A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Jonathan Lethem is an author whose work, at least that portion I have read, impresses me. He wrote a review for this book which heavily influenced my purchase and choice to read. Not least convincing was his reference to another of her works as “Nabokovian.” His review indicated that A Gate at the Stairs, Moore’s first full-length novel, “should spell the end” of Moore being counted as “a miniaturist”. In other words, Lethem gushed.

GateAtTheStairsMy take is not like Lethem’s. This story of college student and narrator Tassie Keltjin did not have me turning to anyone to press it on them. Well, to be fair, for the first 100 pages, I had started mentally composing a list of people to whom I would strongly recommend the book. Slowly, the list dwindled until there were none. This is not to say the book is no good, only that I am no booster.

I was impressed by Moore’s sense of humor, her seeming ease in crafting a sentence, her vivid portrayals of people young and old, and even her many puns. As an example of Moore’s talent, I offer Tassie’s description of her mother and their relationship:

[S]he was a Jewish woman married to a Lutheran farmer named Bo and perhaps because of that had the same indifferent reserve the mothers of my friends had. Halfway through my childhood I came to guess that she was practically blind as well. It was the only explanation for the thick glasses she failed often even to find. Or for the kaleidoscope of blood vessels burst, petunia-like, in her eyes, scarlet blasting into the white from mere eyestrain, or a careless swipe with her hand. It explained the strange way she never quite looked at me when we were speaking, staring at a table or down at a tile of a floor, as if halfheartedly plotting its disinfection while my scarcely controlled rage flew from my mouht in sentences I hoped would be, perhaps not then but perhaps later, like knives to her brain.

Even so, the ingredients, though fresh and original, made the casserole too busy for my taste by about half. Of course, I was one of those children who did not like my peas to touch my carrots, so casseroles are generally suspect.

Among the themes and issues that seem paramount at one point or another are: class, race, power, relationships, subterfuge, birth, death, rebirth, growing up, bureaucracy, and identity. And it is self-consciously “post 9/11”, though, as Lethem notes, this aspect is managed “with a deft sleight of hand.”

Very likely, most of these issues would be touched on in any serious American novel set between 2001 and now. Possibly, someone will manage to take on each of these aspects and say something new about them each. Moore, in my opinion, does not. Each time I felt she was on the cusp of an interesting revelation on race or Kafka-esque bureaucracy or the malleability of identity or death, she seemed to run out of steam or interest or both.

The most prominent example of this comes early. Tassie is looking for a job as a childcare provider. A busy professional couple, Sarah and Edward Brink, hires her. The Brinks plan to adopt, but have not yet found a child. Through an adoption agency, they ultimately locate and are able to adopt a delightful child whose biological mother is white and whose biological father is black. The hiring of Tassie, the looking for a baby, the couple’s dynamics, the adoption process are all handled with warranted aplomb by Moore.

Before the Brinks find their baby, Moore manages some excellent shots at racism-light. The most memorable and sharpest is when Sarah Brinks goes on a rant after being told by an adoption agency:

We’ve had a lot of luck with South America. Paraguay has opened up again, and other countries, too. And they’re not all brown there, either. There’s been a lot of German influence, and some of these kids are beautiful, very blond, or blue-eyed, or both.

Sarah’s biting comments in response are immediately gratifying, but lack either the depth or the nuance to give satisfaction. And this was my problem: Moore’s best shots are at easy targets.

The spectre of race feels a little clumsy in Moore’s hands. At first, I discounted the simplistic discussions of race on the grounds that Tassie was relating the thoughts and statements of other characters and that the point was that we, as a nation, tend to think and talk on such a shallow level about race. For instance, early on we get this from an adoption agent with a “biracial” son while showing Sarah Brinks pictures of a child up for adoption:

“…And he has been raised with a sense of total racial blindness. It’s a beautiful thing. He knows his adoption story by heart, how mommy’s tummy didn’t work, and he has completely embraced it.” The adoption business seemed to be full of women’s “broken tummies.” “When he was ten years old he was watching Gregory Hines dance on TV, and he said, ‘Look, Mom, that dancing man is adopted.’ It was the cutest thing.”

It didn’t sound that cute. It sounded odd. It sounded like it had the sharp edge of a weird lie poking into it….I glanced over at Sarah, who was remaining tight-lipped and nodding….Although later I would hear her say, repeatedly, “Racial blindness — now there’s a very white idea,” right then she merely asked, “When were these pictures taken?”

Moore seems to circle closer and closer to some sort of statement or revelation, but, all at once, race disappears as a significant issue in the novel. Moore has provided glimpses of people saying and doing stupid things regarding race and witty, clueless, or bleeding obvious responses to those stupid things, but Moore never manages to get through the surface of any racial issues.

Other aspects of the book also seemed to fall apart. I found Moore’s descriptions of farming alternately charming and unconvincing. Granted, Tassie describes her father as practicing “Dadaist agriculture”, i.e. “He farms nothing.” Still, when Tassie puts on a hawk costume, specially designed by her father, to scare mice from in front of his thresher, the “farming” aspect becomes ridiculous.

The story unraveled for me right about the same time as the plastic hawk costume for scaring mice was donned by Tassie. Previously unimportant aspects become important, some obvious developments develop, previously important characters disappear, secrets are revealed, and many a pun are deployed. Unfortunately, among all this activity, the coherence of the book devolved from promise to disappointment.

I should not end negatively because I can say the Lorrie Moore is a very good writer and, importantly, quite funny when she wants to be. For instance, her description of one of Tassie’s neighbors is delightful:

Kay, who lived in the largest flat, was middle-aged and the only tenant not a student; she was always in some skirmish with the landlord about the building. “He has no idea what he’s up against letting this building go the way he has,” Kay said to me once. “When something’s off here I have nothing else to think about. I mean, I have no other life. I can make this my life. He doesn’t appreciate what he’s up against. He’s up against someone with no life.”

On the strength of her humor and her set pieces, I will search out some of Moore’s other work. I will not recommend this novel, though. It has Jonathan Lethem’s impimatur, if you feel you want to read it, so mine is unnecessary. But do not go in with too high expectations.

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8 Responses to A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

  1. Ouch, Kerry. We have posted almost exactly the same reviews on the same book within a couple of hours of each other — and we have not duplicated a single quote. I second virtually every observation in this review — indeed, my own review contains most of them. Right down to the final observation that both of us were impressed enough by Moore’s failure here to look at her other work. Amazing.

  2. Kerry says:

    Kevin,

    As I said over at your place, sorry for not checking your “upcoming”. I would have delayed my post to respond to yours rather than a near-simul post as happened. But I am actually pleased that your take was very similar to my own. I do not enjoy giving bad reviews, but thought the book was not really a success. It is quite interesting that the bottom line for both of us was that we were impressed by Moore’s talent though disappointed with this book. Amazing indeed.

  3. Sarah says:

    This is the first time I’ve heard anyone mention Lorrie Moore without wild enthusiasm… and then two at once! But I take the point that it is the novel which comes in for criticism, not her writing per se. I’ve been extremely keen to read Lorrie Moore, but on the strength of this I will start with a short story collection.

  4. anokatony says:

    I expect that Lorrie Moore’s type of humor (puns, wordplay, offbeat situations) is probably best taken in small doses. During a novel it might become too much of a good thing. I have read “Birds of America” and enjoyed the stories very much, but I can see how this kind of writing might be tiring in an extended form. In many of the best novels, the writing doesn’t call attention to itself, is just plain and direct.

  5. Kerry says:

    Sarah,

    I think that is a great idea. And see Tony’s comment below. Everyone does seem to love Moore’s short stories. Two simultaneous blogs cannot be wrong!

    Tony,

    I think you must be right. Moore tried to put in too many offbeat situations or set up too many puns that did not fit in the big picture. At least, it did not coalesce for me. But on the strength of your and others’ recommendations, and my own sense from this book, I will check out her short stories (Birds of America, specifically). Thanks.

  6. It sounds like it just doesn’t coalesce, and perhaps too many ideas. The Dadaist farmer sounds like a short story in its own right for example.

    The racial aspects sound more central, but not wholly successful, which isn’t ideal.

    I’ll wait to see a short story collection writeup I think.

  7. Kerry says:

    I think that is a good plan, Max. Seems likely you’ll get one within the next six months or so. I agree about the farmer. It does fit in with some of the themes, but, I think the ideas and scenes in this book probably would have worked better as a short story collection, rather than a novel.

  8. […] HW: “I was impressed by Moore’s sense of humor, her seeming ease in crafting a sentence, her vivid portrayals of people young and old, and even her many puns.” […]

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