all that she has to say at present, and her readers must be satisfied with that.
Modest though it may be, Bark is a delight to read. Moore’s capacity to see absurdity in the most depressing, and even threatening, moments of life never falters. Her characters assert themselves against insignificance with humour that may well be Emily Wilkes’s ‘godlike truth’.
Elizabeth Gaffney, ‘Lorrie Moore Interview: The Art of Fiction No.167,’ Paris Review, 158 (Spring-Summer 2001).
David Gates, ‘Life Unloaded,’ New York Times (20 February 2014).
Philip Hensher, ‘Bark by Lorrie Moore Review – Retreading Old Ground,’ Guardian (26 February 2014).
Christian Lorentzen, ‘Poor Rose,’ London Review of Books, vol. 35, no. 11 (6 June 2013).
Lorrie Moore, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (Faber, 1994).
⎯ Birds of America, (Picador, 1998).
⎯ The Collected Stories (Faber, 2008).
⎯ A Gate at the Stairs (Faber, 2009).