Monday, March 17, 2014

Perfection ("Bark: Stories" by Lorrie Moore)

During my senior year in college, after almost eight full semesters of undergraduate literary analysis, I read Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude. It would become only the third book that I would read for pleasure during college; everything else--every textbook, novel, article, essay, and work of poetry--had been food for my insufferable and inescapable need to analyze everything..for symbolism, sexism and heteronormativity, historical accuracy, bias, and whatever else I was told to focus on. In those five years, some of my favorite authors released some of their best--and, in a few instances, some of their last--work, all of which I dutifully requested from the local library and never once attempted to read. I knew that the cracking of their spines would lead to a dissection by analysis, page after detailed page, rendering even the best book a worthless exercise in Purpose over Story. But Marquez was a different adventure altogether, and every day I would sneak away after my last class, plant myself in an isolated corner of the university library, and read the book oh-so slowly, taking in every analysis-resistant word. The entire process lasted two long, glorious months. To this day I don't know how this one novel was able to resist the poison that infected so many others--perhaps it was the density of the text, the hefty characters, the bewildering magical realism--but once I finished the last page, I instantly knew two things:  first, this was not only the best book I'd ever read but probably one of the best books ever written; and second, I never wanted to read it again. Ever.

Which is an interesting distinction that has reasserted itself quite often in the following years--an ability to recognize the meticulousness and superiority, even greatness, of a book while also acknowledging how little I enjoyed reading it. Or, to say it simpler, a different between what I considered a "great" book and what I considered a "favorite" book. When I'm reading Dickens, for instance, I marvel at the man's use of language to convey what should be an otherwise tawdry and melodramatic story--his ability to take a droll, ridiculous idea and make it stellar literature--all the while thinking to myself, "For God's sake, will this thing ever end?!" Even today, when I'm asked for my favorite book, I blanch, stumbling through an excuse that, no, I don't like revealing this information, as though it were my Social Security number or the passwords to all of my online banking accounts.* I don't feel like making my qualifications a topic of conversation, which would inevitably end with an embarrassed apology on my part and confused sideways glances on the part of those who asked what they thought would be a simple question.

Marquez's book still sits on my bookshelf in a place of honor, and I often find myself toying with the idea of reading it again--partly because I want to marvel like an undergraduate, and partly because I don't remember 90% of what was in that book, so complex is its story--but I know I never will, at least not until I'm much older or find myself bedridden with a horrible (albeit nonfatal) disease.  Regardless, I'm reminded of One Hundred Years of Solitude every so often when I pick up a novel or story collection that manages to be both perfectly written and incredibly boring. Bark, Lorrie Moore's most recent collection of short stories, is one of these books.

In Moore's defense, I've never exactly been one of her loyal readers. I was assigned a few of her more famous stories in college, enjoyed them as much as the next assigned reading, and thought nothing more about them. At the time I knew that Moore was a gifted writer who understood how the seriousness of our lives is often balanced with a sadness and humor that often lie beneath (and often lie together, inseparable and sometimes indistinguishable). Her characters were flawed, awkward, lonely, and unable to solve their own problems, like sleepwalkers who wake up just long enough to realize they're standing in a faraway intersection, lost. Her stories were not overdone--there were no overly pitiable characters, just as there were no saviors or illicit mistresses--and every word was heavy with implication. Each character seemed to live in their own moving reality--a walk-in closet on wheels, where they could retreat when everything became too much--unaware that its walls were transparent and stripped them naked to the world.

These tropes remain at the forefront of her newer stories--there are still the crossroads populated by restless sleepers, the ineffective sanctuaries to escape everyday life--but there's a disappointing weariness now, as if even Moore herself were tiring of her own characters. Almost all of them seem to be outspokenly and irritatingly liberal--bumper stickers show up more than once, and for no clear reason--and while this does make for a good subplot in "Foes," it also makes you wonder if people who shop at Whole Foods are the only ones gifted with nuance. Are there no Christian conservatives befriending neighbors for murky purposes? Are middle-aged Evangelicals incapable of feeling inadequate next to the children of their new boyfriends or girlfriends? Are Obama supporters the only ones who eat silly foods and think of their ideologies as superior?

The answer, obviously, is no, but even for someone who writes of our self-restrictions and reclusive nature, Moore's narrow world makes her stories--especially when placed side by side--downright claustrophobic. Which is too bad, since every single piece is otherwise beautifully written, so much so that I often found myself in awe, struggling to understand how one person could craft such evocative sentences out of such lackluster words and images; even the bark of trees, a motif that not only appears  throughout the collection but is also the title of the first--and best--story, fits with near perfection. In fact, much of what Moore does, both here and elsewhere, could easily be classified as perfect--precisely why she has such a fierce and loyal readerships. The problem is that perfect does not always mean interesting, and in this case, the excellence of her writing cannot rise above the flatness of what she's writing about.

*I've only revealed my favorite book once, to a co-worker at a summer temp job, who promptly went out and bought himself a copy. We never spoke of books again.