One evening back in September, I waited in line with the wonderful writers Nicole M. and Ella B. for a brief audience with Lorrie Moore. We clutched our books (I’d narrowed my exhaustive library of her work down to only two: the new one, A Gate at the Stairs, and one of my copies of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?.) and crept toward the front of the line at a pace that could be described only as painful. We, we were fine, chatting away, but there was Ms. Moore, on stage, signing book after book after book, her hand clearly aching, her energy, though not her graciousness, clearly waning. After approximately an hour, we got to the front of the line. Thanks to the business-like bookstore staff, our names were written on post-its, so Ms. Moore did not have to even look up or speak to us if she did not so choose. I didn’t want to delay the process–there were still more people waiting behind me–so I came up with one line to spit out once my turn came. Thrusting my copy of Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? forward, I said, “I used to have pages of this book photocopied and pasted to my bedroom wall.”
Ms. Moore froze. She looked up from my book, on which she had scrawled her name, and studied my face. She said, after a moment, “Really?”
But this post isn’t about Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?. It is about the book Ms. Moore was promoting that night: A Gate at the Stairs–a book on which she took the time to scrawl, after my modest confession, this:
Ok, that’s a terrible scan but I sort of like it. She wrote, “For Nicole– Here in NY. All best to you. Lorrie Moore Sept. 09” Good enough for me!!!
A Gate at the Stairs is a novel oft-described as long-awaited. I can’t say I’ve been waiting this whole time, these last eleven years between her last publication and this one–I’ve just been re-reading her other books, uncovering new layers, new puns, new joys–I’ve had plenty of new Lorrie Moore to read. Which is not to say I didn’t pre-order A Gate at the Stairs and use it as self-bribery, my dangling carrot, to finish Anna Karenina. I stared at the cover a lot, imagining what lay inside. When I finally allowed myself to read it, I really went for it, barely pausing, finishing it in a weekend. My reading experience culminated last night–I stayed up late reading it, and then even later when finished, too upset to sleep.
This is a seriously upsetting book. There were echoes of what had been so devastating about her first novel, Anagrams–Ms. Moore will do terrible things to her narrators–narrators the reader loves so much–she will let the worst happen to them, but she will also often make it their fault. In A Gate at the Stairs, which is set in 2002, Tassie makes mistakes the reader can see from seven years away. She, at 20, makes mistakes that I, at 28, can see from eight years away. And yet, she writes the novel such that the reader can easily imagine that, at the age of 20, in 2002, this is the way he or she might act, too. (I thought of Ian McEwan’s Saturday–it is so strange to read books set in that window between 9/11 and the war in Iraq, to try to remember what it was like when we were just getting involved in Afghanistan). This set-up created in me the overwhelming feeling that I had failed–that I could have somehow stepped in to make things work out better. Part of this effect is probably also born from the fact that Tassie narrates the books from several years older and wiser. When her older voice comes in, which it does only rarely, it gives the reader–or this reader, at least–comfort, knowing that her life has gone on. I wish more books were able to assure me of that instead of just hint at it, actually–that the characters can and will continue on without me there to observe them.
I’m going to steer clear of giving plot here–you can check out reviews of the book for that, or, better yet, you can read it. What I will say about the plot is that it weirded me out in that there was so much of it. Twists and turns, late developments, secrets galore. There was so much suspense, in fact, that I lost some of the Lorrie Moore-ness of the prose–the puns, the wryness, the wit–not because it wasn’t there but because I was in such a panic about what was about to happen that I was skimming to find out. This aspect of the book straddled a crazy chasm between a strength and a weakness. Not that other Lorrie Moore work is devoid of plot, but that’s usually not what I remember first about it–I think with this book, it will be.
Although it may seem that I am being critical, I loved the book. The little girl much of the story revolved around, a two year old mixed race child named Mary-Emma, was sweet and well-, yet not over-, rendered. It will not surprise those of you who know me and my obsession with small children that this part of the narrative completely, tortuously captivated me. I wanted to cuddle that baby so badly! There were also prime Lorrie Moore passages, especially in the early part of the novel, such as the one I’ll leave you with, the kind of writing that simultaneously makes me want to give up that pursuit forever and work extra hard every day to be a modicum as good. Here it is, from page 4:
I had come from Dellacrosse Central High, from a small farm on the old Perryville Road, to this university town of Troy, “the Athens of the Midwest,” as if from a cave, like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I’d read about in Cultural Anthropolgy, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories–no experience–of the outside world. Once brought out into the light, he would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me. Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents’ hogless, horseless farm–its dullness, it flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery–twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave–of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James’s masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.
The ancient cave, of course, had produced a mystic; my childhood had produced only me.