Friday, March 05, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore-- Part One

What is "A Gate at the Stairs" anyway? The cover of the book helpfully informs us it is "A Novel." I take this somewhat skeptically, because the picture on the cover isn't "A Gate at the Stairs;" it is "The Stairs at the Gate." In my mind, a gate at the stairs is more like this:

It's what you put up to keep babies and toddlers from falling down stairs that they are too young to manage on their own. So, as the narrator Tassie starts out the book looking for a babysitting job, the title made sense to me. There is even a gate to the yard of the home where Tassie gets hired as a babysitter, a gate that has lost some screws and has to be juggled into true before it can be latched.

Am I on the right track? I don't know--I am finding this novel to be interminable: directionless, overly invested in its own liguistic cleverness. I am not enjoying it much.

The Plot Thus Far: twenty-year old college sophmore Tassie is on break at a vaguely metropolitan midwestern college. Looking for a part time job to augment her income, she is hired by Sarah Blink to care for a child that Sarah has not yet adopted. She goes home to her small Wisconsin farming town, where her father has retired (at age 45) from growing artisinal potates--the kind served by Sarah Blink in her expensive restaurant. Tassie's mother is Jewish and seems to be going blind, her brother is failing high school, and Tassie spends a week lying around her bedroom reading books and being superior.

I have just finished listening to chapter 2, which is mostly taken up by Tassie's obnoxious condescension about the town where she has lived her whole life. And frankly, Moore has lost me here. Sure, she has bitingly witty things to say about how the city used to be nearly a theme park of fake Indian attractions, until the city council renamed the town "Delacrosse" and invented a UFO mythology that failed to last. She is as funny as one can be about idiosyncratic grammar of Wisconsin small towns--but seriously? Does Moore really believe that a 20 year old who spent her entire life in this town would actually consider it odd to say things like "on accident" or "bored of?" This is how they speak, and realistically, this is how Tassie herself would have grown up speaking. And it's not like she went so very far away to go to college either--she might have crossed the border into Illinois, it's hard to tell because Moore isn't specific--that she could suddenly be articulate about the use of the past perfect verb tense as a mode of storytelling by the rubes back home.

I am listening to this from, and the narration is dripping with bored condecension about everything and everyone. I am finding it wearying. Moore is famous for her use of language, and she is apparently in fine form here. However the writerliness of the language is clearly all Moore's--it doesn't properly belong to the character, and it doesn't advance the story either. Tassie hates her small town, and feels superior to it, but doesn't seem to have any basis for that feeling--she's hasn't demonstrated any basis for that sense of superiority. She fails to connect with her parents, she's unable to talk with her brother, she's been abandoned by her college roommate who has all but moved in with a new boyfriend, she is uncomfortable with her new employer. She's mean spirited and aimless, and all of Moore's signiture linguistic gymnastics aren't distracting enough from the nasty tone of this story.

What is a reader to do? The reviews of this have been uniformly fantastic, and it's been listed as one of the best books of last year. Books so rarely live up to their hype, but what is the point of trying to find a good book to read if reviews that recommend "good books" oversell them and make them disappointing? It's hardly worth trying to read everything in hopes of stumbling on something good; there's just too many books out there.

I've got to put this one away for a while, for a time when I'm more willing to put up with an unpleasant character in the hopes that she will lead me somewhere worth going.


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