WORD SEARCH with Adair Jones

The Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore

a gate at the stairs

As an admirer of Lorrie Moore’s short stories, I’ve long looked forward to the publication of The Gate at the Stairs, her first novel in fourteen years.

Tassie Keltjin, a naïve student at a university in the Midwest, takes a job as a babysitter for a couple in the process of adopting a child.  The time she spends with them and with their little girl, Mary-Emma, gives her a view outside her own restricted upbringing.  She gets glimpses of a sophisticated but dark adult world with complicated relationships and deep sorrows.  She also becomes increasingly aware of a new, bewildering America—one born on 9/11, a country now full of suspicion, racial profiling, and preparations for war.

There is much about this book to love:  Moore is verbally dexterous, capable of spinning vivid passages that are comedic and poignant at once, scenes–in Moore’s own words–full of “idle spirals and desperate verbal coils”.  As a whole, however, the work flounders.  Innovations that are fresh and effective in a short story, when stretched to fit the dimensions of a novel, begin to feel gimmicky.  This is off-putting, drawing the reader out of the story to puzzle over technique.

Then, it’s never clear what the story is about.  Even Moore seems confused.  The opening mother-daughter thread quickly frays.  The theme of immanent war flashes, replaced quickly by a succession of others: insolvable race-relations, implacable jihad, the complexities of a rotten marriage.  Tangled asides on food, flowers, music, politics, and religion appear, but none are woven into any pattern.  The Gate at the Stairs is less a novel than several mismatched short stories masquerading as a novel.  Not only is this disappointing from a writer of Moore’s flair and expertise, it’s devastating.

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A version of this review first appeared in The Courier-Mail in October 2009.

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