Saturday, November 13, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Tassie Keltjin is a midwestern girl, a student, a daughter, a sister, working part-time as a nanny for a middle-aged couple with an adopted, mixed-race child of two. She is warm, friendly, smart, fun in a not-quite sexy sort of way, the kind of girl you’d like to have as a friend. She’s struggling to escape the past – family, country, farming – and trying to embrace the future – study, town, love, hopes – but isn’t quite as adept at the transition as she might believe. So, what we have then is a coming-of-age novel? Well, yes it is, I suppose, but also it isn’t. It’s much more than that. Lorrie Moore is a superb writer, famed for her short stories and now, with A Gate at the Stairs, we know that she is also a superb novelist. A Gate at the Stairs is a post 9/11 study of racism, war, peace, love, ambition, hubris, weakness, hope, deceit. So, another stab at the Great America Novel? Again, yes, and a pretty decent stab it is too.

It is deception that is at the heart of this novel. The way we deceive others, the way we deceive ourselves. The way we are deceived by government, authority, the state. The repercussions such deception can cause, justified and not, fair and not, anticipated and not. And, most of all, the fate of the innocents swept along in this narrative of deceit. If at times, as we shall see, Moore stretches our credibility just a touch too far in this regard, for the most part her touch is flawless and she presents an aching story that is all but heartbreaking. That it is narrated by Tassie, in a mixture of sweetness, incomprehension, great good humour and deep regret makes the emotional pull all the more powerful.

Tassie is a twenty-year-old country girl transplanted to the town, growing up, trying to cope. She has college lessons – Introduction to Sufism, Wine Tasting (until the computer realises she is under-age and kicks her off the course), War movie soundtracks and so on. She meets and falls for an enigmatic Brazilian called Reynaldo whose knowledge of Portuguese seems oddly suspect and who may not be all he seems. She is employed by an intellectual but increasingly flaky couple to act as nanny to an as-yet unadopted child, and indeed is involved in the preliminary meetings which result in their adoption of Emma-Mary, a delightful, precocious two-year-old mixed-race girl. Her younger brother, meanwhile, to his great relief is finishing school and is simultaneously learning yoga and toying with the idea of joining the military: another mixed-up kid, in other words. And it’s no wonder these particualr kids are mixed up, given their parents: father is a Lutheran organic potato farmer and mother a Jewish incipient hypochondriac from the East coast transplanted inharmoniously into the midwest.

Through the twists and turns of incipient adulthood, Tassie tries to make sense of it all. She tries hard to narrate events for us but often struggles because so much of their meaning eludes her. As the main plotline about the adopted child unfolds – in a wholly unexpected way – Tassie is left trying to reconcile the needs of authority, aspiring adoptive parents, the innocent children caught up in everyone’s machinations and, of course, herself. Her work in nannying Emma-Mary reveals to her latent racism everywhere, a casual but corrosive inability to see beyond binary black and white. In this, at least, Tassie is aided by the frequent gatherings at Sarah’s house of a support group comprising other mixed-race families whose travails and beliefs and battles against prejudice and – more importantly – prejudices of their own she faithfully transcribes for us. These people act as a Greek chorus, offering an alternative view of the narrative in the same way that Ron Rash employed his gathering of workers in Serena. It is a funny and illuminating device.

Alas, for Tassie, no such Greek chorus is available to interpret her relationship with Reynaldo and its doom is obvious to the reader long before it is to Tassie herself. This is the one point in the novel where Moore stretches the reader’s credibility a touch too far. The sadness is that it isn’t even necessary: Reynaldo is the weakest character in the novel and Tassie’s setpieces with him the least effective. In narrative terms, there had to be some romantic love interest to counteract the familial and platonic loves which burgeon and founder elsewhere, but Reynaldo – and, especially, his fate – seem unworthily cheap and plastic constructs.

The final third of the novel sees a sudden shift, and it is Tassie’s relations with her brother which take centre stage. Again, incomprehension plays a large part, but in this instance it is horrifyingly – and tragically – self-induced. This section, although in some ways predictable, is nonetheless harrowing, beautifully written, restrained yet bursting with emotion. The backdrop of this – and the whole novel – is the aftermath of 9/11 and the resulting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: that is, one more arena of deceit and misdeed and incomprehension.

And so, Moore is telling us, such flawed asseveration exists throughout the gamut of human situations, from the wholly personal to the universal. In her determination to confront a range of themes there are parallels with the master-satirist Percival Everett and, although his satire is very different from Moore’s comedy, both writers benefit from approaching their weighty themes with the armament of humour. Mankind is beset by mistrust, misadventure. Deceit is an inescapable consequence of humanity. So far, so Dostoevskian, but there’s no caricatured Underground Man here. Moore’s touch is remarkable, simultaneously dark and light, tragic and funny. There is great sadness in this novel, but it is told with sparkle and humour and humanity. Such attempts to leaven serious themes could easily become trite or bathetic, but here they work beautifully. They bring the characters to life, throwing a penetrating light on their circumstances. This is a sad novel, to be sure, but it is never bleak. It is far too human for that.

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