by Lorrie Moore
Famed for her short fiction this is Moore's first novel for 15 years. You might have thought that the publishers would have made slightly more of that rather than saddling it with one of the more hideous covers it has been my misfortune to confront this year, a bright assault that looks like it should produce one of those 3-D images of a dinosaur if you stared at it long enough. It was only my skimming of Geoff Dyer's glowing review that convinced me it was worth sampling my first taste of Moore's work and whilst I can't be quite as fulsome in my praise as he was she is certainly one hell of a writer as the copious post-it notes that now run through my copy attest. There are so many quotable lines, images and jokes that I shall have to be careful that I don't just copy the whole thing out (how can you resist the description of a fortune cookie as "A short paper nerve baked in an ear"), but it certainly encourages me, as it should you, to take a look at her shorter fiction.
Pitched as a 'post-9/11' novel, Moore places the action in an America still learning to deal with those attacks and getting prepared for another war in the Middle East. It is in America's Midwest that we meet Tassie Keltjin, 'half-Jewish' farmer's daughter, as she heads to University in Troy, considered so smug by its provincial neighbours that they joke it is a place where they 'drink their own bath water'. Tassie compares this change to the awakening of a priest-child in Colombia she read about, who having been raised in the dark and given only stories rather than experience of the world, emerges into it in a 'perpetual holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder'. Then comes her punchline:
The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced
The people in this house, I felt, and I included myself were like characters each from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale. None of us was in the same story. We were all grotesques, and self-riveted, but in separate narratives, and so our interactions seemed weird and richly meaningless, like the characters in a Tennesee Willliams play, with their bursting, unimportant, but spellbindingly mad speeches.
It is these aspects of the book: the relationships that never connect, the things not said, the pauses, the gaps, that are the real success of this novel. The division that was clear in how people responded to 9/11 has been one of its lasting shocks. Moore shows how large the small gaps between us can become and for the characters in this novel, the attempt to make the family unit work is one which falters. It is worth noting that the titular gate, which we find at Sarah's house, is broken.