Monday, October 5, 2009

Lorrie Moore redux

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 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.


christianbauman said...

On the other hand, JRL, "One batshit crazy novel...a mad scientist of a book" is a quote I would kill to have on the front cover of one of my books.

But I hear ya.

I haven't read yet, but it's next on the list when I get back from Chicago. Like you, I adore LM and have for many years. She is of that very small group of writers (very small) where I buy the book in hardback the week it comes out.
After your account, I approach this book now with high curiosity.

Your description reminded me of That Ol Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx. I would crawl five miles over broken glass for just one beer with Ms Proulx, and yet I found myself saying similar things while reading Ace. What was odd was that the whole machine didn't seem to be broekn: the writing was as perfect and amazing as usual. But somewhere in the night Annie'd crossed into the land of no return...batshit crazy. I read the book, I enjoyed the book, but because of the disconnect, it didn't thump into my soul the way other books of hers had.

Andrew said...

Chris is right--that would be a nice blurb.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, it read to me like a short story that had experienced a recent, uncomfortable growth spurt. Tassie reminds me perhaps a bit too much of Francie (is that her name?) in "How to Become a Writer." But here I am, weeks later, still thinking a great deal about this book.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I didn't mean that not to sound like a blurb--I highly recommend this book. But it's a mess.

I tend to agree that it reads like a metastisized short story.

In general, I do think one needs to cut one's favorite artists some slack, especially the ones prone to experiments that might not always pan out--for me, Radiohead, Stephen Soderburgh, and now Lorrie Moore. I would rather these people crawl out on a limb with their uneven genius than stick to what they're best at.

christianbauman said...

Another great example of a recent batshit crazy novel is Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje. The book isn't ridiculous at all like Ace or as you described Gate...but it's all over the map and at time difficult to follow Ondaatje's leaps. But the language is so gorgeous and the moments so electric that not only did I finish it, I almost immediately went back and read it again (which never happens...I frequently revisit books, but never right on the heels of the first read).

Jay Livingston said...

I had a similar problem with her Anagrms. It was supposedly a novel, but it seemed more like a disconnected bunch of stories whose characters had the same names. They change occupations, residences, and relationships from one story, er I mean chapter, to the next. And the ending is utterly baffling. The heroine is supposed to be going to JFK to fly to the Caribbean (after an awkward night at her brother’s), but then she’s stepping off a subway in Grand Central.

Anonymous said...

I think calling Anagrams a novel was a marketing conceit, not an authorial intention. I think of it as short stories...

rmellis said...

The difference, I think, is that the confusion in Anagrams feels totally deliberate, while AGATS just feels like a hugely bloated, though basically coherent, short story.

I think I would feel better if I read some reviews that reflected my experience with the book. Maybe they exist and I just haven't read them; I just keep reading about the brilliance of LM, which, yeah.

And that coffin scene... just WRONG.

rmellis said...

Do you mean mad scientist, or do you mean Frankenstein's monster??

Steve W said...

I can't tell you how glad I was to read your comment. I read this book before the reviews came out (a luxury these days) and had almost the identical reaction. I was loving it sentence by sentence but kept wondering when or if something might actually happen. Then in the last section of the book everything seems to happen at once, none of it makes much sense and none of it seems to matter. I wondered if Moore felt compelled to write a "real" novel and discovered too late that that's not where her talents lie. There's nothing wrong with being one of the best short story writers alive (ask Alice Munro) and I hope it wasn't just commercial pressure that led her down this path...But oh those sentences!

Unknown said...

I, too, was so glad to read this post. I love her short stories, but I did not like this novel. And I was so excited based on the New York Times review! Towards the end, I just skimmed chunks, exhausted by the witticisms, a little bored, and very dismayed. (The thing with her brother was so out there!)

What this book did do was made me (a former short story writer) appreciate how hard it must be to write a novel and sustain a plot for that long, without diluting it with other randomness. It made made me appreciate how hard it must be to write a novel with an opinion without beating the readers over the head with it (I thought Eggers did this beautifully in Zeitoun.). And in general, it reminded me of how hard it is to let characters speak for themselves (you're right: so many of her characters sound like her--witty, quick--it was suffocating and exhausting). Also, this was one of the worst post-9/11 novels I've read, simply because there's a person of indeterminate (to her) ethnicity who turns out to be (gasp) a terrorist! Whereas, again, Zeitoun was one of the best in this regard.

I hope she doesn't win the National Book Award for this. Her short stories are so much better, so much more nuanced. And I agree with Steve that there is nothing wrong with being a great short story writer. I think each genre requires a very different set of skills--and I think Moore should be rewarded for the genre she has mastered.

(As a side note, it's interesting to compare the first chapter of AGATS to the version that appeared as a short story in the New Yorker. Much cleaner.)

Jay Livingston said...

I hope she doesn't win the National Book Award for this. (Anne)

I'm pretty sure it's going to Obama.