Lorrie Moore writes like an angel. A Gate on the Stairs includes a lot of poetry. They’re menus. One of the characters, Sarah, is a restaurant owner in a university town called Troy. Poetic menus are sui generis funny.
Moore’s first major jest, on p2, is to describe Troy, Illinois, as the Athens of the Mid West. Already Tassie, the book’s first person narrator, student at the University of Troy and seeker of child care work, has told us that, if around children too long, ‘I grew bored, perhaps like my own mother. After I spent too much time playing their games, my mind became peckish and longed to lose itself in some book I had in my backpack. I was ever hopeful of early bedtimes and long naps.’ Moore is a gourmet writer. Words are her ingredients. They’re usually surprising but always their combination is delicious and purposeful.
By p2, we know, furthermore, that Tassie is a farm child, climate change is afoot, and she’s thrilled that her Eng Lit professor wears jeans and a tie. By p3 we know we’re in late 2001 because the events of 9/11 – ‘we did not yet call them 9/11’ – seemed both near and far away.’
Tassie lands a job looking after the adopted two year old daughter of Sarah and Edward. There’s something a bit dodgy and sad about them. Tassie lands a handsome Brazilian boyfriend about whom there’s also something odd. Tassie’s brother is someone else who isn’t who he seems to be. Is Bonnie, Mary-Emma’s birth mother, caught up in a gang heist. And when will Mary Emma’s name stick to her? A lot then about identity. The book is partly about the fear of never knowing who a person is.
And it has a lot of tragedies, which ‘I was coming to realise through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society full of sorrow and truth but without a moral function. … where the tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. … For understanding and perspective, suffering required a butchers weighing. And to ease the suffering of the listener, things had better be funny. Though they weren’t always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us. Not that funny. Or worse, not funny in the least.’
Moore brings her super-intelligence to bear on liberal multi cultural indulgence, on the intricate racism of middle America – Moore is white and uses a lot of dashes -, on grief, on not bothering to argue against God, on Nietzsche and the American military. She throws just the right amount of phrases like ‘a look of pale apprehension’ into the pot. Her 20 year old narrator goes through a sharp learning curve.
Lush nature passages reveal Moore’s serious heart. They aren’t so much at odds with her skinny latte wit as an index of where she turns when human tragedy and comedy just aren’t enough. Childhood innocence tumbles down the stairs round about the age of 4, despite the gate at the top of the stairs, and thereafter people will just keep on doing disastrous things. Here’s one of the more restrained nature passages: ‘and then it warmed just enough for a blizzard, followed by another, as if the prairie were in a hiccup. Wind howled in the chimneys and under eaves, knocking ice blocks from the roof. And then when the air was finally still, a stupor descended, induced by accumulated snowdrifts, which were baked against the sides of house like a comforter throw over to calm an agitated dog. There was in the air a cold resignation good for reading.’
More lessons in the humanities: ‘Edward wasn’t smiling. A shadow passed between them. A sepia tinge came over Sarah’s eyes. A horse-drawn sled jingled its harness bells off in the distance: this town would turn winter into a holiday if it killed them. “The family that sleighs together stays together,” Sarah murmured to me. Or, that is what I thought I heard, though there was no levity in her voice. She took one hand briefly away from Mary to squeeze mine in reassurance. Or in promise. Or in regret. Or in happy hope. Or else in some secret pact that involved a little of everything.’ Is it surprising human beings sheer off each other, taking a slice of flesh with them here and there, when interpreting our behaviour is as difficult as Moore suggests?
So, given the delicious delicacy and intelligence of her writing, why don’t I like the book? It has something to do with Tassie’s turn away from people – which explains her nature descriptions – when the going gets overly tragic. Something to do with a dropping away from the narrative consequences of the book’s many tragedies – which explains why she’s a wisecrack too far from the theory of tragi-comedy she’s expounded, itself an echo of mordent Jewish humour – Tassie’s mother is Jewish. Or something to do with the delight in words pretending not to be a weapon, if not of war, then of a cold heart. But I’ll give Lorrie Moore the benefit of the doubt: I dislike the narrator, not the book. Eight years after 9/11, it jokes its way through some of liberal America’s most pressing anxieties.