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.