A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
The jacket copy of Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate At the Stairs, declares that the story is about a young woman "coming of age." While not incorrect, branding A Gate At the Stairs a coming-of-age novel, at the very least, does not do it full justice. First of all, this is the first book by Moore in ten years. That alone could tell the reader this will be more than the average coming-of-age fodder. I mean, it's Lorrie Moore! How, in fact, do I complete this review without revealing what a panting, hyperactive fan I am! Perhaps Michael Schaub described her best in the Blog of a Bookslut when he dispassionately wrote of Lorrie Moore, "who is God."
Yeah, that's about right.
Moore also seems ready to tackle big stuff in this novel, written in the guise of a first-person story in the voice of a twenty-year-old woman, Tassie, leaving her family farm and attending college in the Midwest. In much the way Carol Shields tackled big issues in the guise of the small in her final novel, Unless, Moore seems to know, and portrays to perfection, ways in which the larger world impinge on even small-town Midwestern girls and intersect with issues much larger, much scarier and much more dangerous than those faced by the stereotypical college girl.
It's beyond refreshing, though, to read such an au courant novel, complete with references to terrorists and hedge fund managers, that is so apparently NOT trying too hard (and that would most certainly mock the phrase au courant). Every of-the-moment quip is there, not for effect, but to serve the seamless plot that comes together brilliantly by the end of the book.
Moore, as in her earlier works, also knows how to make her readers laugh. Part-way through the narrative she includes the sentence: "…to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny." This could be Lorrie Moore's motto. There were times when reading A Gate at the Stairs that I would have to close my book, look out and laugh, thoroughly enjoying the pause that Moore's deliciously hilarious writing demanded.
More than a coming of age novel, A Gate at the Stairs seems to ask, "When does a person come of age?" or, "Do we ever really come of age?" or, "What does it mean to come of age?"
Moore's appealing narrator in A Gate at the Stairs, Tassie, is fundamental to the success of the novel. Wise beyond her years, yet believable, she imparts an analysis of the craziness of adoption, motherhood, and even post-9/11 womanhood that is both integral to the narrative and instructive to the reader. If, now and then, Tassie seems a bit wiser than even a precocious twenty-year-old might be or perhaps unusually interested in people and issues before her time (mentioning Auntie Mame and Jake Bruce of Cream, for example), Moore largely pulls Tassie's sensibility off and even makes her perspective an essential one through which to view our world today.
Moore's descriptions of Sarah and Edward, the adoptive parents Tassie nannies for, vacillate between menacing and charming. This is precisely how Moore, perhaps better than any other author today, captures life as closely as possible to the experience of living. Don't we all run into people on a daily basis who are alternately charming and menacing? That may be, in fact, one of the great joys of reading: the "oh YEAHs" of "I've SO been there" and "I SO know people like this!" No author gives the reader more "Oh YEAHs" than Lorrie Moore! Moore can even make perusing magazines or clicking around the internet fascinating and hilarious.
If I have one criticism of the novel, it is that halfway through reading it, I grew a bit tired of the verbal ticks and affinity for puns that most of the characters seemed to have. Reading on, however, I decided that perhaps these characters' similar senses of humor were simply influenced by their friendship and proximity to Tassie, the superb narrator with her infectious, engaging perspective on the world. By the end of the book, I simply wanted to be one of Tassie's friends, punning and cracking wise all the time!
Moore writes almost as an anthropologist or linguist, portraying what, how and why people say and name things the way they do. Moore transcends the mere inclusion of dialogue, for example, in A Gate at the Stairs. Moore is listening to us. All of us. And then Moore echoes us, bouncing our jabber back at her readers in a way that makes us hear and understand ourselves more honestly. The reader develops the sense that we all should be listening as attentively as Moore does. When literature encourages readers to pay attention -- especially in the attention-deficit age we all now find ourselves in -- then that literature has truly risen to the highest form of art.
See? In summary: Lorrie Moore is God.
A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore