Fiction: "A Gate at the Stairs"
It's a sign of a writer's insecurity when a novel starts reviewing itself. The whip-smart college-girl narrator of Lorrie Moore's first novel in 15 years gets metatextual near the book's long, discursive, maddeningly inconclusive end.
In these ambitious annals of a farm girl's first year in a university town, the author of "Birds of America" and "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" assembles an intriguing cast of original characters -- and then abandons them to white-elephant plot strains.
"None of us was in the same story," narrator Tassie, always swift with an arch assessment, says. "We were all grotesques, and self-riveted, but in separate narratives, and so our interactions seemed weird and richly meaningless ... ."
The central trio of "A Gate at the Stairs" are Tassie; Sarah, the sad gourmand restaurateur with the sharp Easterner's tongue; and Mary Emma, the mixed-race toddler Sarah is adopting and for whom Tassie is an au pair. They are three females trying to navigate a post-9/11 world where men are treacherous and women are not much better.
There's little sense of sisterhood here. In fact, it's Tassie's failure as a sister -- not to mention Sarah's failure as a mother -- that brings the narrative to its bleak bottom. Only Mary succeeds at being a perfect little baby despite being shuttled from one family to another.
On the one hand, Moore seems to be rescuing women from their traditional supporting roles. On the other, she reinforces hoary old myths, like the idea that children are the only innocents.
Moore starts to create a sort of Riot Grrrl, bass-playing, "Sister Carrie" heroine. But then Tassie becomes a hapless victim of her own self-riveted naivete. Eventually, you want to just shake her out of her loner dream state and tell her to stop flapping around the countryside in her crazy bird outfit and deal with the world collapsing around her -- which, maybe, she does.
Moore has a rich imagination, a passion for detail and a mordant sense of humor. She pokes fun at epicurean obsessive tastes, whether of foodies or indie rockers, and politically correct intellectualism with great gusts of ironic rococo.
Tassie has a last supper at Sarah's restaurant:
"Surely people were eating in a way that evolution had no preparation or reason for. It was a miracle, gratuitous, dizzying and lovely. A 'celeriac puree' could no doubt mend all cracks, remove all stains, but what was a 'torchon'? A 'ganache'? A 'soffrito'? A 'rillette'? Even the tenderly braised escarole offered up a phrase in a seemingly new tongue, familiar words reshaped in the high-scoring points and busy luck of Scrabble or Dutch."
Sometimes, her research is off; it's cool that she drops the name of Sleater-Kinney, but why would a bass player practice songs by a band that had no bassist?
Moore is a wonderfully skilled craftswoman. But in this book, she writes with implausible emotional drive and little sense of empathy. There are big plot twists, such as a Muslim terrorist character, that come out of nowhere and wind up from whence they came.
And then there are the elements you can see coming a mile away:
The sterile career woman, the father who wants to fool around with the hired help, the difficult Jewish mother.
In attempting to write a Big Book, Moore seems to have forgotten whether she was writing social realism or satiric surrealism. For instance, while her novel is clearly set in Wisconsin (Moore teaches at University of Wisconsin-Madison), sometimes she uses real place names, but usually she inexplicably rewrites them as if we couldn't figure out that Dellacrosse Central is LaCrosse.
She takes great care to name and describe the plants of the countryside, then creates an organic farm growing out of the remains of a fish hatchery and, for some reason, a tennis court.
The demographic trend of women deciding to have or adopt children in middle age is certainly, er, fertile material for a novel about the changing nature of gender roles, families, social structures and love.
I think that's what Moore was trying to write, but I'm not sure why she placed it in the hands of a 20-year-old fresh off the farm (that fertility riff again?). The rather disturbing implication that Tassie is a better caretaker than Sarah would probably have Betty Friedan rolling in her grave.
About two-thirds of the way through the novel, Sarah and Mary disappear, and "A Gate" becomes a book about a woman coming of age in a world falling apart. At the bleak end, the rockin' heroine is merely a Starbucks barista, and the only thing she has apparently learned in a tragic, cataclysmic year is not to trust men.
So many bizarre plot twists and clever conversations all navigated in service of another saga about the battle of the sexes -- weird and richly meaningless indeed.
First Published September 6, 2009 12:00 am