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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Posted: 19 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A slim volume of intense short stories invites a second, maybe even a third, reading.

LORRIE Moore is an American writer. Although she has published three novels, she is better known for her short stories. She is the winner of numerous literary awards, including the O. Henry Award, The Irish Times International Fiction Prize for her collection of short stories, Birds Of America, and the REA Award for the Short Story. Bark is her fifth collection of short stories.

There are only eight stories in this collection, half of which have already been published elsewhere, which makes for quite a slim volume. With so few stories you might initially think that you don't get much bang for your buck – or book, as the case may be – but bang is exactly what you get.

Most of these stories hit the ground running, and you better start running too or you'll find it hard keep up. Some of the stories are paced at a breakneck, frenetic rush that rarely pauses for breath – one can't help wondering how much caffeine was involved in the writing process.

These stories are predominantly character driven. Apart from brief descriptions that conjure up some soulless urban or suburban setting, there is very little sense of place. These are principally stories about the difficulties and joys, but mostly difficulties, of the characters' relationships: relationships between men and women, older men and younger women, women and their children, women and their women friends, between the living and the dead. There are relationships that are morally dubious, relationships that have ended, or are starting, others that might have been.

The writer bores inside her characters' heads and reveals their hopes and aspirations and fears and fragilities. Though you sense in her writing that there is an undercurrent of wry humour, it is most effective when it, quite unexpectedly, bursts to the surface. I had quite a few genuine laugh-out-loud moments, but they wouldn't have been as funny if she hadn't managed to build tension so successfully. She uses humour like a pressure valve letting off steam.

The stories are written in a world seen through world-weary eyes, eyes that have seen a lot, perhaps too much. Though there is no naïveté in her writing style, rather much the contrary, she still avoids falling into the trap of cynicism, although she hovers close to it at times. Ultimately though, there is a thread of idealism or hope in all these stories, a silver lining, perhaps neglected and tarnished silver, but even though it has lost some of its sheen, it is silver all the same.

Moore doesn't pull her punches, she doesn't mince her words. Instead she deftly fillets them right off the bone with precision and a razor sharp insight, and what at times is an irreverently malicious, but ultimately compassionate, gleam in her eye.

It's clear that Moore loves words and language. She plays around with rhymes, and puns on words and their different meanings. Like many of the stories, and the title of the book, there is a use of the inherent ambiguity and wordplay with the different meanings that words can have. While she doesn't quite take it to the extreme level of Will Self – in his deliberately ambiguously titled short story Scale, which manages to interweave many diverse meanings of the word into a coherent plot – there are similar explorations.

My favourite story in Bark is the longest, a story called Wings in which the female at first suspects, then hopes, then wishes her boyfriend would sell drugs. The title Wings might conjure up images of freedom and flight (an ambiguous word in itself) – and there is an element of both of those (or all three) in the story – but Moore also plays around with the architectural and theatrical aspects of the word.

In another story she puns on the months of March or May, and the book's title Bark, with its different definitions, comes back again and again through many of these stories. There is a line in the story Wings where one character referring to dogs says that "no bark is worse than a bite", forcing us to look at the old adage, for in truth, as she points out, even the worst bark is preferable to being bitten.

These eight stories resonate for a long time after reading. Due to their shortness and fast pace they might be hastily gobbled down, but despite that, they take some time to digest. The more I think of these stories after reading them, the more clever and intricate they seem. I suspect all these stories could bear at least a second reading without losing any of their power, a thesis I fully intend to put to the test. I enjoyed this book a lot and I think I will enjoy it even more when I read it next.


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