Saturday, May 22, 2010

book review: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs
The backstory: Aside from Lorrie Moore's short stories in the The New Yorker, I have never read her fiction. I've wanted to read her latest novel, A Gate at the Stairs, since it was released in September. I appeared on numerous Best of the Year lists for 2009, including The New York Times, which listed it as one of the five best novels of the year. It was nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. The book finally moved to the top of my TBR pile when it was named to the shortlist for the 2010 Orange Prize (the winner will be announced June 9, 2010.)

The basics: A Gate at the Stairs is a coming-of-age novel about Tassie, a half-Jewish farm girl attending college in the typically liberal Midwestern university town of Troy in the days after 9/11. Tassie begins nannying for a white couple who adopt a biracial baby.

The verdict: Lorrie Moore is perhaps best known for her short stories. Even in this novel, she often wrote like a short story writer. Observation was lengthy and action was lacking at times:
"I accidentally nodded. I had no idea, conversationally, where we were. I searched, as I too often found  myself having to do, to find a language or even an octave, in which to speak." (p.16)
Moore's writing is undeniably luminous and moving. She captured the ideas of my generation (like Tassie, I was in living in the Midwest and in college when 9/11 happened):
"Thanks, maybe later?" I said with the question mark our generation believed meant politeness but which baffled our parents. (p. 45)
The story is at times a coming of age tale:
Though in real life a boy's love was a meager thing, we liked what a boy's love could do in a poem or a song. (p. 218)
The book captured me from the first pages, and I immediately identified with and adored Tassie. The book started to turn for me, however, when the story began to seem less like a nuanced observation and more and more like a satire:
"Here was so proud of itself. Here was so progressive and exemplary. Here was so lockstep lefty. Here was so--white. The only color they knew here was the local one they took on for camouflage and convenience. If this were Salt Lake City, I knew, half the people here would have happily been Mormons. Instead, righteous and complacent and indistinguishable from one another, they were all members of the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation." (pages 151-152)
It doesn't have to be one or the other, of course, and I admire Moore making me question how my own love of liberal Midwestern towns (I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas) may temper my ability to hear their fictitious cousins analyzed. Jane Smiley made me laugh, smile and embrace the nutty truth of a Midwestern college town in Moo, but Moore increasingly put me on the defensive with A Gate at the Stairs. There were certainly several self-righteous characters who patronized Tassie. At times, I couldn't tell if these characters were patronizing the reader as well. 

At the heart of this story are soon issues of race. In this white town, young Tassie appears to be the mother of Emmie, a black baby. It is the racial opposite of the oft-depicted stories of black nannies caring for white babies in the South. Issues of maternal bonding are crucial in this novel, with both Tassie's relationship with her own mother, and Tassie's relationship to Emmie. When a child is simultaneously introduced to an adoptive mother and a nanny, it creates a fascinating family dynamic. 

As the novel went on, Moore played with the idea of metaphors and humor. There was a disconnect between characters taking metaphors literally or culturally:

"Well that's hogwash." I had once seen a hog washed. In whey. The hog was Helen, and she really liked it, the slop of the whey, then later a cool hose. (p. 190)
There were numerous visual jokes with homophones. I've read some negative reviews of readers who listened to the audio version of this book, and I understand why they didn't like it. There are far too many visual plays on language, and I cannot imagine how the audio version would pick up on these jokes.

Reading this book was a roller coaster for me. I loved parts of it and hated parts of it. I was ambivalent for several pages, then Moore would pull out a passage like this one to make me sing her praises:
I had also that in literature--perhaps as in life--one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself. The creator was inconvenient--God was dead. But the creation itself had a personality and  hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent. In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney. The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk, and talk and speak of its own yearnings. (p. 263-264)
How does one decide what to do with a book that is beautifully written and wonderful at times? I pondered it for a few days after I finished it. I contemplated the good, the less good and the bad. I contemplated the book as a whole and let it sit with me. Ultimately, it's a beautifully written novel, and while I like the idea of it, I think Moore tried to fit too much into this novel. The parts did form a cohesive whole for me. I do think it's a good book, but it's not a book I liked.

Orange thoughts: A Gate at the Stairs is the third shortlist book I've read, and it's my least favorite. I'm ambivalent about it being included because I did admire Moore's writing and the idea of the novel, but her execution fell short for me. So far, it's in last place in the Orange Prize race for me.

Recommended for: Fans of literary fiction and Lorrie Moore.

Rating: 3/5
Length: 336
Publication date: September 1, 2009 (the paperback will be out September 7, 2010)
Source: my local public library because I didn't want to spend $14.27 for the Kindle version.

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  1. It sounds as though we had similar thoughts on this one. I loved some of the writing, but nothing really happened and I found myself getting bored when reading it.

  2. I read this before the longlist was announced, and with relatively little LM reading experience but, even so, I was surprised to feel so strongly that it was a book that would merit re-reading. I was struck rather late in the book (I guess if I'd read more of her work I'd've been on the lookout earlier on) by the sense that there'd been other layers to the earlier parts of the story that I was just reading through rather superficially, things that I realized later held more meaning than I'd attached to them at the time. Which I suppose is perfectly appropriate given the narrator's age. It's not so much a book that I loved, but definitely one that I admire.


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