On Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs

I have been in love with Lorrie Moore for the past two years. Ever since I purchased Self Help: Stories (Vintage Books 2007), I have been a devoted fan of her short and long stories. I read Self Help at least once every six months. I read the short stories, “How to be Another Woman,” “How to Talk to your Mother (Notes)” and “How to be A Writer” every two months or whenever I’m in a writing rut. I even can quote some of its most beautiful and lyrical sentences from memory. As a tribute to my love for her, the collection I mentioned is one of the few books that I brought along with me in my three-week fellowship at the Silliman University National Writer’s Workshop. Her two other collections, Like Life (Vintage Books 2002) and Birds of America (Picador 1998) are equally stunning works. Agnes, from “Agnes from Iowa,” still remains to be one of the most memorable characters I have read in all my years of reading American short fiction. The dialogue from “Charades” still makes me giggle whenever I reread that story. And honestly, who can forget the onomatopoeic laugh that lasts one-and-a-half pages at the beginning of “Real Estates”?  She is one of my favorite American short story writers. In my shelf, at home, her books sit beside those that I consider masters in that fictional form, right between John Cheever and John Updike, near the likes of Raymond Carvel, Lydia Davis, Stephen Milhauser and Ernest Hemingway.

My relationship with Lorrie Moore is not perfect though. Though my love for her short fiction is one that is eternal and unbreakable, her novels, on the other hand, puts me in a sullen and sour mood. Anagrams was a bore. It was an ordeal. The language was beautiful, the imagery was evocative, the writing was masterful, but there just something that lacked when I was reading the text. How to Run the Frog Hospital was also the same for me. It bored me to bits. There were moments during my reading when I would just put down the book after ten pages and pick up another title just to get my momentum running again. There were even instances when I fervently wished that she stop writing novels and just continue and concentrate on writing short fiction, like what Alice Munro does. The plots of the two novels just didn’t work for me. It lacked something. It was insufficient for a form of such magnitude like the novel. The characters, I felt, could have done so much more if the narrative went to a different direction.  I was not a big fan of her novels and I doubted I could be. Then A Gate at the Stairs (Vintage Books 2010) came along.

A Gate at the Stairs, her third novel and her longest work to date, tells the story of the young Tassie Keltjin, a farmer’s daughter, who finds herself in need of a job while attending college in Troy. She presents herself as a babysitter to several families until she is hired by Edward and Sarah Thornwood, a married couple seeking to adopt a baby so they could finally have the family that Sarah has always yearned for. Edward and Sarah, with Tassie’s assistance, finally adopts Mary, a half Caucasian, half African-American two year old, born out of wedlock, a child who has been in circulation in foster care ever since her birth. As she deals with taking care of the child who’s perenially under the scrutiny of the public due to her difference in color and appearance, she also comes to grips with her life outside the Thornwood residence, which consists of her classes and the pressure of being a college student, her relationship with Reynaldo, a classmate who eventually is revealed to be part of the Jihad against America, and his brother, who at senior year in high school, decides to enlist himself in the army and fight the war in the Middle-East. What comes is a beautiful, thought-provoking and evocative initiation story of a young woman, who finds her self trying to comprehend the idea of living in a world a year after the horrible events of 9/11.

What I find most brilliant with the novel is the narration and language used by Lorrie Moore in giving life to Tassie Keltjin and the reality she lives in. The language and narration, for me, resembles that of a precocious child. Every image and every sound is always a discovery. Always, a new light is thrown into the scenery and events that constantly surround the character, making each sentence something utterly breathtaking and beautiful. The emotional intensity of each word said can go from tender and sweet and effortlessly shift to pure anger and revulsion, without it being unusual and awkward. The narration is warm and evocative. It’s witty, it’s ridiculously funny without it being unnatural or over-the-top, and it is surprising. It is pleasantly surprising. During the course of my reading, I literally had to slow down and backtrack several chapters for fear that I may have missed the elegance of the language and so I can fully immerse myself in the narration of the book. Of course, due credit has to be given to Tassie Keltjin, who without her, that which I adore most about the book would not be achieved.

Tassie, in herself, is another gem in the novel. She now stands beside the likes of Holden Caulfield, Oskar Matzerath, Colonel Aureliano Buendia and Huck Finn, beside the others who I consider to be the best characters I have met in literature. Here we have Tassie, who is at the cusp of adulthood, on a literal level because in a few months time she is going to turn 21, and on the figurative level because she is at that exact point in her existence where every decision she pursues will contribute greatly and gravely to whatever future she will possess. Problem is she’s severely ill-equipped at handling problems, always choosing to take the sarcastic and cynical outlook in each attempt to understand the problem, repeatedly choosing to ignore and be indifferent at whatever threatens the stability of her existence. Suddenly, she experiences a deluge of moral and ethical dilemmas which challenges her idealistic and impenetrable views on reality. Her plight and her ordeals are relevant to each and every reader of the book. Her ordeals are sympathetic. Her motivations for the actions she take are so palpable that one will not question her for the actions that she eventually took. She is a very powerful character, unforgettable for all her wittiness, her humor, her pains, her sorrows and her utter foolishness. Her sheer inadequacy makes her memorable.

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