I recently finished “A Gate at the Stairs,” Lorrie Moore’s first book in 11 years. Let’s not get caught up in the facts here – it doesn’t matter that this is her third novel – it reads like her first. It reads like she couldn’t decide what she wanted to write about. Was it post 9/11 America and terrorism? Was it race relations? Adoption? College? First love and infidelity? Potatoes? The virtues of the bass guitar and upright bass?
First, the good: the first one hundred pages are very good. I laughed quite a few times. There’s an interesting look into Tassie, a Midwestern girl raised on a farm (sort-of raised on a farm), and all the quirks of moving to a college town.
The novel deals primarily with adoption, and at the heart of the story, no doubt influenced by Moore’s own life (she has an adopted son who is part African-American) is a two year old adopted black girl. The scenes with the little girl are spectacular, but they are buried in so much irrelevant posturing that it’s hard to find them.
Now, the bad: practically everything else in the novel is a waste of time. There’s no plot after the first one hundred forty pages. There’s a little subplot about Tassie’s first love that gets tied into the post 9/11 part of the novel, but is completely ridiculous. Most of the characters are not fleshed out. There’s no description of Tassie’s college classes, though she is apparently in college. Everything is narrated through her thoughts, which allows Moore to go on extreme tangents which ultimately lead nowhere.
There’s an attempt to bring in some mystery as to the identity of the adoptive parents Tassie works for, but it is unbelievable. Furthermore, there’s a set of conversations between people in Sarah and Edward’s (adoptive parents) house about race relations, which are interrupted by Tassie’s thoughts and applications of certain phrases to the idea of raising a child. Basically, someone says something, and then Moore takes that phrase and uses it with Tassie, who makes a joke out of it, preferably by addressing the kids’ bodily functions. The episode is repeated again with the same horrible mental interjections, making the middle of the novel almost unbearable.
I wish Moore had stuck with one plot device/theme and run with it. The ending is a conflation of all the abandoned plot lines into one seemingly supernatural (read: deus ex machina) neatly tied up conclusion. It sucks. There’s a space of about five pages where it’s actually good and evocative and moving, but then the final couple of pages ruin it.
There was a New York Times article about the book, apparently 11 years in the writing (the book, not the article). I quote: “There were certain scenes that felt so heartbreaking to me that I didn’t know how I was going to write them,” she said. “I cried all the way through the writing of it.”
Let me say that I cried too. Lorrie Moore has broken my heart, by which I mean that she’s completely turned me off from reading even her short stories. I really regret reading this novel. Also, the title is irrelevant. You know how most times, the title actually signifies a big part of what the novel is? Right. This title does nothing. Kind of like the book.
SLIGHT SPOILERS HERE:
Who actually climbs into coffins anyway!? Who calls their babysitter after months and months to ask for dinner/sex?? Why was the laundry girl in the novel!? Yes, I know she was supposed to show his infidelity, but what the hell…it wasn’t even followed up on. Stupid meaningless conversations about jihadism make Denis mad. It wasn’t even the anachronisms that bothered me. It was the dumb narrator.