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Book Review: A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

kira86 于2009-12-08发布 l 已有人浏览
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I’m aware of one — one — reader who doesn’t care for Lorrie Moore, and even


I’m aware of one — one — reader who doesn’t care for Lorrie Moore, and even that one seems a little apologetic about it. “Too . . . punny,” my friend explains, resorting to a pun as though hypnotized by the very tendency that sets off his resistance. For others, Moore may be, exactly, the most irresistible contemporary Ameri­can writer: brainy, humane, unpretentious and warm; seemingly effortlessly lyrical; Lily-Tomlin-funny. Most of all, Moore is capable of enlisting not just our sympathies but our sorrows. Her last book, the 1998 story collection “Birds of America,” included the unforgettable baby-with-­cancer story “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” a breathtakingly dark overture to a decade’s silence — as if the Beatles had exited on “A Day in the Life.” For many readers, the fact that Moore has now relieved an 11-year publishing hiatus is reason enough to start Google-mapping a route to the nearest surviving bookstore.

If American fiction writers largely find themselves sorted tediously into the category of “natural” at either the short or the long form, regardless of the extent of their commitment to both, then Moore — justly celebrated for her three story collections — has surely been counted as a miniaturist. This book should spell the end of that. “A Gate at the Stairs” is more expansive than either of her two previous novels, the slender, Nabokovian “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” and the structurally dizzy novel-as-set-of-­variations “Anagrams.” It’s also a novel that brandishes some “big” material: racism, war, etc. — albeit in Moore’s resolutely insouciant key.

The novel’s protagonist and narrator, Tassie Keltjin, is a student at a Midwestern college mecca, daughter of a boutique potato cultivator, who finds work as the nanny-in-waiting for a brainy couple awkwardly on the verge of adoption. This ambiguous assignment takes the foreground in a tale ranging over Tassie’s home life and love life — the nest she’s just departed and the nest she’s hoping to flutter into. Moore’s class diagnostics are so exact she can make us feel the uneasiness not only between town and country in a single landlocked state, but between different types of farmers on neighboring plots. The book is also set in the autumn of 2001, a fact Moore has the patience to barely deploy for 200 pages, and then only with a deft sleight of hand that will make readers reflect on the ways so many other treatments of this (unfinished) passage in American life have resembled heart surgery performed with a croquet mallet.

In a 2005 interview, Moore made an allusion to this “post-9/11” aspect of the work that grew into this novel: “I’m . . . interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings.” The delicacy of this remark fails to disguise its clarity of purpose, and, as it happens, distant inter­national affairs are by no means the only source of “intrusion” in “A Gate at the Stairs.” Moore’s continuing interest in how power imbalances make themselves felt in human encounters fastens here on the Kafka-worthy bureaucracy of adoption agencies and foster homes. Combined with her immaculately tender portrayals of young children, so real you want to pass around their snapshots, this aspect of her novel will do such things to your heart that you may find yourself wishing for the surgeon with the croquet mallet, just for mercy.

Moore’s cast is sneaky-large (she’s like an athlete you keep wanting to call sneaky-fast, or sneaky-tough). Any of Tassie’s relationships — like that with her adoption-seeking employer Sarah Brink, or her vivid goof of a younger brother, or her exotic first love interest, Reynaldo (whom she meets in “Intro to Sufism”) — may seem this book’s essential one, at least while it assumes center stage. But the novel’s real essence is its sinuous roving spotlight, in which each character and element is embraced in Tassie’s wondering and exact sensibility, as when with her brother she revisits a childhood haunt:

“When the gnats weren’t bad I had sometimes accompanied him, sat in the waist-high widgeon grass beside him, the place pink with coneflowers, telling him the plot of, say, a Sam Peckinpah movie I’d never seen but had read about once in a syndicated article in The Dellacrosse Sunday Star. Crickets the size of your thumb would sing their sweet monotony from the brush. Sometimes there was a butterfly so perfect and beautiful, it was like a party barrette you wanted to clip in your hair. Above and around us green leaves would flash wet with sunsetting light. In this verdant cove I recounted the entire plot of ‘Straw Dogs.’ . . . Now we stood at the cold stream’s edge, tossing a stone in and listening for its plonk and plummet. I wanted to say, ‘Remember the time . . .’ But too often when we compared stories from our childhood, they didn’t match. I would speak of a trip or a meal or a visit from a cousin and of something that had happened during it, and Robert would look at me as if I were speaking of the adventures of some Albanian rock band. So I stayed quiet with him. It is something that people who have been children together can effortlessly do. It is sometimes preferable to the talk, which is also effortless. We found more stones and tossed them. ‘A stone can’t drown,’ said my brother finally. ‘It’s already drowned.’ ‘You been reading poetry?’ I smiled at him.”

As for the puns, they seem to me less an eagerness to entertain than a true writerly obsession. Moore is an equal-opportunity japester: heroes and villains both crack wise with Chandleresque vivacity, so you can’t use cleverness as a moral index. The wrinkly recursiveness of her language seems lodged at the layer of consciousness itself, where Moore demands readers’ attention to the innate thingliness of words. This includes not only their plastic capacity as puns, and the oddnesses residing in the names for food, foliage and products — for instance, the fact that probably no bachelor ever wore the flowers called “bachelor buttons,” or that a fabric’s neutral hue can be awarded names as various as pigeon, parmesan, platinum or pebble — but also their potential use as deliberate uncommunication: “ ‘Sounds good,’ I sang out into the dark of the car. Sounds good, that same Midwestern girl’s slightly frightened reply. It appeared to clinch a deal, and was meant to sound the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except it was promiseless — mere affirmative description.”

Finally, this book plumbs deep because it is anchored deep, in a system of natural imagery as tightly organized as that in a cycle of poems like Ted Hughes’s “Crow.” The motif is birth, gestation and burial, a seed or fetus uncovering its nature in secrecy, a coffin being offered to the earth. The motif declares itself upfront in Tassie’s father’s potatoes, which like sleeper cells grow clustered in darkness and then, unearthed, assume names: Klamath pearls, yellow fingerlings, purple Peruvians and Rose Finns. In “A Gate at the Stairs” it is not just potatoes that adapt for the world behind assumed names, but babies and grown-ups too.

Great writers usually present us with mysteries, but the mystery Lorrie Moore presents consists of appearing genial, joshing and earnest at once — unmysterious, in other words, yet still great. She’s a discomfiting, sometimes even rageful writer, lurking in the disguise of an endearing one. On finishing “A Gate at the Stairs” I turned to the reader nearest to me and made her swear to read it immediately (well, the dog was between us, but she doesn’t read much, and none of what I recommend). I might even urge it on my dissenting friend.


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