‘Lydia Davis,’ Ricky Moody says, ‘does the hardest thing: she makes it look easy.’ You could say the same about Lorrie Moore whose first book, Self Help, appeared in the mid-1980s and, along with Davis’s Break It Down, refreshed American short fiction in a style that was funny, philosophical and female. Moore, however, said something more interesting in 2009 when, discussing the decade she spent writing her novel A Gate at the Stairs, she explained that she didn’t have to work hard because she was ‘obsessive’. She was alluding, I think, to the restless perfectionism which is probably as familiar to writers of gimlet-eyed stories as it is to poets, football managers and surgeons. Moore’s obsessiveness produces stories which inspire devotion from readers so the publication of Bark, her first collection since 1998’s Birds of America, is a big deal.
Next year, Self Help turns 30. The best stories in that collection – How to Become a Writer, The Children’s Guide to Divorce – seem as radiant and experimental today as they must have done in the days of Ronald Reagan and dirty realism. I read them in 2001, an important year for the direction of Moore’s fiction and, of course, the world surrounding it. Bark develops the political themes that emerged in Gate. US critics appear to agree that Bark is as distinctively Midwestern as Moore’s Wisconsin-set novel but I picture the new stories playing out on less specific American terrain, in fractured communities where bookstores are closing down and people believe war is wrong but feel powerless to prevent it.
That’s not to say these eight stories aren’t as funny as anything Moore has written in the past. Even her goofy jokes (a man taking herbed bread to dinner at his girlfriend’s house because he thinks ‘her. bed’ is an omen) made me laugh out loud, the way you do when you want to be asked what you’re laughing at. ‘This is like you,’ I told my girlfriend, introducing the scene in Debarking where a woman invites her boyfriend over for ‘spring spaghetti’ (‘the same as regular spaghetti, you just serve it kind of lukewarm’). We recognise ourselves and people we know in Moore’s stories and, like Bruce Springsteen’s best songs (Moore likes ‘Meeting across the River’) they help us get through days, years, decades.
When I saw Moore discuss her Collected Stories four years ago, several audience members told her that her books had provided solace while they were living through divorces, bereavement and, in the case of one American, ‘the English Midlands’. Moore consoles those who are flummoxed by big things – war, marriage, Wolverhampton – and small things. She writes like somebody on whom nothing is lost and yet her ear for the difficulties of communication is so finely tuned that you imagine her life must involve its own misunderstandings. Take this tiny exchange from Wings:
“Well, they shouldn’t make rabbits so cute or we wouldn’t care if dogs ate them. Why are rabbits made so cute? What is nature’s purpose in that one?”
He beamed: “So you’re a philosopher?”
“No, not really,” she murmured, as if in fact she thought she might be.
Is it just me or do jarring exchanges like this occur every time you leave the house and prove nagging out of all proportion?
Moore’s prose lends itself to reading out loud so it’s good to hear that she’s coming to the UK for events this May. When Alice Munro, who’s one of Moore’s favourite writers, won the Nobel Prize in Literature last October, her stories were praised for covering as much ground as novels. That’s true of a story like Real Estate from Birds but Bark shows that short fiction’s closest relation can still be poetry. Like poems, these stories reward rereading and resist decoding. ‘The reader,’ Moore says, ‘must pace herself, since certainly the writer did.’ They map the old roads of a new reality. The final story, which threatens to turn as sourly sinister as something by Flannery O’Connor, is Thank You for Having Me. It is, as ever, a pleasure.