A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Lorrie Moore's literary talent has always seemed exquisitely adapted to brevity. Now she has finally proved herself over the long haul, says Geoff Dyer

The Observer, Sunday 27 September 2009
lorrie moore

Lorrie Moore. Photograph by Linda Nylind

Did it matter – did it gnaw away at her – that in spite of the high critical standing enjoyed by her stories, Lorrie Moore had not come up with the big novel by which writers, American ones especially, tend to be judged? Yes, there was Anagrams (1986), but the fact that a third of it also ended up in last year's Collected Stories slightly undermined its claims to unity. And then there was Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), which was nice enough but suggested that, like a boxer moving up a weight division, litheness was having to compensate for lack of bulk.

  1. A Gate at the Stairs
  2. by Lorrie Moore
  3. 336,
  4. Faber and Faber

The stories, meanwhile, got better, deeper, darker and – yes – heavier, but maybe a voice and talent so exquisitely adapted to the shaped imperatives of brevity would come to be defined and measured by the lack of top-quality long-haul. "I can't do this," says the distraught mother-writer in the famous story "People Like That Are the Only People Here". "I can do quasi-amusing phone dialogue. I do the careful ironies of daydreams. I do the marshy ideas upon which intimate life is built." Hence the mix of excitement and trepidation that even adoring readers will bring to Moore's third novel. Will it be great? Will Moore prove that she is not synonymous with less?

Hell yes! It is and she does. She's on fire for 300 pages! You can sit back and have the time of your life reading A Gate at the Stairs if you're prepared to make a bunny-hop of critical faith, what might be called – I'm showing my age here – the Jimmy Clitheroe concession.

Moore was born in 1957; her narrator, Tassie, is looking back to the time, shortly after 9/11, when she was a student in the Midwest town of Troy. At the alleged time of writing, she is in her mid-20s but the voice and, to a lesser extent, the eyes are those of someone old enough to be her mother.

Moore's characters and books have always been light-footed. Self-Help, her first collection of stories, was all wit and sad dazzle. Anagrams was so loaded with gags that the reader suffered occasional quip fatigue. No surprise, then, that Tassie has a GSOH, but for someone claiming to be "fresh from childhood" she seems to be lugging around an extra quarter-century of adult life. A couple of times, she remarks on the quirks of "our generation" – the way, for example, that "everything either 'sucked' or was ­ 'awesome'" – but they're exactly the things that strike people of Moore's age.

It's tricky. The main symptom of over-ageing in this coming-of-age novel is also intrinsic to its effect. Precocity enables you to play the piano at six, but wisdom, like the "half-life of regret" that also haunts these pages, only comes later. You find it, as Blake said, in the desolate market – where few come to buy.

This is not to minimise the purchases made there – the grief visited upon and witnessed – by Tassie in the brief period covered by the novel. Short of cash, she gets a part-time, all-consuming job babysitting for a middle-aged couple who are adopting a mixed-race baby. Much of the book details Tassie's time with the foster mother, Sarah, and her adopted child, Emmie. She is smuggled – the word turns out to be more apt than one might imagine – into an overwhelmingly white town, and Emmie's arrival prompts Sarah to organise a series of evenings in which other mixed families serve as a scathing mock-chorus on the state of race relations in idyllic-seeming Troy.

The neurotically energetic Sarah runs a ludicrously upmarket restaurant whose potatoes are grown by Tassie's dad. At Christmas, Tassie goes home to the family farm where her brother, Robert, is poised to join the army. She will return there during the intensely moving and, in places, brilliantly weird final phase of the book. So the immediate focus of the novel – life in a college town – is framed by the immensity of the surrounding prairie, whose seasons and endlessly changing monotony are captured in a series of virtuoso passages. Tassie learns that despair means "mistaking a small world for a large one and a large one for a small"; but how to avoid such an error when small and large – college and prairie – are prey to the same implacable meteorological and historical forces?

But let's stick, for a moment, with the small stuff, with Moore's eye for absurdist, hi-def detail: the mouth of the meth addict with its "crooked teeth, bits of shell awash on a reef of gum"; the fortune cookie that looks like "a short paper nerve baked in an ear"; the wonderful, late-night glimpse of married life when Tassie overhears Sarah saying to her husband: "You emptied the top rack of the dishwasher but not the bottom, so the clean dishes have gotten all mixed up with the dirty ones – and now you want to have sex?" There's tons of this kind of thing, cute and psychologically acute, but there's also the sense of something sky-vast and doom-laden, "full of sorrow and truth", bearing down from the past or about to loom up from the future.

The past trauma turns out to be Sarah's, though it will taint the present and be passed on to Emmie, one of whose first attempts at speech is "Uh-oh!": "She already knew both the sound and the language of things going wrong." The future history, so to speak, is latent in Robert's posting to Afghanistan and by the way that the Brazilian boy Tassie is dating turns out – a tad implausibly – to be…

Ah, but that would be telling, wouldn't it? Reviews are not supposed to give the game away, even though certain works – the best ones, arguably – are not harmed by spoilers. On first reading A Gate at the Stairs, one can become not frustrated, exactly, but impatient with Moore's determinedly lackadaisical way of proceeding. Second time around, when you know what's going to happen, when you give yourself up to the book's unusual and distinctive rhythm, it quivers on the brink of being a masterpiece. That quivering, that slight feeling of uncertainty (like "candlelight vibrating the room") is entirely appropriate given Moore's hesitant engagement with the demands of a big novel and the protracted gestation of this, her eventual response and solution.

Uninterested in narrative locomotion, Moore advances her story while appearing to let it drift sideways, roll backwards or even, at times, to stall. In the middle of Tassie's first conversation with Sarah, at a point in the novel when convention decrees that this scene and these characters are fixed in the reader's mind, Tassie remembers, instead, how her father "took to driving his combine down country roads to deliberately slow up traffic. 'I had them backed up seventeen deep,' he once boasted to my mom". And after a while, he might have added, none of them wanted to be any place else. They were glad to be along for the ride.

Geoff Dyer's most recent novel is Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi (Canongate)

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