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.
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One-Minute Book Reviews is for people who like to read but dislike hype and review inflation.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.