If you had to criticize one thing about Lorrie Moore — and I don’t know why you would, because she’s awesome — it might be that her humor and her world-weary sense of the absurd are almost too distinctive. An improbable number of characters in her stories, after all, say the same sort of weird, bleakly hilarious stuff. It’s a bit like the restaurant scene in Being John Malkovich where everyone, male and female, has John Malkovich’s face.
But I don’t have the heart to really complain about any of this: I’ve been addicted to Moore’s voice for a long time now and want more, not less, of it. Her new collection, Bark, rounds up a decade’s worth of short stories, the most perfect of which ran in The New Yorker. Moore’s characters still use sarcasm and cynicism as their sword and shield. They still tiptoe shamelessly up to the edge of stand-up comedy to impress one another (” ‘I did phone the pest removal place but they charge a thousand dollars. I said, Where are you taking them to, Europe?’ ”). And in their quest for happiness — or at least a halfway-fulfilling relationship in a suburb two towns over from happiness — they still careen between anger and self-loathing. In Moore’s earlier books, her jittery, cerebral characters suspected that life and love were going to disappoint them. Now they know for sure. ”Rage had its medicinal purposes,” Moore writes in ”Paper Losses,” ”but she was not wired to sustain it and when it tumbled away, loneliness engulfed her, grief burning at the center in a cold blue heat.”
Bark has a few less fully formed stories — is it strange to say a 192-page book feels padded? — but it’s also got a stunner out of left field called ”Referential.” The story is an homage to Nabokov, and concerns a mother visiting her violently disturbed and heartbreaking 12-year-old son in an institution, all the while worrying that her increasingly distant boyfriend, Pete, is about to bail on her for good. ”Referential” arrives late in the collection like a storm system, clearing away your preconceptions of what the author is capable of. I can’t say that it’s Moore at her best, but only because she’s been so good so many times before. A-