In one of her early stories, “How to Become a Writer,” Lorrie Moore says, “Insist you are not very interested in one subject at all, that you are interested in the music of language, that you are interested in—in—syllables, because they are the atoms of poetry, the cells of the mind, the breath of the soul. Begin to feel woozy. Stare into your plastic wine cup.” The music of language has always been Moore’s primary concern. Told by a writing instructor that she has “no sense of plot,” the narrator of “How to Become a Writer” scribbles, “Plots are for dead people, pore-face.”
A similar disinterest in plot can be found in the work of Lydia Davis, whose stories are preoccupied not with event, but with language itself. Davis’s stories tend to be very short—some as short as one sentence—whereas Moore writes longer, more traditional narratives (her stories do, in fact, have plots), but their work shares a sly sense of humor, razor-sharp observations, and a delight in wordplay. And in their highly anticipated new story collections, out this spring, both are in dialogue with writers who came before them. Davis’s Can’t and Won’t includes translated passages from Gustave Flaubert’s letters, and Moore’s Bark contains echoes of stories by the Brothers Grimm, Anton Chekhov, Henry James, and Vladimir Nabokov.
Bark is Lorrie Moore’s first story collection in sixteen years. Her much lauded Birds of America appeared in 1998, following the two collections that established her as one of the best story writers in America, Self-Help and Like Life. She has written three novels (most recently A Gate at the Stairs), but it is her stories that have earned Moore acolytes and imitators. “It was like a Lorrie Moore story,” friends say when trying to describe events that are heartbreakingly absurd. Moore’s lonely characters often find themselves in ridiculous situations, illuminated by Moore’s mordant wit. In her unforgettable story “You’re Ugly, Too,” the protagonist, Zoe, is set up at a Halloween party with a man dressed as a naked woman. Zoe, perpetually single, is wearing a bonehead and trying to make conversation with a man with “steel wool glued strategically to a body stocking, and large rubber breasts protruding like hams.” The visual joke is irresistible—especially because his steel-wool pubic hair keeps sliding out of place—but like all good comedy, the story is tinged with sorrow. Zoe has recently had an ultrasound to examine a mysterious growth in her abdomen. She’s a lovelorn thirty-something woman wearing a bonehead and worrying that she has cancer. Humor is her coping mechanism. She tells Earl, the man dressed as a naked woman, that she had a speech impediment as a child. And when he asks her how she dealt with it, Zoe says, “I told a lot of jokes. Jokes you know the lines to already—you can just say them. I love jokes.”
Like Zoe, all of Moore’s characters love jokes. They make rhymes and puns, as if by controlling language they can compensate for setbacks in their lives. In “To Fill,” (from Self-Help) Moore writes, “Everything’s a joke. You’re always flip-flopping words, only listening to the edge of things. It’s like you’re always, constantly, on the edge.” And in one of her most affecting stories, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” (in Birds of America), a mother whose baby has been diagnosed with cancer wonders if she’s being punished:
Just once, before he was born, she said, ‘Healthy? I just want the kid to be rich.’ A joke, for God’s sake! After he was born she announced that her life had become a daily sequence of mind-wrecking chores, the same ones over and over again, like a novel by Mrs. Camus. Another joke! These jokes will kill you!
The first story in Bark is punny in the way thatMoore is known for: On a first date, a character named Zora says that her ex-husband “was really into English country dancing. Where eventually he met a lass. Alas.” And that story’s title is playful: “Debarking” means “getting off” (as in departure from a boat or a plane), which suggests orgasm.
Moore has great comic timing and she is a lyrical writer, capable of masterful modulations in tone. She moves easily from wry to aching, from hilarity to heartbreak, from major to minor key. Her observations are keen—there should be a book of aphorisms from Lorrie Moore stories—and her characters’ experiences of regret and loss are rendered with psychological precision. She is a writer who is always on the edge. In her previous collections, Moore’s characters were looking for love or dealing with new parenthood. They were in their twenties and thirties, at the fraught beginning of things. In Bark, the characters are older and more concerned with endings—of marriages and of lives. Moore’s writing has always had a sense of mortality. But Bark is more wizened; its characters are starting to show and feel their age.
“Debarking” is vintage Moore. The middle-aged protagonist, Ira, is still emotionally stuck six months after his marriage ends. He literally can’t get his wedding ring off. Ira is set up with an attractive divorcée named Zora, but the new relationship quickly turns weird. Zora carves sculptures of naked boys, with holes drilled in their penises “in case she could someday sell them as garden fountains.” And she is bizarrely close to her teenaged son, Bruno. Ira feels like a third wheel while Zora and Bruno wrestle like young lovers. Ira’s ex-wife tells him that he’s too hard on people. “You bark at them,” is how she put it. So Ira is trying to lose his bark and give love a chance, despite the fact that Zora seems to be barking mad. At one point, Ira reflects, “Oh, the beautiful smiles of the insane. Soon, he was sure, there would be a study that showed that the mentally ill were actually more attractive than other people.”
“Paper Losses” also concerns divorce. In this story, Kit’s husband, Rafe, serves her with divorce papers right before they take their kids on a Caribbean vacation. Kit and Rafe met as young peace activists, but now their marriage has “mutated to rage.” Rafe removed his wedding ring a year ago and hasn’t even kissed his wife since. Kit observes, “On the counter a large watermelon had begun to sag and pull apart in the middle along the curve of seeds, like a shark’s grin, and she lopped off a wedge, rubbed its cool point around the inside of her mouth.” It’s hard not to read this as an answer to Chekhov: In “The Lady with the Dog,” Gurov eats a slice of watermelon after he has sex with his mistress, Anna, for the first time. Here, the watermelon is not fresh and sweet like new love, but sagging and over-ripe.
Another intertextual reference is the excellent “Referential,” inspired by Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols.” Like the Nabokov story, it features an older couple visiting a suicidal son in a mental hospital. (In Nabokov’s story, the son has “referential mania.”) And like Nabokov, Moore ends the story with three mysterious phone calls. “Referential” strikes a lovely mournful chord. The unnamed protagonist is a widow whose teenaged son has been in the psychiatric hospital for four years. On his sixteenth birthday the mother brings Pete, who has been in her life long enough to be a “kind of stepfather,” to visit her son:
Perhaps all three of them had gotten old together, although it showed mostly on her, the mother, with her black shirtdresses worn for slimming and her now graying hair undyed and often pinned up with strands hanging down like Spanish moss. Once her son had been stripped and gowned and placed in the facility, she, too, removed her necklaces, earrings, scarves—all her prosthetic devices, she said to Pete, trying to amuse—and put them in a latched accordion file under her bed. She was not allowed to wear them when visiting so she would no longer wear them at all, a kind of solidarity with her child, a kind of new widowhood on top of the widowhood she already possessed. Unlike other women her age (who tried too hard with lurid lingerie and flashing jewelry), she now felt that sort of effort was ludicrous, and she went out into the world like an Amish woman, or perhaps, even worse, as when the unforgiving light of spring hit her face, an Amish man. If she were going to be old, let her be a full-fledged citizen of the old country! “To me you always look so beautiful,” Pete no longer said.
Pete has been pulling away, and the mother suspects that there is another woman. Her paranoid son believes the world is full of secret messages for him. And now she also finds herself looking for signs, trying to decipher Pete’s behavior: “There was a storm in front and lightning did its quick, purposeful zigzag between and in the clouds. She did not need such stark illustration that horizons could be shattered, filled with messages, broken codes, yet there it was.” The story beautifully captures the mysteries and disappointments of aging.
Less successful is “The Juniper Tree,” which seems to be loosely inspired by the fairy tale of the same name. This is a departure for Moore because it veers into the surreal. (Her story, “Like Life,” has fantastic elements, but “The Juniper Tree” is more dreamlike than anything she’s written before.) The story begins on seemingly realistic footing: “The night Robin Ross was dying in the hospital, I was waiting for a man to come pick me up—a man she had once dated.” At its core, this is a tale about jealousy. Robin used to say, “I love sharing,” but the narrator doesn’t want to share. She wants the man to herself, but then feels guilty when she doesn’t visit Robin before she dies. Later, when the narrator and two other women visit Robin’s house, the dead woman appears to them—wearing a white scarf around her neck, presumably an evocation of the decapitation in the version of “The Juniper Tree” by the Brothers Grimm. But the dreamy resurrection of Robin doesn’t quite work. The story’s shaky apparition is far less compelling than Moore’s insight into human nature. Of her friends and herself, the narrator says, “In rejecting the lives of our mothers, we found ourselves looking for stray volts of mother love in the very places they could never be found: gin, men, the college, our own mothers, and one another.”
In “Wings,” Moore reimagines Henry James’s The Wings of the Dove. She calls her broke couple KC and Dench, after James’s characters, Kate Croy and Merton Densher. In Moore’s version, they are failed musicians living in a Michigan sublet with their dog, Cat. (In a nod to the book’s title, KC says, “No bark is worse than a bite. A bite is always worse.”) KC befriends a wealthy old man in the neighborhood, Milton Theale. (In James’s novel, the wealthy target of their inheritance scheme is Milly Theale.) But if the events and characters are borrowed from James, the voice is pure Moore:
Perhaps everyone had their own way of preparing to die. Life got you ready. Life got you sad. And then blood started coming from where it didn’t used to come. People revisited the deaths of others, getting ready to meet them in the beyond. KC herself imagined dying would be full of rue: like flipping through the pages of a clearance catalog, seeing the drastic markdowns on stuff you’d paid full price for and not gotten that much use from, when all was said and done. Though all was never said and done. That was the other part about death.
An awareness of mortality also permeates much of Lydia Davis’s new assemblage of stories, Can’t and Won’t, her first collection since 2007. (Her Collected Stories was published in 2009.) Last year, Davis won the Man Booker International Prize, a lifetime achievement award that cements her reputation as one of the world’s most accomplished writers. This new book’s stubborn title emphasizes the contracted form of Davis’s work. Her stories are spare, sly pieces, some of which are closer to poetry than prose. She eschews novelistic characters and narrative conflict in favor of voice and formal invention. One new story, “Contingency (vs. Necessity),” has just three lines, and is typical of Davis’s archness. The entire piece is a pithy definition of the words in its title:
He could be our dog.
But he is not our dog.
So he barks at us.
Many of Davis’s stories are like dictionary entries; she interrogates the conventional definitions of the world. The language of academia is one of her favorite targets. In “Special Chair,” from her excellent collection Samuel Johnson Is Indignant, she pokes fun at the titular phrase. The narrator is an untenured academic who would like a “special chair,” in the sense of an endowed chair, but complains that “what we have gotten so far is the wrong kind of special chair, a special chair belonging to a friend, a chair that swivels and has splayed feet and is special to her for reasons we can’t remember.” Davis’s fiction suggests that authority should be divorced from the titles—often arbitrarily assigned—and words that invoke it. Does having a “special chair” or a fellowship or an advanced degree guarantee anything? The final story in Can’t and Won’t is called “Ph.D.” and consists of just two terrifically dry lines: “All these years I thought I had a Ph.D. But I do not have a Ph.D.”
Although she’s known for brevity, Davis can write long when she wants to: One story in this book is thirty-four pages. She is at her most vulnerable in the longer stories, some of which have a confessional tone. “The Seals” is a twenty-four-page rumination on the narrator’s sister’s death, an elegy that is autobiographical in feeling, if not fact: “You get older and see things more clearly and there’s less to be happy about. Also, you start losing people—your family.”
Can’t and Won’t includes pieces that Davis labels “dreams,” inspired by actual dreams of hers and her friends. One of the most affecting is “The Child,” in which a mother’s dead child is “laid out in state on a table.” The static abstraction of this short scene makes it heartbreaking. The mother “wants to take one more photograph of the child, probably the last. In life, the child would never sit still for a photograph. She says to herself, ‘I’m going to get the camera,’ as if saying to the child, ‘Don’t move.’ ”
There are also references to death in the stories that Davis has shaped out of Flaubert’s letters. In “The Visit to the Dentist,” Flaubert juxtaposes the fear of having a tooth extracted with execution by guillotine: “I thought about how I had entered the square on my way to the dentist dreading what was about to happen to me, and how, in the same way, those people condemned to death also used to enter that square.” These translations of Flaubert are remarkably relevant. Rather than feeling dated, his nineteenth-century observations are at home among Davis’s own words. In a piece called “The Funeral,” Flaubert reflects, “Oh, we writers may think we invent too much—but reality is worse every time!”
Davis is always attuned to the ridiculous aspects of reality. It’s hard to imagine a better, or funnier, portrait of contemporary America than her story “I’m Pretty Comfortable, but I Could be a Little More Comfortable.” The title alone captures our zeitgeist, with its intensifiers and its insistence that comfort (and everything else) can be measured in degrees. In America today, we feel entitled to be more than “pretty comfortable.” We always want a little more. The story consists of a litany of low-stakes complaints: “I’m tired.” “My navel orange is a little dry.” “They have seated us too close to the kitchen.” “The shower is a little too cold.” “My Band-Aid is wet.” “This soup doesn’t have much taste.” “My fork is too short.” These are the sort of comments that might be labeled “first world problems” and hashtagged as such on Twitter (#firstworldproblems). Lydia Davis has nailed the mildly aggrieved tone that is the default for so much of communication nowadays. The voice is also hilariously indecisive: “I can’t decide whether to go on reading this book,” the narrator says. And, “I don’t think I like my bedspread anymore.” The speaker is ambivalent about so much of life.
The list is priceless, but the absence of more meaningful concerns points to an emptiness, emphasized by all the white space on the page. These complaints are spaced out, dangling alone in paragraphs. A person obsessed with the fact that her navel orange is a little dry—not dry, mind you, but a little dry—probably doesn’t have a very fulfilling life. And the last line of the story reminds us of mortality: “The clock is ticking very loudly.” There are no intensifiers in death. You can’t be “pretty dead” or “a little dead” or “too dead.”
In the last story in Bark, “Thank You for Having Me,” Moore’s narrator reflects, “It felt important spiritually to go to weddings: to give balance to the wakes and memorial services.” And in “Debarking,” Moore describes “the moments before sleep [as] a kind of stark acquaintance with death.” Can’t and Won’t is a title that suggests denial, but Davis’s stories also display a stark acquaintance with death. We might not want to hear the ticking clock, but it’s there.