I stayed up late last night finishing A Gate At The Stairs, and figured I ought to address my thoughts on it before they slip away. I'm not sure why I haven't seen this in any review of the book, but it's one of the strangest novels I've read in a long time--kind of a train wreck, in fact, albeit one that is consistently gripping and beautiful.
Like Rhian, I love Lorrie Moore, and consider her one of my strongest contemporary influences--indeed, she's a hero of mine. I even kind of love the new book, after a fashion. But A Gate At The Stairs makes no sense. Can we be the only people who have noticed this? There is an ostensible plot--a twenty-year-old woman becomes the babysitter for an adopted mixed-race toddler--which in and of itself is perfectly good. (I particularly appreciated the character of the mother, a guilt-wracked restauranteur.)
But Moore seems to have taken a strong, fairly short narrative--one that was not quite finished--and, instead of developing and shaping it further, garlanded it with all manner of bizarre subplots. A long section gives Tassie, the narrator, a Brazilian boyfriend. Then he turns out not to be Brazilian, and in fact is clearly planning a terrorist bombing--but there is no terrorist bombing, and in fact Tassie never mentions him again. There is a story line about Tassie's family, which is purely descriptive for hundreds of pages, then suddenly sprouts a plot--will Tassie's brother join the military?--and this plot then terminates in a scene so revolting, implausible, and gratuitous that I couldn't believe I was reading it. The adoption line is filled with intrigue--strange people outside the house, wordless heavy-breathing phone calls--but it's all red herrings. In fact, the baby plot, which we're to have understood was the main story, just kind of fizzles out a hundred pages from the end and never returns. There is an email Tassie inexplicably doesn't bother to read, which later proves to have been The Key To Everything. There are three separate but almost identical scenes of just people talking about racism, overheard from the next room, and whole sections that are just lists of wildflowers or types of food. It all feels...random. It is never uninteresting, not even for a minute, because Moore is a genius of the sentence. But the big picture is utterly incoherent.
The oddest thing of all, though, is the narrative voice--though the book is supposed to be told, in the first person, by a 28-year-old Tassie of the future, the eloquent, discursive narrator bears no resemblance at all to the demure rock bassist that has been presented to us. It is nearly impossible to imagine Tassie talking this way--the narrator of course is Moore herself, and the gulf between them is enormous. Moore's voice also infects all the dialogue, making everybody (all the educated people, anyway) sound identically blessed with mordant wit. (The book is very, very funny.)
I don't presume to know what happened here--I've never seen anything like it. The prose is some of the best I have read in an American novel in twenty years, while the story feels like a first draft, or worse, a desk drawer full of notes. And yet...like I said...I kind of love it. Moore constantly surprises me, which (to quote her) is more than I can say about some people.
The National Book Award nominees will be announced in a couple of weeks, and Moore is going to win, mostly out of collective embarrassment that she didn't win it for Birds of America. (Was that brillant, brutal story collection even nominated? Insanely enough, I don't think it was.) Well--my money's on her, anyway, in spite of everything. Read A Gate At The Stairs, but know that it is one batshit crazy novel, a mad scientist of a book, and the most unlikely bestseller I've ever read.