Tuesday, September 15, 2009

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I haven't finished Lorrie Moore's latest (and am in fact maybe only a fourth to a third of the way in), and I'm thinking of leaving it. I don't often abandon books, and really, the book's just good enough that at another time I'd read straight through, but at this moment I think I'd rather move on. There are other books I'm eager to get to.

I am also somewhat dismayed by the fairly shallow anthropological bent of Moore's depiction of the Midwest: the novel takes place in a fictional university town named Troy (which some have suggested is just supposed to be Madison, WI) and is narrated by Tassie Keltjin, an ingenue of sorts who, despite coming from a rather atypical background for the Midwest, reacts to the cosmopolitanism of the university as if it's a foreign culture needing to be itemized to be understood, and reported on to be retained.

It reminds me, to some extent, of Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons, with its forensic mania for illustrative detail and exemplary pieces of dialect. Every tiny artifact that Moore's narrative fingers poke is wondered at a bit, as if might be a key to a cultural cabinet of wonders, something just about anything might fall out of. Take, for instance, the passage that floored Jonathan Lethem in the NYTBR:
‘Sounds good,’ I sang out into the dark of the car. Sounds good, that same Midwestern girl’s slightly frightened reply. It appeared to clinch a deal, and was meant to sound the same as the more soldierly Good to go, except it was promiseless — mere affirmative description.
It's 'true,' but it's more than a bit precious (not to mention pleonastic), and it's made more so because of Moore's decision to narrate the story from an Older Tassie's point of view, although (at least as far as I am in the novel) this decision is not supported by the old narratological standby of foreshadowing or by any indication that the passage of time between the events Tassie is relating and her current position is significant. What this distancing does allow is a sort of patina of irony, so that Younger Tassie's exuberance at having her consciousness rapidly expanded by reading Kant and her pride at knowing about things like sushi are twisted just slightly into a series of benignant smirks when narrated through Older Tassie's lips. Except what we're also getting (rather too loudly, I think) is Writer Lorrie's somewhat less benignant smirks: she registers with unrealistic exactness the featheriest distinctions of rank, taste, and education. These distinctions function too well; they are too obviously chosen—discrete and defining, not registered as part of a larger, continuous experience of a community. This is a world created to be observed, as if each character spent all his time "off-camera" rehearsing his lines and attiring himself more appropriately for his part.

On the other hand, some of Moore's creations are more than amusing, are even somewhat vivid. Her gift for dialogue is very fine, although she often weighs it down with little asides noting that what was just said was awkward or did not go over as planned. An average reader, I think, can infer most of the psychology she traces simply by reading what comes between inverted commas, and I grew annoyed at her helpfulness.

But still, pleonastic preciousness pleases a lot of people (mostly writers)—and it probably pleased me once. The anthropology of domestic cultures is a favorite pursuit of some people (that's why there are so many lurkers and trolls on Inside Higher Ed and other academic-related websites), and this novel seems to be an excellent example. And the plot seems to be taking awhile to get going, but I'm confident that it would interest me if I were to continue. This novel would make fine listening for a commute, I feel. That's not high praise, and it's not meant to be, but for some reason I can't quite damn the book straight out.

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