A Gate at the Stairs
Knopf Doubleday 2009
Reviewed by Bob Wake
A Gate at the Stairs is a brilliant comic novel about inconsolable grief and loss. (I lost a whole day reading it. Labor Day utterly consumed, family obliterated, along with exercise and square meals.) It’s by far the longest and most ambitious of Lorrie Moore’s three novels to date, risking wide-eyed engagement with thorny issues like racism, war (gender and military), terrorism, and, perhaps the thorniest issue of all: childrearing. Remarkably, she hasn’t altered her patented hyper-comedic sensibility one iota while enlarging her vision.
The brainy 20-year-old narrator, Tassie Kiltjen, a farm-raised Midwestern innocent, heads off to college—thirty minutes from home—and finds herself slipping into a global village quagmire. She becomes a nanny for an adopted biracial two-year-old girl. And she begins dating a young man, a Brazilian student, who, like the family Tassie works for, harbors disturbing secrets. Believe me, some of this material is strong stuff. Horrible. Moore, in the tradition of our very best modern writers, from Flannery O’Connor to David Foster Wallace, uses comedy as a means to accentuate dislocation, anxiety and folly. Her wit and wits in overdrive, Tassie has to awkwardly navigate explicitly post-9/11 social realities. (The story takes place in the year following the September 11th attacks.) Back home, her brother weighs enlisting in the armed forces.
Moore cannily invokes 9/11 as a double-edged metaphor for innocence betrayed. “Despair,” states a character in the novel, “is mistaking a small world for a large one and a large one for a small.” Which is also the unresolved dilemma fueling much of contemporary fiction. The inadequacy of the self. The crushing assault of the ineffable. There’s something going on in Moore’s novel that feels timely and fresh and bracingly edgy. A Gate at the Stairs is uncompromisingly full-strength Lorrie Moore—laden with grotesque puns and jokey patter while remaining thematically complex and fiercely literary—which is to say it’s a great novel on Lorrie Moore’s own idiosyncratic terms. (Reviews have been mixed, to say the least. Malcolm Jones, in Newsweek, sniffs, “You finish the book wondering if it was worth the trouble”; Stephanie Zacharek, over at Salon, scolds the novel for being “exhausting” and “emotionally unsatisfying”; the most evenhanded appraisals I’ve seen so far are the two New York Times reviews, one from Jonathan Lethem, the other from Michiko Kakutani.)