08 December 2013

A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I am tempted to ascribe the strangeness of this novel to the fact that Lorrie Moore writes excellent short stories, but I'm not sure if that really explains it. Certainly, the prose is excellent; absorbing and occasionally lyrical. I particularly liked the repeated tic of random interjections ending with exclamation marks, which somehow perfectly evokes a goofy, awkward young woman's inner monologue. The narration is slightly stilted, in that it is occasionally retrospective ("I would later know that this was x") but often presented with a certain immediacy ("I had only wanted to please and surprise her, but now I suddenly felt very tired."). This makes the references to future knowledge slightly distracting. Though it is an effective tool, I think, in conveying dawning awareness. One of the more interesting things about the novel is that chronicles how a person's thinking changes in college (though I might be particularly inclined to view it that way because I first heard of it in the n+1 article about the "Theory generation"), and this, I think, is what the shifting tenses are especially good for, giving a sense of before, after, and the murky in between of transition, where you are neither before nor after.

The problem is, the plot is just annoying. There are three climaxes, of sorts, in the book, or rather, three scenes that involve a kind of culmination of crisis. All three come across as slightly absurd, and not at all real. They seem senselessly unfortunate and stupid, in an instantly alienating way that deprives you of any sympathy for the characters. Two are especially annoying because they feel like an attempt to be timely, and reflect something about the realities of our historical moment. But the two events described (I don't want to spoil it by giving them away) are not at all typical, which makes their inclusion feel especially ham-fisted (especially BOTH of them). Admittedly, this is exactly how real life works; those weird rare things do happen to someone, and that person's life goes on, and the event is precisely an odd intrusion into some kind of normalcy. One a purely narrative level, this is really tricky to pull off in a novel, because these massive events shift the weight of the whole and exert a kind of magnetic force on the plot, creating the expectation that the entire book is really "about" them, otherwise, why include them at all? I appreciate, I suppose, that Moore makes the attempt, but I don't think it is especially successful.

The novel also aims at socio-political commentary with a sub-plot about a white couple who has adopted a biracial baby. This is harder to evaluate. The mother holds weekly get-togethers with parents of mixed race children, and it seems that their earnest discussions are being presented with a veneer of ironic contempt. There is certainly something distasteful about the mother's self-satisfied and self-righteous droning on about various race-related issues, which also made me feel vaguely hopeless. For instance; she renames the baby Emma. And then is criticized for not giving her a name like Maya or Zora. Or she is attacked for not braiding the baby's hair but instead leaving it in an Afro. And I dunno, I mean, to me stuff like this sort of epitomizes a lot of the shitty aspects of American race relations, and how this stuff is all fraught and gross and there is no right way to deal with it, but getting all upset and melodramatic about it is a weird way in which white liberals make it all about themselves again, and can't we all just be people and not get hung up on this crap, but then that too can seem like denying the problem, etc. The uncomfortableness of it is, I think, what makes the book actually quite insightful, in a strange sort of way. It doesn't give you the satisfaction of a right answer. It drags you into the mess and forces you to stay in that space between the weird racism of the smug white liberal and the more crude, brutal and disgusting run-of-the-mill variety, except that maybe it only does that if you're someone who is thoughtful and critical about race issues and primed to be hyper-vigilant when they come up in fiction? Although race is mentioned, it doesn't have any sort of narrative arc, which makes me wonder if someone could overlook it, unless the novel is counteracting that by making it insistently resurface in little everyday ways that suggest that maybe it can't actually be forgotten.

More broadly, the frustrating thing about the book is that the story doesn't really develop or go anywhere. Stuff happens, but it doesn't feel organized or contained by the plot. It is more like an arbitrary slice of the film reel, or one damn thing after another. There are these great moments -- sometimes only a few sentences long -- that you really appreciate, and are glad to have read. But they seem almost too solitary; the novel feels like a string of pearls, except with no string. Hence my theory that Moore's true m├ętier is the short story...

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