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Why a gate? Why at the stairs?,
This review is from: A Gate at the Stairs (Paperback)
Lorrie Moore is a good short story writer, but this is a strangely unsatisfying novel. The way she has of dotting her stories with little jokes does not work on this scale and merely makes her heroine seem detached in a way that can only alienate the reader. Sometimes "Tassie" seems to be satirising the world around her or gently laughing at characters and events and it is absolutely unclear why she finds them funny in any way. Her derisive remarks about the biracial parents' conversations on Wednesday nights would be an example. How exactly would she LIKE people to talk about parenting? Is it simply ridiculous to express opinions if you are middle class? This is the strange and nonsensical implication of Tassie's motiveless derision. Should we preserve a zenlike silence lest we make fools of ourselves? Tassie never tells us what is supposed to be funny, but then she assumes we will be sympathetic with her frequently dismissive remarks about the people she grew up among. She never tells us why we should think of her as different from them in a way that justifies her sneering at them.
We never know exactly why the novel's heroine and narrator takes her point of view, but then she is never a convincing 20 year-old. Much is made of what she learns at college, and she is full of allusions without being in the least analytical, which is true of young students I suppose. But her extremely mannered way of working things out, which always seems to point to the pointlessness of trying to work things out in the first place, does not ring true of a 20 year-old or, indeed, anyone of any age who ever lived. Likewise, the dialogue is very often simply incredible. People talk about "living in the oxygenated heart of that almost", as if anyone would ever express themselves like that. It is as if Lorrie Moore could not be bothered to put believable dialogue in people's mouths - something that happens when novelists have a very important message they want to get over at whatever price to realism. But here there is no message. There is what Tassie might call a no-message message. She seems to take pride in learning nothing in the 300 pages of the novel. She merely emotes, and even that she does in a vague fashion that makes her seem close to one of the "space aliens" she likes talking about.
What is this novel about? We are shown that people can adopt babies and things can go wrong, but the adoptive parents are portrayed as being so weird and inept and without any believable interior life that their desire to adopt is actually incomprehensible. After a while (no spoilers!) we are given some kind of motive for adopting, although it is also a motive for never being a parent again - which is clearly the point. However, having made that point the subject is more or less abandoned. I agree with the reviewer who objected to the portrayal of adoptive parents here, not because a fiction writer owes anything to any particular group of people but because her take on these people is so negative that you wonder at her motivation. This is not a satisfying work of the imagination, but it has no documentary truth, either. There is no proper subjectivity or objectivity.
In here too is a wish to say something about September 11 and Afghanistan - and what she is mainly saying is, "It happened", which could be entirely sufficient if she said it more clearly. But like everything else in the novel, what is said is said in a weird stilted voice and with a dollop of implausibility. The description of the Tassie climbing into a coffin is an example of a writer trying to force something on the reader as true when it bears all the marks of a bad idea she refused to throw away. Much of the novel reads like that. As other reviewers have said, no editor seems to have touched it, and consequently there is a great deal of repetition as well as sentences that border on unreadable. There is also the horrible suggestion - horrible because it would be so contrived if this was what she was trying to do - that her boyfriend in some way (not literally) kills her brother. Tassie's relationship with the guy she supposedly thinks is Brazilian for a hundred pages or so seems planted in the book as a means of commenting on Islam, which the narrator or the author then utterly refuses to do. Why?
For all the little jokes, which often take the form of painfully gauche punning, this is a humourless work of fiction with remarkably little self-awareness. It does not know where it is going or why or what it wants when it gets there. If it had been a short story, I imagine Lorrie Moore would have put it away for a while then come back to it and reworked it. It is worrying that such a dysfunctional piece of fiction has been reviewed so positively and even been shortlisted for prizes.