From "Thank You for Having Me"
The day following Michael Jackson’s death, I was constructing my own memorial for him. I played his videos on YouTube and sat in the kitchen at night, with the iPod light at the table’s center the only source of illumination. I listened to “Man in the Mirror” and “Ben,” my favorite, even if it was about a killer rat. I tried not to think about its being about a rat, as it was also the name of an old beau, who had e-mailed me from Istanbul upon hearing of Jackson’s death. Apparently there was no one in Turkey to talk about it with. “When I heard the news of MJackson’s death I thought of you,” the ex-beau had written, “and that sweet, loose-limbed dance you used to do to one of his up-tempo numbers.”
I tried to think positively. “Well, at least Whitney Houston didn’t die,” I said to someone on the phone. Every minute that ticked by in life contained very little information, until suddenly it contained too much.
“Mom, what are you doing?” asked my fifteen-year-old daughter, Nickie. “You look like a crazy lady sitting in the kitchen like this.”
“I’m just listening to some music.”
“But like this?”
“I didn’t want to disturb you.”
“You are so totally disturbing me,” she said.
Nickie had lately announced a desire to have her own reality show so that the world could see what she had to put up with.
I pulled out the earbuds. “What are you wearing tomorrow?”
“Whatever. I mean, does it matter?”
“Uh, no. Not really.” Nickie sauntered out of the room. Of course it did not matter what young people wore: they were already amazing looking, without really knowing it, which was also part of their beauty. I was going to be Nickie’s date at the wedding of Maria, her former babysitter, and Nickie was going to be mine. The person who needed to be careful what she wore was me.
It was a wedding in the country, a half-hour drive, and we arrived on time, but somehow we seemed the last ones there. Guests milled about semipurposefully. Maria, an attractive, restless Brazilian, was marrying a local farm boy, for the second time—a second farm boy on a second farm. The previous farm boy she had married, Ian, was present as well. He had been hired to play music, and as the guests floated by with their plastic cups of wine, Ian sat there playing a slow melancholic version of “I Want You Back.” Except he didn’t seem to want her back. He was smiling and nodding at everyone and seemed happy to be part of this send-off. He was the entertainment. He wore a T-shirt that read, thank you for having me. This seemed remarkably sanguine and useful as well as a little beautiful. I wondered how it was done. I myself had never done anything remotely similar. “Marriage is one long conversation,” wrote Robert Louis Stevenson. Of course, he died when he was forty-four, so he had no idea how long the conversation could really get to be.
“I can’t believe you wore that,” Nickie whispered to me in her mauve eyelet sundress.
“I know. It probably was a mistake.” I was wearing a synthetic leopard-print sheath: I admired camouflage. A leopard’s markings I’d imagined existed because a leopard’s habitat had once been alive with snakes, and blending in was required. Leopards were frightened of snakes and also of chimpanzees, who were in turn frightened of leopards—a standoff between predator and prey, since there was a confusion as to which was which: this was also a theme in the wilds of my closet. Perhaps I had watched too many nature documentaries.
“Maybe you could get Ian some lemonade,” I said to Nickie. I had already grabbed some wine from a passing black plastic tray.
“Yes, maybe I could,” she said and loped across the yard. I watched her broad tan back and her confident gait. She was a gorgeous giantess. I was in awe to have such a daughter. Also in fear—as in fearful for my life.
“It’s good you and Maria have stayed friends,” I said to Ian. Ian’s father, who had one of those embarrassing father-in-law crushes on his son’s departing wife, was not taking it so well. One could see him misty-eyed, treading the edge of the property with some iced gin, keeping his eye out for Maria, waiting for her to come out of the house, waiting for an opening, when she might be free of others, so he could rush up and embrace her.
“Yes.” Ian smiled. Ian sighed. And for a fleeting moment everything felt completely fucked up.
Excerpted from Bark by Lorrie Moore. Copyright © 2014 by Lorrie Moore. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Lorrie Moore, after many years as a professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, is now Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of English at Vanderbilt University. Moore has received honors for her work, among them the Irish Times International Prize for Literature and a Lannan Foundation fellowship, as well as the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for her achievement in the short story. Her most recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs, was shortlisted for the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction and for the PEN/Faulkner Award.
A Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize Finalist
“Uncanny. . . . Moving. . . . A powerful collection.” —The Washington Post
“Moore’s one of the country’s most admired writers. . . . [Bark] shows off a true advance of Moore’s powers and offers some first-rate reading pleasure.” —NPR
“[Bark is] a book to which people will refer back to understand life as we lived it in the past ten years.” —Salon
“Her stories, her stories, are perfect.” —Slate
“Here is why one reads Moore: the terse, true polish of her emotional wisdom.” —The Boston Globe
“Probably no writer since Nabokov has been as language-obsessed as Moore. . . . [Bark] lets us contemplate and savor just what makes her work unique.” —The New York Times Book Review (cover)
“Irresistible.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune
“100% brilliant, as usual. . . . Moore has come to enjoy the unusual distinction of being just about the darkest light writer around. Unhappiness, heartbreak, illness, grief, disappointment—who’d have thought they could be so much fun?” —Geoff Dyer, The Observer (London)
“Extraordinary. . . . Moore’s construction of a sentence, a paragraph, a page, is rarely less than exhilarating. . . . There is a moral nobility to Moore’s assertion that even the least brilliant of lives deserve to be brilliantly documented. . . . Moore does not make us feel better; she hurts us. But she hurts us in vital, generous ways, and it is testament to the brilliance of her writing that we let her.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
“If you adore Lorrie Moore, as so many of us do, you’ll find much to enjoy in her new collection. . . . All the sparkly balls are in play—puns, politics, pop culture details, sometimes all at once.” —Newsday
“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. . . . 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.” —Entertainment Weekly
“Laugh-out-loud funny. . . . Reading the stories one after another is a reminder of her uncanny ability to sum up, in a sentence or two, the truths that might take a lifetime to grasp.” —Houston Chronicle
“Lorrie Moore’s writing is strange and wonderful. It should be among anyone’s top reasons for being alive.” —PopMatters
“A vital work of literature.” —Electric Literature
1. What is the metaphor of the title? How do the epigraphs help to set it up?
2. The stories share several themes, among them aging and the passage of time, parents and children, divorce and separation. What would you say is the primary theme of the collection?
3. Several of the story titles have multiple meanings. How does Moore’s wordplay keep the reader guessing?
4. The dialogue in Moore’s stories is often funny. Would you call the stories themselves humorous?
5. Real-life current events cast shadows over several of the stories. How does Moore use them to shape a deeper meaning?
6. In “Debarking,” when Zora tells Ira, “Every family is a family of alligators,” (p. 15), how does this foreshadow what’s to come?
7. Ira reads a poem in Bekka’s journal: “Time moving. / Time standing still. / What is the difference? / Time standing still is the difference” (p. 31). He has no idea what it means, but he knows that it’s awesome. What do you think the poem means?
8. Why do you think Moore titled the story following “Debarking” “The Juniper Tree”?
9. This second story has a dreamlike quality. Do you think Moore expects the reader to accept it as realistic?
10. In “Paper Losses,” Kit asserts: “A woman had to choose her own particular unhappiness carefully. That was the only happiness in life: to choose the best unhappiness” (p. 68). What do you think of this notion?
11. What point is Moore making in “Foes”?
12. What is the metaphor of the “rat king” sequence (p. 140) in “Wings”?
13. In “Subject to Search,” Tom says that cruelty comes naturally to everyone (p. 166). Do you agree? Does that assertion prove true in Moore’s stories?
14. “Thank You for Having Me” draws a clear connection between weddings and funerals, marriage and death. What connections have you seen in your own experience?
15. On page 184, Moore writes, “Maria was a narrative girl and the story had to be spellbinding or she lost interest in the main character, who was sometimes herself and sometimes not.” Which other characters in the collection could be described in this way?
16. Which of Moore’s characters would you most like to meet again?