Lorrie Moore, “A Gate at the Stairs”

It is difficult to write a review of a novel that has significant events that cannot be revealed without destroying the tension of those events. In the same vein, Internet film reviews often caution their readers that the review contains spoiler information that gives away key plot information.

If you’re writing a review of a mystery novel or a who-done-it film, spoiler information has to be kept at bay; otherwise, the very integrity of the suspense will be at stake.

On the other hand, if you’re anything like me, I tend to want to know what a novel is about before I give up a week’s reading time to it.  A reviewer can keep specific spoiler details to a minimum without ruining the aesthetic and emotional effect of those details. And a good review can seduce you into wanting to read the work or it can be a quick way of selecting works you want to spend your time on. 

Having said all that, let me get the plot of Lorrie Moore’s recent novel, A Gate at the Stairs, out of the way first before I try my hand at explaining why I think Moore is one of the most talented contemporary writers on the American scene today.

The novel’s essential plot can easily be reduced to a hundred-and-forty character tweet message: a female college student leaves her small town to follow her own unique, serendipitous rite-of-passage journey (for college Monarch Notes fans, that brief plot overview can get you some general credit on an essay exam—names, events, and other factual information will have to wait).

Now, what are the events in the novel that probably shouldn’t be revealed? Let me be vaguely brief: in her college town, the central character and narrator, Tassie Keltjin, takes on a kind of au pair  job for a woman who hires her to watch a recently adopted two-year old (no mystery here; however, the woman and her husband’s  tragic past comes back to haunt them in this adoption); a second, not-to-be-revealed event revolves around her brief passionate affair with Reynaldo, another college student,  who, we later find out, has his own post-9/11 secret life; and the third highly-classified event brings the novel into another contemporary venue when Tassie’s brother graduates from high school and joins the army to be shipped off to Afghanistan.

One might also construe the actual separation of Tassie from her small town family life and hobby-farmer father  and mother as a very distinct and self-enclosed narrative of its own; it is a rural, small-town world she continues to come back to either on her college break or during  the  family crisis at the end of the novel. Given the raw, heart-breaking experiences she has in the college town, the rural life she grew up in seems to lose it dumb-wittedness as we get further into the novel.

For those wanting a quick analytical, structuralist approach to A Gate at the Stairs, there isn’t much more one can say about how  the novelist constructs her novel. She truly knows how to  build a plot. It may not be the action-driven narrative of a Bourne Identity, but the psychological underpinnings of choices her characters make and the secrets they withhold are enough to peek a reader’s curiosity—at least this reader.

Can the plot alone redeem Moore’s novel here? Yes, I believe the narrative can certainly stand on its own.  Moore has taken a contemporary-driven culture and molded it very convincingly into a fictional world. In that sense, the novelist is perfectly at home in writing a story that moves forward in its intensity.

The modernity of the novel’s setting and psychological mood—post-9/11, racism, political correctness, failed relationships, living life by default, and the arbitrary nature of events in our lives—easily encapsulate the ease with which Moore moves inside contemporary American culture.

I was recently reminded by a friend that arbitrariness and living by default are really post-modern issues. Not one to quibble about the fine-line distinctions between modern and postmodern,  I would agree that Ibsen and Strindberg, as the Cassandras of modernity,  certainly found the cracks in bourgeois respectability, romantic-driven relationships,  and the sacredness of marriage, as did Albee in his  play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

The more contemporary writers like John Wray and Lorrie Moore, on the other hand,  widen that crack it seems to me by presenting characters engaged in events that defy any kind of rational, unified-theory about human nature, or the etiology of why we do what we do. Randomness appears to be a given to the postmodern writers like Wray and Moore.

The novelist’s sharp-edged irony and dark humor also raise the novel up a realistic notch and keep her out of a world of sentimentalism that could have been her narrative tone had she overtly played into the escapist fictional world  that mainstream American fiction readers and film audiences seem to prefer (Moore’s bitingly edgy writing style and the incisive insights of Tassie as narrator quickly take the novel out of the “enchanting” category).

There is no doubt in my mind that A Gate at the Stairs is a thoroughly contemporary novel. Moore is certainly at home in hot contemporary topical issues—biracial adoptions, racism, terrorism, cross-cultural relationships, sexual orientation, and even the dumbing down of college general ed courses (With all of Tassie’s flights of fancy in believing that she is leaving the “flat green world of” her “parent’s hogless, horseless farm—its dullness, its flies” for an intellectually vibrant “city life of books,” she still manages to take a wine tasting course and a course in soundtracks to movies—so much for the elevated intellectual life of college).

But there is more to the novel than just a finely crafted story and a peek into American contemporary life, warts and all.

Moore is just plain good at what she does so well: writing. And writing with a difference. There are just too many examples of Moore’s writing craft that have to sit on the back burner of another review.  But for starters:

When Tassie first meets Sarah Brink who interviews her for the job of watching her bi-racial adopted child, Tassie tells us that the up-scale restaurant Sarah manages, Le Petit Moulin, “served things that sounded like instruments.”  Honing in on Sarah’s increasing vulnerability, Tassie deftly describes her in one laconic line: “I had yet to see her get ahold of the right change,” a quick, biting commentary on Sarah’s inability to get her entire life in order (Sarah’s husband turns out to be nothing more than an old-fashioned roué whose callousness rings loud and clear when he makes a feeble attempt to ask Tassie out to dinner after Sarah has left him).

Tassie’s first all-consuming college romance with her lover, Reynaldo, has all the makings of a naïve rural girl’s first exposure to her own innocence. But Tassie  proves herself as a tough, resilient woman in standing up to her lover when he reveals his true identity and then abandons her.  

If a reader has been paying close attention to Tassie’s initial commentaries about their relationship, her own strength comes as no surprise. When she describes their sexual relationship as having an “adhoccery” to it or graphically describes her lover’s penis as “small and sating as a trumpet mushroom in Easter basket grass,” there can be little doubt that this funny, sometimes self-abnegating woman will indeed survive. In the end, Tassie is fully aware of the reality that her tombstone will read “SHE DIDN’T DIE OF HAPPINESS.”

Moore’s ability to draw you into Tassie’s tough, poignant world of experiences reaches its full strength in the central character’s touching commentary on her own family. Tassie’s father seems to have fallen into farming by accident and ends up farming “dainty potatoes arranged by hue in purple net bags.” Her mother, disenchanted by her gardening role,  ends up putting mirrors in her garden to give the illusion of more flowers. And her brother, who barely graduated from his senior year of high school with “4Fs and a D,” chooses to go into the army rather than enroll in the hometown diesel driving school.

At the end of the novel, in the family’s response to their mutually shared tragedy, you just know, that, like Tassie, they will somehow endure.

For those who may still doubt Moore’s incredible passion for her craft, I would end with two startlingly beautiful descriptions Moore gives us of Tassie’s small town—one, the novel’s opening winter image:

The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead flying south, instead of having already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth.

Change the scene to spring and Moore’s craftsmanship remains undaunted:

It seemed now that the town had started to throw off the monochramitic winter to reveal its bright lunatic pajamas beneath. Though the robins had not yet reappeared, cardinals were whistling their mating songs. The remaining snowbanks were made dingy with rain. Only once did a late light snowfall blanket the town with a deadly quiet….

The rest, as they say, is silence.


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