The story of Lorrie Moore is a good campfire tale of precocious literary talent: at the age of 19, she had already won an award for her fiction (given by Seventeen magazine but still impressive), and in her mid-20s she sold her debut, the still-popular short story collection "Self-Help," to no smaller potatoes than Knopf. Most of her novels and collections that followed have beamed from the top of the New York Times bestseller list, and one of her short stories, the wonderfully titled "You're Ugly, Too," is included in John Updike's "The Best American Short Stories of the Century."
You could say she is a rock star, or you could go beyond that and name exactly which rock star she most resembles. Emma Straub, a novelist and Moore's former student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, recently picked none other than Stevie Nicks as her teacher's musical doppelgänger. Like Nicks, in Straub's words, Moore is nearly divine. She's "magical." Magic is a word that Moore uses, too, but to describe the short story as a mystifying art. "Perhaps, in many ways, it's a more magical form," she said in a 2001 interview with The Paris Review. It's a "mad, lovely visitor, with whom you spend a rather exciting weekend." So: is Bark, Moore's newest collection, magical, mad, and lovely? Is the weekend you spend with this book all that exciting?
One thing that kills excitement, as any of Moore's characters would tell you, is familiarity. Lorrie Moore's style is so defined by this point in her career that its hallmarks make for a dangerous drinking game. Drink every time you encounter the Lorrie Moore expository sentence, relentlessly packed with information, admirable if you can pull it off and cloying if you can't. Drink for each witticism that characters trade like they're on a stage. Drink when you recognize references to popular culture (Venti lattes, not just coffee; a suitcase with a John Kerry sticker; someone listening to Cat Power). Drink at each allusion to what Moore calls "feminine emergencies." For example: "Aloneness was like riding a bike. At gunpoint," one divorced woman muses in "Bark"'s "Paper Losses." "With the gun in your own hand."
Moore is a comic writer, one of the best. Her really good titles, like "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" or "People Like That Are the Only People Here," could be fragments of absurd jokes. She hands out one-liners freely, cutting down any hope, romantic or otherwise, in her characters' lives. And what lives they have: in "Bark" (a thud of a title), Moore's characters deal with divorce and middle age, children and fear, denial and the fading desire to try. Looming behind most choices is the grim suspicion that happiness is really just "the best unhappiness." In this milieu, Moore's sense of humor is a sleight of hand, a magic trick you wish you could teach.
But when she bombs, you really feel it. Too often in "Bark" a joke will fall flat. "That's the point!" you might protest. These characters aren't blazing wits. Their corniness is part of the sad charm. But if the style of a story doesn't quite snap the way it used to, if it instead fizzles, is that failure a statement? Or is it just a failure?
Moore's best stories are grandiose. Her women are sarcastic and tragic, at the mercy of fate: they look at something for a long time as if it were one thing, then realize (too late!) that it has turned into something else, an adulterous partner or a cold stranger. These new stories, without the stronger jokes and the deeper waters of her other work, are not exciting. They're certainly not mad visitors. Insidiously, they make glibness into a depressing inevitability. Take "Wings," where our protagonist evaluates her boyfriend like so: "Unlike some of her meaner friends, who kept warning her, she believed there was a deep good side of him and she was always patient for it. What else could she be?" But no, he's just a jerk, we find out in more ways than one, and sourly their union dissolves, in spite of her hope and faith. It doesn't feel good.
But it doesn't feel like the end of the world, either. We see from a mile away that this guy isn't good for that girl, and it's not going to last long. Moore asks: what else are they going to do? What else could she be besides at this man's mercy? Take a drink: someone's disappointed.