New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009. Book can be purchased here. or here.
What a strange, albeit almost predictable novel: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore. This is Midwestern American prose. It is good and, like any significant relationship you might make with a Midwesterner, you will want to make an early commitment to this book based on its immediate charm and wholesomeness. I was glad I made the commitment. The narrator is a twenty-year-old college student named Tassie Keltjin. Her parents are farmers (small farmers) in Wisconsin, and she tells us the story of her first year in college. She describes her fall and spring semesters, her work as a nanny for a brief period of time, her visit home for the Christmas holiday, her relationship with her parents, with a brother who will later become a soldier in Afghanistan, and her romantic life with a mysterious man who says he is from Brazil, but is in truth a fledgling terrorist.
LOVE: she also describes a kind of fucked-up love she has for a young child adopted by her employers, her love for the Midwest countryside, and her love for her bass guitar. This book has a dullness that remains luminous throughout. It generates a dull glow that means something more, much more than other kinds of faint light. It is a good book because, somewhere along the way, the novel slips into a questioning, self-reflexive mode that begins to worry that the story being told is not a great one, and this knowledge begins to infuse the (what?) integrity and continuity of the narration without harming it. Everyone in the novel, despite the terrible personal tragedies they experience (which mostly take place offstage), seems only slightly enthusiastic or worried about themselves and what is happening to them.
MEN AND WOMEN: Tassie's novel temporarily insists on a power of love, only to let go of it for the sake of stability. The men and boys in the novel often fare the worst, if only because they remain the unknown "other" of the narration. They can be gentle, alcoholic fathers, aimless young men choosing between trucking school and the army, earthy, sinister and exploitative lovers, or perverse middle-aged white-collar men in lackluster marriages. It almost seems as if the story does not want to love men enough to present any part of their lives consciously or sympathetically--especially to the degree that it wants us to understand women and motherhood: a motherhood of despair, a womanhood of ruthless and efficient professionalism, the buying and selling of babies, and the facts of a permanently incomplete ability to nurture. This book is dull, but funny and likable; dull, but trustworthy; dull, but willing to articulate a philosophy. Towards the end of the novel the narrator is spending a lot of her summer days in the scant woods of her father's Midwest farm, dreaming in ruinous solitude; and it is here that I begin to feel just how much the narrator/writer is becoming troubled by the art and act of writing, even if the topics discussed are animals, atmosphere, the sky and the dirt. The plants. The colors. She maintains a wary acceptance of every person in her life. She also reveals her complete disbelief in all adults, and her unquestioning admiration for children.
THE SOCIAL HORIZON: One interesting aspect of the novel is its tangential use of social, political and religious conditions as ways of providing contrast between the ways people think about their world, and the way that they actually live in it. This comes to the fore when Tassie's roommate at college, Murph, finally tells her, "don't make your own life your project in your own life."
SPOILER ALERT (if you haven't read this novel, the rest of this review will significantly reduce its compelling, dramatic tensions. Please skip to the short concluding paragraph below):
Roommate Murph's sage maxim comes just after she has almost died from accidentally eating a poisonous puree that looked like ranch dressing. Disasters saturate the lives in this book, but never touch the narrator too deeply or directly (though she drips blood & climbs into coffins): her brother dies in Afghanistan, her employers are found ineligible to adopt children because they are hiding the fact that they caused their first son's death. Her lover turns out to be some kind of spy, incapable of loving her in turn. The well-meaning white liberal parents who adopt non-white babies suffer in a multitude of personal and social ways. These children, and their impoverished birth-parents, stand helplessly by as society rips their lives apart.
On another level, the need to find an explanation for the prevalent dysfunction & walking trauma of these American lives is the ongoing motivation for the narrator's persistence, even as the narrative threatens to dissolve just like so many of the lives around her. What gradually emerges is a sense that our ability to work, learn and love is hampered by a creeping cynicism caused by increasingly compartmentalized and disconnected identity roles. Erotic love is reduced to a conflict between, on the one hand, the language of the body's movements--its vibrations, propulsions, paroxysms and muscular contractions, and on the other, the feeling of a deeper emotional correspondence and sympathy in an unattainable spirit of romance. In the world of college town Wisconsin, social identities turn woodenly on the contrived pivots of religion and race, and quite significantly here, class. It might be Tassie's lack of a direct sense of her own marginality that draws her to more specifically delineated, however troubled, racial and class identities, but it is more likely that her own need for intimacy distances her from the social and political conflicts raging wildly around her. Thank God for intimacy! Being white, straight, relatively middle-class, raised in the countryside, smart and female, there is a representational familiarity to her story (stretching back into the nineteenth century novels of Austen and Eliot) that in many ways removes a sense of gripping urgency from her tone and manner. She can still have fun, write maudlin and entendre-laden love songs, go to classes and sample exotic cuisine. Like love's perpetual emotional uncertainty, the social boundaries that allow Tassie an identity to work from are all shown to be suspect (class and profession? hmm, not sure--race? not really, it can become so hypocritical!--religion? please!--motherhood? impossible!). She is given the gift of wit, but she also recognizes that it is humor alone that protects her from the kinds of brutally unfair positions other are forced into-especially the young women who are giving up their children for adoption. It also means that the tragedy surrounding her, and the description of it, needs some kind of justification by the narrator: there has to be a reason for this mess! Only here is there a certain wavering and groping tone to the story. How are we to discover what morality is? How does the fully conscious & conscientious writer justify an aesthetic approach to all these modes of tragedy? To wit: "Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare." And then: "Where life was meagerer, where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. And then the baby fell down the stairs. This could be funny! Especially in a place and time where worse things happened. It wasn't that suffering was a sweepstakes, but it certainly was relative." The couple who hires her as a nanny had previously had a young son who died: this is not funny. Nor is the death of her brother Gunny, especially in the acrimonious (acronymious?) way that military families learn that their sons, brothers, daughters or husbands have died in the war.
FINALLY: There is never anything really funny about the topics Lorrie Moore dramatizes. She simply has an infectious way of finding the places where humor can best be used to show us the delicate membrane wavering between our worlds of comedy and despair. As ameliorative medicine, her jokes often hurt us, if only to help us better cope. A Gate at the Stairs? This novel suggests that it is our wit alone that will keep us from plummeting.