Any new book by Lorrie Moore is a cause for rejoicing, but her first collection of short stories for 16 years demands bunting, revelry and tap-dancing. She is one of a handful or two of writers (I’d nominate Anne Tyler, William Trevor, Martin Amis, Kazuo Ishiguro among the rest) whose work is always worth buying. With lesser authors a tepid review might discourage purchase, but Lorrie Moore can fall foul of critics yet still be immensely entertaining.
So it is with Bark. The book begins with an absolutely marvellous long story, ‘Debarking’, in which almost every paragraph contains a fresh delight, something so funny and so true that the reader must exclaim aloud. Moore’s terrain is familiar to all who relish American realist fiction: families and their discontents, marriages and their disappointments. Here a newly divorced man called Ira (a character not unlike that portrayed by Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm) takes tentative first steps into the world of middle-aged dating. Zora is beautiful, enigmatic and quite probably mad, a fact which only gradually dawns on Ira, as her self-centredness reveals itself to be pathological: ‘He had never been involved with the mentally ill before, but he now felt more than ever that there should be strong international laws against them being too good-looking.’
The scenes in which Ira dines with Zora and the dreadful teenaged son with whom she is besotted take the reader almost beyond comedy, into a place of rapt embarrassment. In this uncomfortable realm, too, are Ira’s encounters with his young daughter: ‘Poor little Bekka, now rudely transported between houses in a speedy, ritualistic manner resembling a hostage drop-off.’ Ira is sure that his little girl is unusually intelligent, but when she suggests Snowball and Snowflake as names for the two cats — neither of them white — he has bought as a sop, he feels let down: ‘Sometimes Bekka seemed completely banal to him. She had spells of inexplicable and vapid conventionality.’
None of the remaining seven stories are anything like as good as this one. Three are worth reading, including one which is a modern riff on Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. Another, called ‘Referential’, has a mother visiting her only son in a secure psychiatric unit, in the reluctant company of an ex-lover: ‘She would understand anew the desperate place they both were in, though the desperations were separate, not joined.’ This is almost too sad to bear. Of the rest, three are duds and one is indifferent. But people happily visit London just to take in Buckingham Palace or a show and don’t complain about the dullness of the suburbs. Readers may obtain this collection in like spirit. ‘Debarking’ is as good a story as any that will be published this year and it alone is worth the price of admission.
A.L. Kennedy’s stories also examine various kind of damaged love, familial and erotic. There is a bizarre overlap in that she and Lorrie Moore both include tales which refer obliquely to the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, perhaps unwisely in collections otherwise concerned with domestic life. Each specialises in a bleak and mordant wit. Yet their register, their emotional temperature is very different. Kennedy is prickly, keeping the reader at a distance, where Moore is inviting. Kennedy never lets you forget that she is in control of the material and that you are reading something manufactured, albeit beautifully crafted. Sentences are italicised and repeated: she can be arch. Her fiction is not a place in which it is possible to get lost. Despite this, the stories in All the Rage do not lead where their internal signposts suggest they will, but may veer off sharply into violence or desolation or into moments of surprising tenderness. They are destabilising.
Once again the star of the collection is a long central story, in this case about a cruel and wretched infidelity and its lonely aftermath. Anyone contemplating an affair with a married man (or, indeed, anyone wondering whether to marry a philanderer) would do well to read this tale, which offers a powerful corrective. There is comedy in it, but it stings. Describing a crying man she notes coolly: ‘He deserves no particular sympathy.’ None of her characters is sympathetic; even when Kennedy writes about children, there is never innocence or purposelessness. But her observations are startlingly good: the ‘dab and graze’ of an ex-lover’s name, ‘the potentially fraudulent kiss of fresh hotel sheets’ or, describing horses: ‘They were large in the manner of trees — a threat of falling about them.’ It would be impossible not to admire these stories, but it is not always easy to like them, or the people in them.
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