A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Lorrie Moore is an American author, now living and teaching in Madison, Wisconsin, who has been on my “read soon” list for all too long. Her catalogue is slim — three short story collections and now three novels in a publishing career that began in 1985. But she is one of those authors who attracts passionate endorsement of the “you have to read Moore” variety from both respected bloggers and book people who get paid for their opinions. So for me this year’s publication of A Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in 15 years, seemed a good excuse to start.

The novel is a first-person reminiscence from Tassie Keltjin of her years at university in Troy, WI. I’m assuming it is a representation of one of those American university towns like Madison, home of the University of Wisconsin where Moore teaches — Tassie is a farm-girl and Troy is regarded as a pseudo-sophisticate town where people think too highly of themselves (“they drink their own bathwater”). The action is set post 9/11, so even the memories are of a recent vintage.

If there is a central idea that runs through A Gate at the Stairs it is the frustrating dislocation and alienation of virtually every character in the book, with Tassie’s acquaintance with each of them the unifying element. Her father is an organic farmer with a small plot (Keltjin’s offbeat potatoes have their own fame); her mother is Jewish and that is just the start of her Wisconsin isolation and Tassie’s younger brother, Robert, is confused enough that he is considering enlisting in the U.S. army as his most viable option for the future. Here’s Tassie returning home for “Christmas” from college:

My mother had sprung for eggnog, and a little brandy, and although my father had already gone to bed she and Robert and I sat up for twenty minutes or so, with a coffee log burning low in the fireplace and a plate of gingersnaps on the mantel before we were all too tired to pretend. The coffee log was a favorite of my mother’s although to me it smelled less like coffee and more like a burning shoe. “I’d light the menorah,” said my mother, “but remember what happened last year with the curtains catching on fire.” The curtains had gone up in a blaze and we had thrown a punch bowl of eggnog on them to douse the flames, and the eggnog had sizzled and cooked into the fabric until the whole house smelled like a diner omelet.

“That’s OK,” I said. “I’ll light the menorah tomorrow for you.” Though I would forget to do it. Every year it was my job to clean it, scrape off the previous year’s wax with pins and a fork, so perhaps my forgetting was convenient.

That excerpt is a good example of two Moore traits: she has an exceptional eye for telling little details and she loves a good gag (“the whole house smelled like a diner omelet”).

She also cares about families that don’t quite work out according to the norm. In addition to the Keltjin’s, the novel explores Sarah and Edward, a liberalish couple (Sarah owns Troy’s fancy restaurant, Edward is a scientist) who hire Tassie as a part-time nanny. Actually they hire her before they even have a child on hand; Tassie is taken along for the adoption interviews which eventually result in the arrival of a mixed-raced child, Mary, renamed Mary-Emma, quickly shortened to Emmie. Moore uses this family as another platform. Troy may be tolerant, but mixed-race families still think they feel discrimination and Sarah and Edward begin hosting a support group. Tassie tends the children of all the members while the parents meet downstairs:

On Wednesday nights … the house filled up with visitors and their remarks. Contentious shards of discussion floated upward like dust shaken from a rug.

“Postracial is a white idea.” This again. It has all begun to sound to me like a spiritually gated community of liberal chat.

“A lot of ideas are white ideas.”

“Its like postfeminist or postmodern. The word post is put forward by people who have grown bored of the conversation.”

“And the conversation remains unresolved because it’s not resolvable. It’s not that kind of conversation. It’s merely living talk. Whereas you put post in front of it — what is that? It’s saying ‘Shut the hell up. We’re tired and we’re going to sleep now’.”

“If you reject religion, you reject blackness.”

“Black culture here is just southern culture moved north, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s not all.”

“Blacks have preserved the South up here — the cooking, the expressions, the accents — better than the southern whites who’ve moved here have.”

This overheard support-group conversation goes on for some pages and it is no spoiler to say that it is not resolved — it does supply Moore the opportunity to explore white liberal attitudes towards race and insert a few more gags (“Why do black people get so tall?” “Why?” “Because their knee grows!” she squealed with delight.)

In addition to the two families and their issues, Tassie has an unconvincing affair with Reynaldo, whom she thinks is Portugese but it turns out may, or may not, be a member of an Islamic cell. It is one of the less convincing story lines in the book. Tassie is also a bass player (both guitar and a difficult electonic upright version — her email address is “bassface-at-isp-dot-com”) and she and her roommate, Murph, spend some time jamming, improvising and semi-rapping when both their love affairs break up.

I think those thumbnail story lines illustrate the problems that I found with the book. While dislocation and alienation may be the uniting themes of the book, it proceeds in a very episodic fashion and never acquires the flow that one has a right to expect from a successful novel. Moore is a very talented writer and some of her gags really are quite good. (As someone whose knowledge of Wisconsin is pretty much confined to the Green Bay Packers — and cheese –, she does construct some very good riffs on the green-and-gold football team and its impact on the state.)

The result of all this is that I am pretty much convinced that I started my Moore reading with the wrong book. She seems to be better known for her short stories and I am left wishing that I had started with one of her short story collections (Birds of America (1998) seems to be held in highest regard — one story was an O Henry Award winner that year). The observational skills, the gags and the ability to add life to seemingly trivial details all serve the short story writer well. For a novelist, alas, they tend to produce clutter rather than focus.

I don’t regret reading A Gate at the Stairs but do admit I was eager for it to end. Throughout the latter part of the book, I had the feeling that I was experiencing a very good writer not at her best. Had I more experience with her short stories, I think I would have been far more tolerant. Heck, even Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers had their off days, although to date the cheese gives Vermont a run for its money. I’ll give Birds of America a try sometime down the road.

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24 Responses to “A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore”

  1. Trevor Says:

    Even some die hard Lorrie Moore fans have been disappointed with this one, Kevin. They suggest going back to her earlier work — which I’ve not done!

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    As I indicated Trevor, I wish I had started with earlier work. It is apparent from this novel (at least to me) that her skills are better suited to the short story — and this novel might well have been better for me if I had come to it with that appreciation. Having said that, Geoff Dyer (a writer whom I quite like) was very positive about this book in a Guardian review. No real surprise for me there — Moore and Dyer share an ability to capture and exploit the offbeat.

  3. Kerry Says:

    I absolutely agree, Kevin, that this book seems to indicate Moore’s (considerable) talents are more suited to the short form. You have already seen (and commented) on my own review of this same book, put up today as well. I am glad that our reviews turned out somewhat complementary (if not complimentary) rather than overlapping.

    I am glad to hear what you thought, because I had otherwise been hearing only praise (maybe not looking enough, but once I have decided to read a book, I try to wait to read more about it).

    Good review, Kevin. Sorry about the unintended overlap. I should have paid better attention to your upcoming posts. I see now that you warned me….

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry: I’m quite glad that you did not see I was intending to post on this book. When I woke up this morning, I told my wife I thought I might for the first time skip a promised post — I didn’t know what to say about a book that I had so much hope for, found to be lacking, but did not feel it was the author’s fault. She told me that I should make the effort to say that and when your review came up I was delighted to find that someone else had the same ambivalent response. I would like to think that our similar responses are an indication that Moore is a very good writer, not shown to best effect in this book. And if your review had not come up today saying the same thing, I would have been wondering about that conclusion. Now one of us has to read Birds of America, but I’d like to let a month or a few go by before that — so it is all yours.

  5. Kerry Says:

    Hehe. It is doubtful I will get to it this month, but it will go on the list. Just let me know ahead of time when you’ll post yours, so I can coordinate my schedule.

    I am convinced Moore deserves a praiseful post. This book was not the one though. I was relieved you felt the same. Exactly the same, as it turns out. (I also had considered not posting on it.)

  6. William Rycroft Says:

    Like you Kevin this was my first experience of Moore having heard her name mentioned again and again and like you I was a little disappointed and yet again like you I suspect that the place to find satisfaction will be with her shorter fiction.

    I’ve read a couple of books now which have attempted to clumsily crowbar an unconvincing terrorist storyline into the mix and despair that this is what will happen for a few years to come. Perhaps I should be watchful of the phrase ‘post-9/11′ on book blurbs.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Will: I share your scepticism about “post 9/11″ blurbs. It seems every
    American novelist feels a need to incorporate the idea and experience, but so far not many have done it very well. In fact a number (Delillo and Updike come to mind) have done it very poorly.

  8. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have to admit, when I read there was a possible terrorist storyline my interest just fell through the floor. It’s always done badly, and the truth is there haven’t been many (if any) such cells and if they are out there I sincerely doubt they’re in Wisconsin.

    It’s an attempt at relevance that always seems to end up so far from reality that it underlines its own irrelevance.

    The thing is, terrorists are such a big deal that I think it’s rather hard to have them as a subplot. Do I really care about Bob and Sue’s marital difficulties if Emil may be plotting to blow them all to kingdom come? Does Emil’s plot not rather dwarf the other issues? (made up names there, obviously). It’s too big a topic to deal with in such a clumsy way. The only one that I hear may have succeeded is Netherland, which I have yet to read of course.

  9. Colette Jones Says:

    I saw this in Waterstone’s today – I really like the UK cover, but it sounds like I might not like the book. I’ll wait for the library to get a copy.

  10. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I think waiting is a good idea. I’d recommend seeing if your library has a copy of Birds of America. Given your reading tastes and experience, I would certainly appreciate your opinion of Moore’s short stories which by all accounts are better than this novel. And I suspect the novel is a better read if you have read the short stories first, but that is just speculation on my part. Incidentally, I also think you would quite like The Jinx which I posted on last night.

  11. Colette Jones Says:

    I think you might be right!

  12. Patti Abbott Says:

    Her short story collections are amazing. Her novels, less so although Who Will Run the Frog Hospital had its moments. The pressure on short story writers to produce a novel rarely leads to something grand. I think of Alice Munro’s one novel. And even Charlie Baxter excelled at the shorter form. Nice to find you Kevin. Only a few (and William Trevor comes to mind) seem able to pull off both equally well.

  13. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Patti: This novel “has its moments” as well — so much so that even as someone who has not read Moore’s short stories I was aware that that is the kind of author I was reading. That’s one reason why I think someone familiar with her as a short story writer might like this novel better than I did, appreciating it almost as a collection of linked stories. I agree with you about the pressure on short story writers to produce a novel, pressure that often would be best if resisted. Then again, with examples like Henry James and Edith Wharton (I’ll forego trying any more modern comparisons) who could write at any length, perhaps the temptation to try is just too great.

    Thanks for dropping by and I hope to hear from you again in the future.

  14. Alan Says:

    Kevin, a good review which mirrors my feelings about it. I found the last 30 pages affecting but, like you, wanted to rush through most of the pages before those.

  15. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks, Alan. The book does have a lot of good “bits” but for me they never came together.

  16. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    What a fine review. This book has been very well-received by reviewers in the British press and I have been wondering whether to read it. I think I’ll try it, despite your reservations – my local library stock it so I won’t have to fork out real money!

    Thanks for commenting on mine. I am actually rather enjoying the Carlos Ruiz Zafon book and think I need to put aside my prejudices against this type of writing as in Zafon’s case, its rather well done.

  17. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I suspect that, like me Tom, you are going to have the impression that you are reading a very good writer who is capable of far better than she shows in this book. The good thing about that is that it makes the book a non-frustrating read — you just wish all those good parts were knitted together somewhat better. I do look forward to trying Moore’s short stories.

  18. Colette Jones Says:

    Well, my memory is very bad, as I saw this book in the shop the other day and thought of it as a KfC recommendation. At least I recognized that you had reviewed it, I suppose. I will be optimistic, since I bought it, and think I just might like it. I bought Richard Russo’s latest at the same time, and at least I remembered correctly that you liked that one. I had not heard of either of these two authors before your reviews, Kevin.

  19. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Colette: I hope you find my conclusions on the Moore wrong; for me, it was not a bad book, it just wasn’t a very good one. The Richard Russo, on the other hand, is one of my 2009 favorites, so please save it for a good time.

  20. Mary Says:

    Great review Kevin. I’ve just finished this book and agree with your comments wholeheartedly. As I’m not a short story lover I don’t think I’ll be reading her again. For me, personally, it was particularly disappointing as there’s been an adoption in my family recently and I was interested in the possible narrative developments. Moore is an intelligent and clever writer and there were some very witty one liners but these came at the expense of rounded characters and a satisfying plot. Such a pity as I started this novel with high hopes and a `this is going to be really good’ feeling. Perhaps her ability to hone a `bon mot’ suits the more concentrated style of a short story. I’m back to Edith Wharton now – I found Glimpses of the Moon in Blackwells in Oxford last week ( my favourite place in the world!) – now there’s a writer who knows how to develop a narrative.

  21. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Mary: Thanks for your comment (and compliment). A few months after reading, I can report that scenes from the book pop up periodically in memory, but not much of a sense of what the majors themes were. I still think Moore is a talented writer and agree her strengths are probably more suited to the short story, a medium that I do like when it is well-handed. I will be trying her other work in that format.

    As for Edith Wharton, well….. She would be on my top 5 shortlist, whatever the format — novel, novella, short story. She not only develops narrative, in that she locates fascinating characters (not just a central one, but a whole cast) and, then compliments it with equally good big picture reportage about the decline of New York, or whatever. Sorry about the sporting analogy, but she is my “go-to” author when I need to know I am going to like the book before I start reading up. I haven’t read Glimpses of the Moon (not sure I even have a copy) so I’ll put that on the list.

  22. Colette Jones Says:

    Well, I liked this book quite a bit more than you did, but I am left frustrated by it. I was most interested in Sarah / Edward / Mary-Emma as seen by Tassie. Instead, to my disappointment, I discovered toward the end that I had misunderstood and it is intended to be a book about Tassie. Reynaldo’s leave-taking never led to anything; Mary-Emma is taken away and that’s that – barely mentioned again except for one paragraph… I think she could have left out the return to the potato farm and what happened during that time (trying not to spoil anything here). But that’s because it wasn’t Tassie I was interested in.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    A fair summary of the book’s failings, I would say.

  24. jane l Says:

    what is wrong with all of you? I just got up at 6 am to finish this book. What
    wonderful sentences , fantastic imagery. She has it down to the bottom line. Anyone who ever babysat for a family I had my experieeence in Europe knows that situation only too well.
    Get more positive please

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