Book Review: A Gate at the Stairs

What!? Are there people who don’t love Lorrie Moore?!?!?!

Show them to me! I’ve got a thing or two to tell them.

Thing one: Are you looking for the Great American Novel? The narrative crystallization not just of post-9/11 USA, but of literary history? The novelistic zeitgeist?

Thing two: Do you like good sentences?

Seriously, you guys, this has GAN written all over it.

Frequent passionate descriptions of the natural world, anomie about the built world of pop culture and class difference, some war and political despair, and an honest-to-goodness coming of age story.

A coming of age story! With nature! And gorgeous sentences!

But it’s not written by Jonathan Franzen, so it’s not in the conversation. Sorry, ladies, you can write about nature and domestic tragedy and politics and pop culture, but it won’t make the short list for the GAN.

And why not? Some critics seem to say that well, it’s too funny. Or that, um, the plot is slightly implausible (though you don’t mind because the characterization is so good!)

But I’m nominating it to the list of GAN contenders. Which is not actually the point of this review. But it is the framework: this is a gorgeous novel with bracing political implications. A novel about America. A really, really, really good novel about America.

The brief plot summary: Tassie Keltjin leaves her family’s boutique farm in rural Wisconsin to attend the SLAC in a nearby college town. (That’s Small Liberal Arts College to you.) She finds work with a yuppie couple trying to adopt. They’ve got a mysterious past whose eventual revelation takes so many fits and starts that it is as underwhelming as it is nearly impossible to read. Part of a story. A story told by a consummate wordsmith/storyteller/musician/artist trying to make sense of her inability to truly join the broken world.

The Midwestern countryside is almost its own character, with moods, tragedies, and glories that far overwhelm the human. And Tassie finds as little sense in her farm’s wooded acreage as she finds in her employers’ home in the precious college town.

Like this first sentence, as brutal as it comes:

The cold came late that fall and the songbirds were caught off guard. By the time the snow and wind began in earnest, too many had been suckered into staying, and instead of flying south, instead of already having flown south, they were huddled in people’s yards, their feathers puffed for some modicum of warmth. I was looking for a job.

Tassie calls herself out about this, but her self-consciousness makes the effect no less harrowing:

I was like every kid who had grown up in the country, allowing the weather—good or bad—to describe life for me: its mocking, its magic, its contradictions, its moody grip. Why no? One was helpless before everything.

Simultaneously quotidian and transcendent, this tendency in fiction to impose ourselves onto the natural world. To find meaning in random, cruel impersonality.

Further example of this exploitative linguistic relationship to the natural world:

But family life sometimes had a vortex, like weather. It could be like a tornado in a quiet zigzag: get close enough and you might see within it a spinning eighteen-wheeler and a woman.

Some critics praise and others detract this kind of humor. I found it to be so dark that it’s almost not humor at all. Nowhere in the novel did I read passages like this as “jokey.” Instead, this narrator’s deep need to find descriptive language shows that this kind of rewriting of the world is the only way she can cope with it.

Toward the end of the novel, our warming world has devastated a new generation of songbirds in spectacle befitting our televised reality:

One evening migrating songbirds, oriented toward the moon, mistook a red-lit cell phone tower for their destination and we watched as they all shredded themselves in the tower’s steel supports. More disastrous love performed in symbols.

Except it’s not symbols. It’s real life: birds whose cycles have been perverted by our built world. But it is symbols: a panorama that externalizes Tassie’s grief, which is how nature has too-often functioned in our literature and arts.

And in fact, this formal contradiction is part of Moore’s point: we cannot “find ourselves” in nature because we have already found ourselves too much in nature. We have changed the planet too much. We are killing the songbirds (paging Mr. Franzen), growing good food only for rich people, turning food into fashion design: “There were subtleties of neutral hue I’d never encountered before: Pebble, Pecan, Portabella, Peanut…” We are warming the planet and unable to cope with its effects.

And this culture is lethal.

However, this darkness is frequently transformed by Tassie’s compulsive rewording of her reality, in which i found real joy.

“Childcare,” like “healthcare,” had become one word. I would become a dispenser of it.

Motherhood like radar or radiation was radiantly in the air.

About her employer cooking for Clinton at the White House: Perhaps it had gone badly and this is why she’d failed to mention it. Wine before swine? Pearls before martians? … I was making up names of dishes in my head: Kiwi carpaccio! Funnel of fennel! Couscous with frou-frou!

Real joy in this compulsive rewording, but also deep despair. And these lists increase as the book proceeds, changes in form replacing plotlike narrative movement.

In fact, the whole book is so complexly and self-consciously formal that it feels like genuine, bona-fide postmodernism, in its original (should I have put that in quotation marks?) intent: self-consciously careful, absurdly composed formal innovation pulled into the service of mimesis.

Absurd self-consciousness being the only way to transparently represent our post-nuclear world.

So when she turns lust into pure grotesque here, she is both channeling long narrative tradition of metaphor that foreshadows, and creating a world in which language-making is the only way to cope with the deathward-movement of most human endeavors, from the built, industrial world to family itself:

He had a smile that made you realize that some skulls contained an entire power plant set up in miniature inside, and the heat and electricity they generated spilled their voltage out through the teeth and eyes.

And yet, “Life was unendurable, and yet everywhere it was endured.”

We are making and re-making our worlds all the time. This both ruins and saves us.

You should read this book.

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