Best of September (and Omni Podcast): Lorrie Moore, "A Gate at the Stairs"

As I've been following in the last couple of Old Media Mondays, Lorrie Moore's new novel, A Gate at the Stairs, is getting some of the most interesting--and mostly glowing--reviews of the year. It makes sense: she's a major American writer who hasn't published a new book in 11 years, and a new novel in 15. And A Gate at the Stairs is just what you'd hope for from her after all that time: showing off all of her strengths (she is just about the funniest person you've ever shared a page with, but she also has a wry and sometimes raw sense of the tragic) but also showing signs of stretching for something she hasn't done before. Some readers have thought that those stretches showed signs of strain, and they didn't buy some of her attempts for more worldly relevance. There's one element of the story I don't think works (Tassie's boyfriend, to be specific), and I wouldn't describe it as the most flawless book I've read this year (I'm not sure what would be), but it is the book I feel I've lived in the most, and that has lived with me the most, and that I find myself going back to with the most interest. Does that mean I think it's the best? I'm still trying to decide...

Something Jonathan Lethem (who gave A Gate at the Stairs such a rave in the Times) said about his own main character when I talked to him the same day I interviewed Moore rings true about her narrator, Tassie Keltjin, too. I'm paraphrasing from memory here (I'll be editing and posting his interview in the next week or two), but he said something to the effect that Chase, his narrator, might be a bit of a nonentity, but he's a good observer. He has an interesting sensibility. And that's what's so wonderful about Tassie. She's curious, funny, and judgmental: she's open-minded, but she's also trying to decide what she should think about everything. In my review I compared her to the toddler she takes care of: she's taking the world between her teeth and trying it out, tasting it the way we do before we get trained not to. It's one the great (and neglected) pleasures of a good novel to spend time in the mind of someone like that.

I talked to Lorrie Moore at BookExpo America in New York in May about A Gate at the Stairs, about the Midwest, about housecleaning and jokes and collecting her stories. Listen here, or read it all after the jump.


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Comments (3)

I read an uncorrected proof of this and the experience was slightly jarring - typoes, sections that repeated themselves that I wasn't sure were intentional, etc. I can't say how close my copy is to the final published version but what I read was what I've come to expect from Moore - it's funny, it's emotionally complex, the prose is easily readable while also remaining incredibly rich, and the narrative voice is compelling to follow. It details roughly one year in the life of Tassie Keltjin, a twenty year old college student who has recently taken a babysitting job for a family that has adopted a bi-racial child. The action unfolds in the midwest, in the wake of 9/11. The last thirty pages are some of the most stunning I've read in some time. But there are some problems with the novel as a whole. It's lopsided. Two late-in-the-game revelations aren't carried off with as much finesse as their seriousness requires, though one of them is appropriately disturbing. And there are several long sections of unattributed dialogue where people are arguing about race that get rather grating. There are so many "issues" swirling through here that it might feel a little hot-button-y at times. But Moore wisely keeps things on an intimate scale, with the world at large only intruding, as it so often does, in the most devestating ways. A beautiful book. Let's only hope it's not another ten years before we hear from one of our strongest literary voices again.

Posted by: chinch kabel | Tuesday September 22, 2009 at 1:48 AM

Lorrie Moore's "A Gate at the Stairs" is a meditation on the meaning of life, death, race, and parenting. It is a story of growing up, meeting new people, and getting to know your own family. The novel is narrated by Tessa, the 20-year old, who comes from a farming town to the "big city," where she is astounded to find Chinese eateries, guys who tell you one thing and do another, and a roommate with as much zest for life as she has. Tessa goes to work as the nanny to a black child adopted by white parents, parents who have some significantly odd ideas about parenting.

Though the novel takes many sorrow-filled twists and turns, Tessa is not maudlin or maddening. She seems very real. I loved this book and gave only 4 stars based on some chapters of endless "overheard" dialog (with no tags), all concerning race, which ended up sounding like a lecture or a television talk show. My other complaint is that Moore lets Tessa have just a little bit too much fun with puns and rhymes albeit amusing and inventive. Still, I give this book my personal thumb's up as a beautiful and challenging work of character, plot, and graceful, descriptive language...

Posted by: disques dur | Thursday September 10, 2009 at 11:23 PM

Hi this is simply outstanding edition.
Still I have read it half and I must check it out fully.
Thanks to loorie moorie.

Posted by: aaa rechargeable batteries | Thursday September 10, 2009 at 3:37 AM

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