Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Gate At the Stairs

Yet another snow day--this one official at both of the colleges I work for--gave me the time to finish Lorrie Moore's A Gate At the Stairs, sent to me by Lass, who didn't care for it, and recommended to me by ReadersGuide, who did. I hope Lass will be glad the book has found a more loving home because I do love this novel.

It wooed me with humor, at first. Like the way the heroine, Tassie, looks back at her Wisconsin hometown:
"At the Wie Haus Family Restaurant, where we went for sit-down, the seats were red leatherette and the walls were covered with the local gemutlichkeit: dark paneling and framed deep kitsch, wide-eyed shepherdesses and jesters. The breakfast menus read 'Guten Morgen.' Sauces were called 'gravy.' And the dinner menu featured cheese curd meatloaf and steak 'cooked to your likeness.'"
Or at her father:
"He was not old, but he acted old--nutty old. To amuse himself he often took to driving his combine down the county roads to deliberately slow up traffic. 'I had them backed up seventeen deep,' he once boasted to my mom."
I've been behind people like that on the two-lane highway that takes up half an hour of my usually-hour-long commute!

I have a particular fondness for college-age people, which is why I've chosen to spend my life around them, but I'm also getting to college-parent-age, so while I enjoy the irony of the way Tassie uses phrases like "Thanks, maybe later?" and "sounds good," I also enjoy the way her parents see things: "one year the holiday card my mother sent out was an October photo of my brother and me, with a caption that read The children. In some dead leaves." And, like Tassie, as a reader, I dreaded meeting high school classmates during college breaks and having them ask "'Whatcha been reading?'
'Why, I've been reading Horace!'"
There's just no way to have a conversation like that. (You know; you're readers, too!)

I laughed on every other page as I read the first half of this novel, no doubt annoying those around me, who less and less often asked what was funny after a few times of being informed that it was something like "Starbucks with its Orwellian sizing--'tall' means 'small'!"

The middle of the novel intrigued me with its love of the north, of the vagaries and varieties of cold weather. As someone who looks forward all year to heat and humidity, I found Tassie's oppression by it curious, and her appreciation of a January day revelatory: "sun sparkling off the evergreens, the air clear as a bell; it was state-of-the-art light, as noon in January sometimes could be: not rich but pale and cleansing as lemon wine."

I was also pulled farther into Tassie's world by getting caught up in her halfway position between being a sophisticated urban adult and a rural child, between loving an adopted baby as a mother and as an occasional babysitter, between learning what sexual love is and seeing it from the outside, between being the same color as almost everyone around you and seeing what it's like to be a different color. Some of the most poignant moments in the novel occur when Tassie feels what it's like to do something like "simply walk into a store for a doughnut and have a wordless racial experience."

Tassie asks "what was education for, if not to acquire contradictions?" And she appreciates the contradictions in her life, especially at her regular Wednesday night babysitting job at the support group the adoptive mother who employs her starts for "families of color." The bits she overhears sound to her "like a spiritually gated community of liberal chat."

Finally, though, the novel begins to wrap up with sadness layered upon sadness. One of the first sadnesses begins with a story the adoptive mother says she "has to" tell Tassie. Another has begun before Tassie even realizes it, with an email she doesn't answer. The sadness is mixed with satire, as we see the appalling cruelty of the adoption/foster care system revealed and how haphazard the road to patriotism is for one of the faces of the many troops killed in Afghanistan.

Tassie learns that "love is not enough." That "jokes were needed." That "mordancy...was something that could not really be taught. But it could be borrowed. It could be rubbed up against. It could scrape you like bark." We understand, finally why she says "I was on the side of dissent and despair." We accept that, like all the characters longing for another glimpse of the adopted baby Tassie cared for, we aren't going to get one in this novel. And yet, in the end, we see that Tassie isn't going to settle for any of the bad options the rest of us sometimes do.

What a dream (especially for a college-teacher-types like me and Moore, who teaches English at the University of Wisconsin in Madison) to find/create a character who sees the contradictions and pitfalls we spend our lives trying to show her and actually learns something from them.

But even the title made me tear up, by the end. As if there is any way to keep someone safe. As if it's something you can control, rather than something you get to guide for a brief time and then spend the rest of your life stepping back to watch.


FreshHell said...

Hmm. Well, now I have to read it and see on which side of the fence I fall. I am reading a book I do not like very much but I'm determined to finish it.

Anonymous said...

Sigh. I love that book. Funny and sad.

Amanda said...

"Starbucks with its Orwellian sizing--'tall' means 'small'!"

That cracked me up!

Jeanne said...

FreshHell, I thought of you with the holiday card caption. Not for any reason in particular, just tone of voice, perhaps. Audacity.

Readersguide, I think you and I are of an age to appreciate this novel. But yes, it's almost like Chekhov in being funny and sad at the same time.

Amanda, I cracked up literally every other page in the first half.

Jenny said...

I've never heard of this book before, but it sounds fantastic - I love the excerpts you've posted. I love a good narrator. :)

Jeanne said...

Jenny, she's young, and she isn't always as good as she could be, but she's always an interesting narrator.

Jodie said...

I'm so glad to hear someone say something positive about this one. I just kept hearing bad things but I knew I was going to read it anyway, because it's Lorrie Moore, so now I feel like I can unbrace myself against the potential awfulness and just throw myself in.

Jeanne said...

Jodie, this was the first thing I've read by Lorrie Moore, but definitely not the last.

Anonymous said...

Jodie, I don't think it's awful at all, and Jeanne -- I think you're right. Maybe it's because we, like Moore, have kids of about that age and having kids of about that age makes you remember what it was like to be that age and then to see from outside what we must have been like.

FreshHell said...

Hee. Maybe I'll take that "dead leaves" photo next year. Funny, Dusty's very first Xmas card photo was of her sitting in a pile of Japanese maple leaves. :) So, I'm not far off, am I?

Jodie said...

I just finished it today and you're right it is good. I didn't find it as laugh out loud funny as you and the author quote on the back, but full of odd observations that really show how silly the world can be. I loved all the times Tassie has to try to work out what to say next, because she doesn't really understand how adult conversation works (because the people she encounters view their way of talking as normal, when it's really very fake and strange). I'd love to see what you have to say about 'Who Will Run the Frog Hospital' which deals with younger characters, but seems to incorporate many of the same themes (mothers, female friendships, strangers in a strange world).

Jeanne said...

Jodie, Okay, I'm assuming that's one of her stories? Is it in the one with Bird in the title--because that's the one I thought I'd look for next.

Jodie said...

It's her novella (I think the other of her longer works is novel length - 'Anagrams' I think), but yes I hear good things about the 'Birds of America' collection. I'm hoping some of the stories are in my huge version of her collected stories which I want to get to soon.

CSchum said...

I just finished this book. (Thanks, Jeanne, for putting it in my way!) I agree with everything you said about the book. I liked all of the spots you mention in the review. I, too, laughed out loud frequently and found myself reading passages to those around me.

But, in the end, I found that I didn't really like any of the characters very much. I kept ALMOST liking Tassie, but mostly I felt sorry for her because she always seemed so lost. She might be someone I would like to mother. I can't imagine she would be someone I would like to befriend. (I guess I did like her father, but he was a very minor character.)

In the end, I thought it was a good book. (I stayed up until past midnight last night engrossed in the ending... and you know me!) I am really glad I read it. I am not sure I LIKED it.

Jeanne said...

CSchu, I thought you might like it because it's so much from the viewpoint of a college teacher.