Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Given that A Gate at the Stairs received two strong reviews from The New York Times (and landed on many "best of" lists), I hesitate to say I didn't really care for it...but I didn't really care for it. Moore is a talented writer and I have enjoyed her darkly humorous short stories. Here, however, she struggles to integrate the events in narrator Tassie Keltjin's life into a meaningful whole--or perhaps she didn't care about that integration, but I unfortunately do.

At the book's opening, Tassie, a college student in fictional Troy, Wisconsin (which bears many resemblances to Madison, where Moore teaches), is looking for a job. She hires on as a babysitter for Sarah Brink, who is trying to adopt a child and, after at least one misstep, adopts two-year-old, biracial Mary-Emma. Moore pokes fun at some of the ridiculous notions of modern parenting (Sarah bakes library books to kill the germs before she'll let Emmie read them) and liberals' attempts to talk their way through racism; the conversation that drifts up the stairs to the nursery as members of families that are biracial, multiracial, or "of color" meet in Sarah's living room are both hilarious and painful. Moore can still make me laugh: her litany of 36 fabric colors that begin with P (some complete with exclamation marks--"Paprika, Pinot, Persimmon! Pimento! Pomegrante, Pine!") is wonderful.

But Tassie experiences some very bad things (I won't say what they are out of respect for future readers of the book), and, in my view, Moore is less skillful in weaving these events into the story. They feel as though they were plunked into the narrative to give Tassie an experience of loss that she can then process. But they make little sense in terms of a plot, and Tassie's efforts to move on are unevenly rendered--two of the three bad things that happen to her are reflected on at length, the other (though heart-rending) seems to have had much less impact.

Tassie's narration is uneven. At times, her actions and her thoughts reflect a naive girl from rural Wisconsin. At others, she seems to be a typical college student struggling to find herself. Those two "selves" make sense, but at other times she thinks and acts in a way that suggests a great deal of intellectual (and implausible) sophistication. Some reviewers have complained about the puns in the book; for the most part, they don't bother me. I was, however, bothered by the ending, in which Moore employs an Austenesque "Reader, I..." device that awkwardly draws the book to a close.

Favorite passages:

Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classrooom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society full of sorrow and truth but without moral function. Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare.

(This is beautifully written--and a good example of narration that doesn't seem true to the 20-year-old Tassie.)

I strung a thick old rope between the poles [of an abandoned tennis court], and I took my collection of Rumi poems and carefully flattened and unstrung it so I could hang folded pages along the crease, tacking them into the rope with pushpins, and I lay underneath and read.

(Okay, I love the idea of the poems on the rope more than the actual writing here.)

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