Thursday, September 10, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

A review copy was provided free under the Amazon Vine program

This is the first novel I've read by Lorrie Moore, though I'm a big fan of her short fiction, particularly "People Like That..." the story that deservedly seems to get mentioned in every workshop I attend. So I was looking forward to this, but I ended up very disappointed.

The novel is loosely about a young woman, Tassie, in her sophomore year at a college in a small Wisconsin town. The time is 2001, beginning just after September 11, which I imagine was supposed to have some significance, but I don't know what, as the story could have taken place any time in the last eight years. Tassie goes to classes––though seemingly not very often for someone who is a good student––works as caregiver to an adopted biracial child, visits her boyfriend––sometimes alone, sometimes with said child––and spends a lot of time alone in her apartment playing her base guitar. If that doesn't sound very interesting, well, it really isn't.

Moore's snarky observations and internal dialogue work great in small doses, but when they take up the majority of 321 pages, the style becomes very waring. The characters she interacts with––though interact is not really the right word, because most of the dialogue is inside Tassie's head––are far from cliche. So far, in fact, that they are all enigmas, including Tassie herself, and not one is developed fully enough. The few events are only tenuously connected, if at all (see my zine writer post on soap opera writing), and, frankly, unbelievable. Since they all clump at the end of the book, I'll give only one away. That's when Tassie works with her farmer dad over the summer, dressing in a bird costume and running ahead of his combine to scare the mice out of the fields. She does this willingly and even drives into town on her motor scooter one day, still wearing the costume. And what happened when she arrived? We don't know. It isn't part of the story. From this you might get the idea there is something surreal or symbolic about this work, but the style just doesn't fit with that.

I read a recent interview where Moore said she enjoys studying the way people talk. That's obvious here when she writes about the support group her employer, Sarah Brink, holds every Wednesday for adoptive parents of black and biracial children. Bits of their conversation are overheard by Tassie as she babysits the kids on the third floor. Yes, they are self-congratulatory, self-absorbed, and totally clueless. Those points come across in the first few lines, but not only does it continue for pages––including those typical inside jokes that realistically get repeated ad infinitum––but Moore covers several of these gatherings.

I'd like to end on a positive note, but I honestly didn't find one good thing about this book . At the same time, during the entire reading I was very sympathetic toward Moore as an author. The lay reader who doesn't follow the publishing business often thinks known writers "get away" with bad books because of their name recognition. But writers who excel at the short story are often pressured into producing novels for both financial and career reasons. Short stories sold separately don't pay very well, and big publishers won't accept collections without the promise of a novel. I always keep that in mind when one of my favorite short story writers produces another novel. In this case, I'm guessing Moore's heart wasn't in it. So she did the best she could.

1 comment:

Angie Ledbetter said...

Interesting review. Enjoyed your thoughts on voice, characterization points and plot thread connections too.