By Ron Charles
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
A GATE AT THE STAIRS
By Lorrie Moore
Knopf. 322 pp. $25.95
The first paragraph of Lorrie Moore's new novel imagines songbirds caught by a killing frost, heaps of them piling up in a cornfield and others dropping from the sky. That ghoulish image and an allusion to Sept. 11 just a few paragraphs later cast a funereal shadow over this coming-of-age story, but Moore is such a bright, witty writer that it's easy to ignore those warnings.
Then, like real life, she blindsides you with some red-raw tragedy.
"A Gate at the Stairs" is Moore's first novel in 15 years, which means a whole generation of readers has grown up thinking of her only as one of the country's best short-story writers. Get ready to expand your sense of what she -- and a novel -- can do. Moore returns to this longer form with an unhurried tale about a year in the life of a quirky young woman. The story's apparent modesty and ambling pace are deceptive, a cover for profound reflections on marriage and parenthood, racism and terrorism, and especially the baffling, hilarious, brutal initiation to adult life -- what all of us learn to endure "in the dry terror of cluelessness."
It begins in the fall of 2001, when Tassie Keltjin is a smart but inexperienced student from a farming community known as the "Extraterrestrial Capital of the World." She's dazzled by the sophistication of her Midwestern college town (Chinese food!) and riveted by academic life (Sylvia Plath!). In need of spending money, she gets a job as a nanny for a high-strung woman named Sarah Brink, who runs a French restaurant that happens to serve organic potatoes from her father's boutique farm. Sarah is brash and eccentric in a way Tassie has never known. Her face "was one of bravado laced with doom, like fat in meat." She darts down the up escalator just for fun and bakes her library books to kill the germs. "I was going to have to become a different person biologically just to associate with her," Tassie realizes. Something about the nanny job seems odd from the start -- Sarah doesn't have any children, for instance -- but this is largely a story about a young woman's introduction to the bizarre behavior that underlies apparently normal people's lives. "It seemed one could just say Are you serious? for the rest of existence and it would never be unjustified," Tassie thinks. "It was the beginning of a long stretch of thinking I was hearing things."
Much of the novel is taken up with Tassie's bemused observations on parents, her own and others', old and new, white and black. Hovering slightly outside the world, lonely but yearning, she can be a piercingly perceptive critic even when her sympathies are fully engaged. Sarah wants Tassie to be with her in the final stages of her efforts to adopt a baby, and so she accompanies Sarah to troubling, awkward interviews with potential birth mothers. It's an education more sobering than anything Tassie is studying in college. "After a childhood of hungering to be an adult," she thinks, "my hunger had passed. Unexpected fates had begun to catch my notice. These middle-aged women seemed very tired to me, as if hope had been wrung out of them and replaced with a deathly, walking sort of sleep."
Eventually, Sarah and her errant husband bring home a biracial toddler, a happy event that provides material for some of the novel's most incisive and comic commentary about race in America. Shocked by a slur shouted by some passing teens, Sarah begins meetings at her house for other "transracial, biracial, multiracial families." What transpires is a hilarious parody of "a spiritually gated community of liberal chat." Every Wednesday night "the opinions downstairs were put forth with such emphasis and confidence, it all sounded like an orchestra made up entirely of percussion." Is there a better description of the toneless exchange of platitudes about race in this country? Tassie listens with a mixture of alarm and sarcasm as Sarah grows more grandiose about raising her child. "We are pioneers," she tells Tassie with forced seriousness. "We are doing something important, unprecedented and unbearably hard." No more singing "I Been Working on the Railroad" with the baby; Sarah is concerned about "the grammar and the use of slave labor."
I should warn you that Moore is a lot more interested in her narrator than her plot. There is a fair amount of precocious riffing in this novel, a syncopation of sweet and mordant beats. Things do happen -- even startling, gripping things -- but any reader who needs that to stay engaged will have drifted away 200 pages earlier during one of Tassie's soliloquies. Much of her fascination with words and wordplay is amusing, but some of it seems too clever by half, along with her super-duper writing-seminar descriptions of the weather that are polished to distracting brilliance. The events of 9/11 enter the novel with mixed success, too. Tassie's entanglement with an Islamofascist, for instance, seems corny and forced in a story that treats all of her other relationships with depth and sensitivity.
But what's so endearing is Moore's ability to tempt us with humor into the surreal boundaries of human experience, those strange decisions that make no sense out of context, the things we can't believe anyone would do. The novel's climax takes us right into the disorienting logic of grief for a scene that's both horrifying and tender, a grotesque violation of taboos that's entirely forgivable and heartbreaking.
That paradox is reflected in the novel's title. Nominally, it refers to the gate -- "still broken" -- in front of the stairs at Sarah's house. But as the story progresses, Moore turns the phrase over and over, drawing it out as a metaphor for the stairway to heaven, blocked for most of us by a gate that may or may not open. The image shows up again in the "waltzy ballads" that Tassie writes for her bass guitar. Indeed, one of the many surprising aspects of this novel is its concern for spiritual issues, despite its sheen of slacker irreverence. Tassie tosses the Bible aside as "the official Judeo-Christian comedy," but her reflections are laced with cleverly turned Scriptural allusions. At times, these witty, beautiful sentences made me imagine Marilynne Robinson doing stand-up.
"Death and dessert," Tassie thinks when she sees two bowls, one with cream, the other with an artificial sweetener "invented accidentally by chemists during a reformulation of insecticide." They're emblems of the way Tassie eventually regards the world. "Sweetness and doom, lay side by side," she thinks. "I was coming to see that this was not uncommon." It's not uncommon at all in this strange and moving novel.
You can e-mail Charles at firstname.lastname@example.org.