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Bark: Stories
Bark: Stories
Lorrie Moore
Knopf, 2014
208 pp., $24.95

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Alissa Wilkinson

Punny Business

Lorrie Moore on the loose again.

Like many of her contemporaries, Lorrie Moore likes to play with the space between what words say and what they mean. The short stories in Self-Help (1985), many written in the imperative, ostensibly tell the reader "how to be an other woman" or "how to become a writer" or "go like this"—but the book's title betrays its true audience. Moore tinkers with the forms of fiction, too: Anagrams (1986) features several stories in which the same characters, names, plot points, and details get rearranged into different configurations; the stories in Birds of America (1998) ape the Audubon guide by the same title. (She has also written a 1994 novella, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital, and a 2009 novel, A Gate at the Stairs, but the short story is where her talent shines.)

All of these collections contain formally or thematically linked stories that let the reader see a theme from different angles and grasp its complexity. One of her more pronounced stylistic tics takes this prismatic approach down to the micro-level: Moore is obsessed with puns and wordplay, exploiting the multiple meanings of a single word to create a joke, expose a truth, or both. Her characters (frequently plain, single women who wish they were neither) are forever punning for a darkly comic effect, often in order to hide their hurt behind an affected lighthearted irony. In "How to Be an Other Woman," the narrator tells her reader to address her lover thusly: "Say: 'I suffer indignities at your hands. And agonies of duh feet. I don't know why I joke. I hurt.' "

The epigraph of Moore's new collection, Bark, makes it clear that the title is itself a pun: bark, like what a dog says, and bark, like what envelops a tree. In the epigraph, Moore quotes Louise Gluck's Vita Nova: "In the splitting up dream / we were fighting over who would keep / the dog … be a brave dog—this is / all material; you'll wake up / in a different world, / you will eat again, you will grow up into a poet! / Life is very weird, ...

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