Monday 19 October 2009

'every word seemed a morsel'

A Gate At The Stairs
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
only me.

Leaving behind a brother whose lack of options in life have him considering a life in the military, and a father concentrated on his speciality vegetables, Tassie is soon immersed in college life where her courses in Sufism and wine-tasting have appropriately punning titles, and even finding time for her first forays into romance (of which more later). To support her studies Tassie seeks out work in childcare and is taken on by Sarah, owner of an absurdly posh restaurant in town (which uses Keltjin potatoes). Sarah is looking to adopt a child and eventually she and partner Edward take a young mixed-race toddler, Mary, into their home. Moore has already softened us up with a one-liner on race earlier in the book by giving Tassie's mixed-race friend Rachel the moniker 'Inter-Rachel'. She then takes things much further, poking fun at the right-on middle class values of Sarah and Ed, who set up a support group for other mixed race parents, their increasingly ridiculous utterances caught by Tassie as she looks after their children upstairs.

Tassie has a narrative voice which is a little problematic. Written from a point in the future there is a wisdom and maturity which is more than would be expected from a girl of her age. This is all well and good until that perceptiveness intrudes on the present-tense thoughts of Tassie. When she accompanies Sarah to the home of Mary's present carers she not only spots that it is the teenage daughter who has been fulfilling the role of mother, but also that this teenage girl has 'secretly, quietly' encouraged Mary to call her "Mama". That level of perception doesn't ring true in the present moment, especially from a girl of Tassie's age, despite her intelligence. These confusions or inconsistencies are a small price to pay however for a narrator who is sometimes naive, sometimes aware, intelligent, funny and trying to make the best job she can of growing up.

Much has been said before of Moore's humour and its possible intrusiveness into her writing leading to 'gag-fatigue'. There are many different laughs in this book: Deprecating ('My father had one day stood on the porch and flung his arms out and said, "Someday kids, all this will be yours." But his knuckles had hit the porch supports. Even the porch wasn't that big.'), clever (I would imagine that ergonomic meant 'thereforish' ), indignant (in response to Sarah's carmelized sage finished with hand-raked Norman sea salt: 'So this is what Americans were busying themselves with in Normandy now that it had been liberated from the Nazis: hand-raking sea salt. Soldiers' tears shipped thousands of miles and sprinkled on a fried leaf. Look D-Day in the eye and tell it that!'), and irresistible (Bread with 'a powdery blue mold that would have made a lovely eyeshadow for a showgirl - perhaps one who also needed penicillin.'). Only occasionally do the gags feel unwelcome, which is an achievement in a book which deals with adoption, race, war and other serious themes which I won't declare for fear of spoiling the rest of the plot. The one jarring moment is not of humour but rather the opposite, when Moore develops Tassie's love interest into an overtly (and unconvincing) post-9/11 plotline. It feels unnecessary when elsewhere in the book she has shown so effectively, and far more subtly, the dislocation of the characters.

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.


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