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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