It's hard to fight the urge to scrawl "love love love" in red crayon across the page, or to make a beribboned valentine full of sappy verse in lieu of actually reviewing Lorrie Moore's new book. She tops all my lists (top 10 books, top 5 writers, books you'd take to a deserted island), and my copies of her novels and short stories are filled with bookmarked passages, lovingly read over and over again. Though many aspiring writers may try desperately, no one writes like Lorrie Moore, so her lovestruck readers can do nothing but wait for her to publish another book.
Which is why A Gate at the Stairs was easily one of the most anticipated literary events of an incredibly packed season when it published in hardcover in Fall 2009. Moore's last novel, Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?, was published in 1994, and her last collection of short stories, Birds of America, came out in 1998. We fans have been waiting a long time, hungry and eager - and more than a little nervous. After two novels and three short story collections whose pages I'm tempted to frame and hang on my walls, would I be disappointed? I leapt at the review copy of A Gate at the Stairs as if it were a gold doubloon, but I couldn't bring myself to crack the cover for three whole days.
When I eventually did, I was reminded of why Lorrie Moore is Lorrie Moore. She dives so deeply into the minds of her main characters that you fall in love with them. Not because they're necessarily loveable, but because you know them so well. You see how they see the world, complete with all of their secret observations; you see their best and their worst selves, while the world sees only the mediocre parts in the middle. The world that opens up to us in this novel belongs to Tassie Keltjin, a young woman newly negotiating the realm of adults, wrestling with the uncomfortable confluence of her former and future selves, and reckoning with that second coming-of-age as she becomes an adult thinker. She narrates this first formative year away at college, looking back, recalling the thrill of newness with wistfulness and Moore's trademark subtle humor:
"Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James's masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie."
Lorrie Moore is a writer's writer, which means she'll never win the awards or the Oprah stickers, because her books aren't about giant things like American life, wars, racism, or class politics. Or are they? This novel begins in the winter of 2001, but the events of September 11th and the impending war are strangely absent. Tassie's is the apathetic and self-centered post-9/11 world in which much of America lives, but few writers dare to explore. By the very fact of their omission, though, the events loom large and deliver a message at once invisible and impossible to miss.
"Though the movie theaters closed for two nights, and for a week even our yoga teacher put up an American flag and sat in front of it, in a lotus position, eyes closed, saying, "Let us now breathe deeply in honor of our great country" (I looked around frantically, never getting the breathing right), mostly our conversations slid back shockingly, resiliently, to other topics: backup singers for Aretha Franklin, or which Korean-owned restaurant had the best Chinese food."
When Tassie becomes a nanny for an African-American toddler adopted by a completely dysfunctional white couple, she falls into her role as surrogate mom with beguiling ease. Her negotiations within this emotionally and socially delicate world shape her, and her sharp observations about the family's upper-middle-class woes and hypocrisies reveal a budding mind working out the delicate problems of the society she's at once part of and utterly apart from.
The last quarter of the novel shines with an almost dreamlike beauty as Tassie returns home to her parents' farm. Unmoored by sadness and tragedy, she begins to float in a concentrated, meditative way, shooing mice from her father's heirloom fields of salad greens, reading in meadows, and driving a scooter in the rain.
"When misfortune accumulated, I could feel now, it strafed you to the thinness of a nightgown, sheared you to the sheerness of a slip. Light seemed to shine right through your very hands, your blood no longer red: your skin in the breeze felt billowing, like a jellyfish. Your float through the day had the reality of a trance, triggering distant memories though not actually very many. The passing of time was the lightest of brushes. Life was ungraspable because it would not stay still. It skittered and blew. It was a mound of random trash, even as you moved through the hours like a ghost invited to enjoy a sparkling day a the beach."
Here's where the hard part of this review comes: I was disappointed. A Gate at the Stairs doesn't come close to the jaw-dropping mastery of Anagrams, or the heartbreaking tenderness of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?. The spark of loose perfection that flies through Moore's short stories appears here only rarely, like shooting stars. Her humor, usually so effortlessly potent and smart, too often falls flat. And yet, when I closed the cover and called my friend and fellow fan to debrief and commiserate over our disappointment, we also agreed that A Gate at the Stairs is still better than most any other novel out there right now. I've since recommended it to uninitiated readers who declared it their favorite of the year and flew breathlessly to their nearest bookstore to scoop up all of her other books. So for most of you readers who have likely never even heard of Lorrie Moore, I envy you. You get to read A Gate at the Stairs on the first date, and it only gets better. Is it her best work? No. But it may be the one that finally brings her the readership she deserves.
This review was originally published in October 2009, and has been updated for the September 2010 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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