A single room couldn't contain all the folding chairs at A Room of One's Own Wednesday night, as Lorrie Moore prepared to read from her new book, Bark. Though Moore accepted a professorship at Vanderbilt University about a year ago, after nearly 30 years teaching in the UW's creative writing department, the audience welcomed her as a neighbor and friend. She did the same, lobbing cheerful personal greetings at several of the 75 or so attendees. If she was feeling anxious, it was hard to tell.
I wondered how the crowd would respond to the collection of short stories, considering the not-so-stellar reviews that appeared in The New York Times and The Guardian. In typical Midwestern fashion, they were polite; if they had complaints, they weren't voicing them directly. A few eyebrows may have been raised, but events like these tend to draw fans, not foes.
Moore opened the event by sharing that dinner-party tales are among her favorite types of stories to write. After all, some of her most beloved works, such as "People Like That Are the Only People Here," take place at get-togethers, where tension and awkwardness often run rampant. "Foes," the story she read, is full of both.
New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani laments that many of Bark's stories "suffer from being squished into contrived packages, intended to underscore... [existential] realizations on the part of the hero or heroine." She quotes at length from "Foes" leading up to this conclusion, zeroing in on a passage where the main character, Bake, discovers that the woman seated next to him isn't Asian, as he'd originally hoped. As the narrator notes, Bake "had always been attracted to Asian women, though he knew he mustnâ€™t ever mention this." His fantasy is shattered when he sees that the woman has had lousy plastic surgery: "A botched eye job. A bad face-lift. An acid peel." One can almost feel Kakutani cringe as she repeats these words. There's something offensive about them, or at least racially insensitive, even if it's unintentional.
Before launching into "Foes," Moore acknowledged that she would like to see Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, read at the UW later that evening. In other words, she'd keep the proceedings brief. Luckily, her story unfolded easily, the audience's chuckles coaxing it along. Bake is bad at lying, but he can't seem to help himself at the fundraiser dinner he's attending, even though he's been instructed to charm the wealthy donors. He tells Linda, the plastic-surgery victim, that he's from "just outside" Chicago though he's really from Michigan. He says he's won a Nobel Prize. It becomes painfully obvious that these statements are false, and the more he tries to make them sound plausible, the more hilariously he fails. "Help me!" he whispers in his wife's ear as the situation reels out of control. Moore added desperation to his voice as she read his plea, making the crowd burst into giggles.
There were many similar moments that made the bookstore feel like a cozy living room, or a classroom of children watching a teacher read a picture book. Laughter was an easy, natural response, not an expectation, as it can sometimes be at readings.
That said, some details about Bake seem tired, like how he'd learned that "unless you see the head crowning, never look at a woman's stomach and ask if she's pregnant." (When I visited a sandwich shop after the reading, I saw a nearly identical piece of wisdom on a list of Dave Barry quotations.) And during an odd tangent about Midwesterners and their "terrorist friends," there was silence, perhaps due to confusion. Though Moore may have been making a joke or political statement in this passage of "Foes," its essence was lost during the reading. But she soldiered on like a resilient comedian, looking for her next laugh rather than fretting about an off moment. This is exactly what she should do when she writes her next book.