One-Minute Book Reviews

December 21, 2009

Lorrie Moore’s ‘A Gate at the Stairs’ – What Color is Your 9/11 Novel?

Heard about the man who said after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”?

A GATE AT THE STAIRS: A NOVEL. By Lorrie Moore. Knopf, 321 pp., $25.95.

By Janice Harayda

At the recent 35th anniversary party for the National Book Critics Circle, I spoke with a critic I admire, who said he found A Gate at the Stairs “really annoying.” I avoid self-referential words like “annoying” in reviews, but his comment tells you something. For all of its appearances on “Best of 2009” lists, this novel is – at best – an acquired taste.

Lorrie Moore is a witty and intelligent writer who has a distinctive style and a gift for close observation of modern life – all of which, in theory, ought to endear her to every serious reader. But she resembles the more talented John Updike, whose early short stories were his best work: She’s a miniaturist whose fine-grained brush works against the large canvas of a dense novel of more than 300 pages. In A Gate at the Stairs, all of her virtues don’t enable her to create believable characters or a satisfying plot.

It’s not that she doesn’t try to adjust her scale. Far from it: Moore strains to develop a big theme: the devastating effects of the everyday carelessness that results from national, familial, or individual complacency. This is a novel is about the big risks Americans take while going to absurd lengths to avoid small ones – a trait embodied by a character who seriously neglects a child while baking library books “to get rid of the germs.”

Tassie Keltjin is a potato farmer’s daughter and 20-year-old university student in a town that styles itself as “the Athens of the Midwest” when, just after the attacks of 2001, she finds her first boyfriend and a job as a part-time nanny for a callow professional couple who are adopting a mixed-race child. Her sheltered upbringing doesn’t allow her to see quickly enough that neither the man she loves nor her employers are who they appear to be. And Tassie’s fate represents in microcosm that of the country: She’s caught off guard, just as the nation was on Sept. 11.

This is a promising set-up, but Moore aims to do more than describe an upheaval in her narrator’s life. She adds broad social commentary, particularly about adoption and race, that clashes with her natural instinct for humor, wordplay, and, at times, the cute. Until the last 50 or so pages, you don’t feel the interest in her plot or characters that you should: The big picture keeps getting lost amid the cleverness and intricate embroidery of small images.

This aspect of the novel shows up especially in Moore’s promiscuous use of color, which makes you wonder if she’s spent too much time poring over a Sherwin-Williams catalog. She tells you colors that are unilluminating – that a man’s sweater was green, for example, when it doesn’t much matter whether it was green or blue, or that a casket was “cognac-colored” when most caskets are “cognac”-colored. She tells you colors that are redundant or confusing – that someone’s gums were “the pale lox pink of a winter tomato.” Why not just “pale lox pink”? Doesn’t she trust you to know the color of lox unless she mentions the tomato? And she tells you colors that are all of those things, and distracting, too. A dead soldier laid-out in church wears combat fatigues that were “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.” Moore may intend that sentence satirically: A character in the novel says that levity eases the pain of difficult subjects. But so many of the characters use humor as a shield that in this way and others, they often sound more like stand-ins for Moore instead of themselves. Tassie comes from a town so small she has never seen a man wear a tie with jeans, as a lecturer at her university does. Yet she repeatedly uses tropes such as “I feared” instead of “I was afraid” and knows that in England “every desert was called a pudding even if it was a cake,” which you don’t believe she got from a British-lit course.

A Gate at the Stairs has many amusing lines, including a comment made by Tassie’s employer, Sarah Brink, about her husband, Edward Thornwood: “He can’t do relationships. Can’t do acquaintanceships. He can’t do people at all. In fact, really he should just staff off mass transit!” And some of its bright lines offer insights into how Americans view adoption and other subjects. But a great novel is more than the sum of its parts. And A Gate at the Stairs is less memorable for its overall impact than for one-liners such as a comment Tassie’s boyfriend makes after sex, “That was one for the scrapbook!”

Best line: “To live in New York you have to have won the lottery and your parents have to have won the lottery and everyone has to have invested wisely.” — Sarah Brink

Worst line: No. 1: “We found a metal-edged diner, went in, and sat at the counter side-by-side, letting our coats fall off our shoulders and dangle from the stools, anchored by our sitting butts.” No. 2: Tassie says of writing songs with her roommate, Murph: “Murph liked our collaborations better than such lone efforts by me as ‘Dog-Doo Done Up as Chocolates for My Brother,’ and we seemed best on the rocking ones like, like ‘Summer Evening Lunch Meat,’ a song we had written combining the most beautiful phrase in English with the ugliest, and therefore summing up our thoughts on love.” No. 3: Then there’s that description of the colors of a dead soldier’s combat fatigues quoted above: “part pine, part portabella, part parsley.”

Editor: Victoria Wilson

Published: September 2009

Furthermore: Moore is Delmore Schwartz Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

You can also follow Jan Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

September 8, 2008

College Students Say the Darndest Things – ‘Ignorance Is Blitz’ Collects Fractured Facts From Real Term Papers and Other Academic Work

“The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”
From Ignorance Is Blitz

Ignorance Is Blitz: Mangled Moments of History From Actual College Students. Compiled by Anders Henriksson. Workman, 155 pp., $6.95, paperback. Originally published as Non Campus Mentis.

By Janice Harayda

Zoroastrianism was founded by Zorro. The South succeeded from the Union. Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What a pity that SAT scores don’t measure common sense. If they did, those of us who have taught college students might have seen far fewer lines like these on tests and term papers. And now comes Ignorance Is Blitz to show us that cultural illiteracy on campus is at once far more extensive — and more entertaining — than some of us knew from the students who solemnly told us that a fictional character founded a major religion or that the South “succeeded” from the Union.

After decades of teaching at a state college in West Virginia, Anders Henriksson has collected hundreds of his students’ gaffes and supplemented them with others from professors at universities in the U.S. and Canada. Henriksson doesn’t name most of the schools, and that’s a mercy when the blunders include lines like:

“The P.L.O. is the airline of Israel.”

George Eliot was written by Silas Marner.”

“Greek semen ruled the Agean [sic.].”

“The Berlin Mall was removed.”

“Without the discovery of the flying buttock it would have been an impossible job to build the Gothic cathedral.”

“John Huss refused to decant his ideas about the church and was therefore burned as a steak.”

“The Civil Rights movement in the USA turned around the corner with Martin Luther Junior’s famous ‘If I Had a Hammer’ speech.”

In a postscript Henriksson blames some of the tragicomic errors on an overreliance on spell-checkers and on anxieties about test-taking. The causes of the problem go deeper than he allows and include a devaluation of history in schools and grade inflation that allows some students to do well even if they write, as one student in the book did, that “St. Teresa of Avila was a carmelized nun.”

But the skimpy analysis in no way detracts from the hilarity found on nearly every page of Ignorance Is Blitz. Well ahead of the holiday season, this small-format humor book has emerged as of the year’s best literary stocking stuffers. In the meantime some of its mangled lines could add levity to a tense election season. You’re worried about problems with those butterfly ballots? America’s students are here to remind you that it could be worse. There was a time when, as one of them put it, “Voting was done by ballad.”

Best line: “The major cause of the Civil War is when slavery spread its ugly testicles across the West.”

Worst line: “Machiavelli, who was often unemployed, wrote The Prince to get a job with Richard Nixon.” One of the few lines that make you wonder if a student was pulling the teacher’s leg.

Recommendation? A great gift for teachers, history lovers and, of course, some of those “actual college students” in the subtitle. Many high school students would also enjoy this book.

Editor: Ruth Sullivan

Published: January 2008 www.workman.com/products/9780761149491/. First published in 2001 under the title Non Campus Mentis. Portions of the material in the book appeared in The Wilson Quarterly.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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