As an admirer of Lorrie Moore’s short stories, I’ve long looked forward to the publication of The Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in fourteen years.
Tassie Keltjin, a naïve student at a university in the Midwest, takes a job as a babysitter for a couple in the process of adopting a child. The time she spends with them and with their little girl, Mary-Emma, gives her a view outside her own restricted upbringing. She gets glimpses of a sophisticated but dark adult world with complicated relationships and deep sorrows. She also becomes increasingly aware of a new, bewildering America—one born on 9/11, a country now full of suspicion, racial profiling, and preparations for war.
There is much about this book to love: Moore is verbally dexterous, capable of spinning vivid passages that are comedic and poignant at once, scenes–in Moore’s own words–full of “idle spirals and desperate verbal coils”. As a whole, however, the work flounders. Innovations that are fresh and effective in a short story, when stretched to fit the dimensions of a novel, begin to feel gimmicky. This is off-putting, drawing the reader out of the story to puzzle over technique.
Then, it’s never clear what the story is about. Even Moore seems confused. The opening mother-daughter thread quickly frays. The theme of immanent war flashes, replaced quickly by a succession of others: insolvable race-relations, implacable jihad, the complexities of a rotten marriage. Tangled asides on food, flowers, music, politics, and religion appear, but none are woven into any pattern. The Gate at the Stairs is less a novel than several mismatched short stories masquerading as a novel. Not only is this disappointing from a writer of Moore’s flair and expertise, it’s devastating.
A version of this review first appeared in The Courier-Mail in October 2009.
I have to agree with some of your observations. I felt like some of her comedy just felt tricksy. I found that her self-conscious humour really grated on me while I was reading the book. Surprisingly, this is a book that seems to get better in the time after reading it. There is wisdom and truth in these pages and I suppose that is the Lorrie Moore magic. I find myself coming back to some of the scenes even now, six months after reading it. There are some aspects of this novel that still make me irritated, but in general I am very glad I have read it. There is something of Sylvia Plath’s the Bell Jar in these pages. It seems to hit the same resonant note. I do however find myself wondering if this is not just middle-brow fiction wearing a sparkling evening dress. Why does this book come back to me at odd times when other books do not. I have been putting this on my recommended shelf because of the long term effect it has had on me. There is certainly a lot of meat in this book, a fair amount of fat and gristle too, but where some other novels are a mere snack, this is certainly a meal.
That’s so interesting, Krissy. The review limited me to 280 words, or I would have gone into much greater detail. I happened to read it immediately after I read Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Both deal with the similar themes but in completely different ways and to a different effect. Moore’s story ends with the approaching invasion of Iraq and Saturday recounts the day on which a protest against the invasion occurs in London, which is what made me compare the two. I was struck by their different approaches. Having the action in one day rather than over the course of a year is automatically tighter and more dramatic. Also, I think McEwan’s story works better in that his protagonist is mature and the perspectives on political events that shine through are in line with that point of view. On the other hand, I don’t think Tassie’s naive point of view entirely masks everything that Moore knows and feels about the world. There is a funny dissonance there.
Still,I had hot tears rolling down my cheeks reading the unusual way Tassie grieves for her brother. And I was in wild suspense through the climax of Saturday. Both books are moving and masterful in different ways.