Wednesday, September 19, 2012

On Lorrie Moore's Novel "A Gate at the Stairs"

I read Lorrie Moore’s novel “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” for a fiction class at Johns Hopkins University last year and loved it. So I picked her novel “A Gate at the Stairs” as soon as I saw it, expecting something equally good. The two novels are very different things, as any two novels are, but in this case I feel like I’m reading an entirely different author.

It was my love for “Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?” that got me through the first 100 pages of this novel. They are such a drag, and I was so tempted to return the book and not bother with the rest of it. But I stuck it out, and, despite the novel’s faults, it came around. A bit. There was some incredible stuff on pages 150 to 250. Then, again, it slipped back into mediocrity. The ending is a real letdown, not because nothing happens but because Moore completely drops characters she’s spent the entire novel developing.

The prose gets pretentious far too often. The narrator (Tassie) veers off into three-page expository rants about her childhood in the middle of a scene, then Moore drops us right back into the scene and we’re supposed to figure out where in the hell we are along the time-space continuum. In one scene, Tassie is talking to Sarah Brink, a local woman who adopts a two-year-old girl and hires Tassie as a caretaker. The reader is immersed in dialogue between Sarah and Tassie when Tassie goes off for three pages about some random experience she had when she was a kid. Then it’s right back into the dialogue like nothing has happened. The effect is discombobulating. At times, I really felt like I was reading the ramblings of a teenager pepped up on Pixi Stix and speed, albeit a teenager with a cheeky vocabulary.

Sarah’s character is interesting. She’s a white middle-aged yuppie who takes being a liberal as seriously as Karl Rove takes being an asshole. She runs an organic restaurant that serves food I’ve never even heard of topped with other stuff I’ve never heard of. She has bumper stickers that say “Born right the first time” and “If God speaks through a burning bush, let’s burn Bush and see what God says.” And she also calls everyone Nazis, telling Tassie “You may be too young to know this yet, but eventually you will look around and notice: Nazis always have the last laugh.” She becomes even more interesting as her secret past comes to light. She shows her true colors when Child Services comes to take her adopted daughter.

It took me a long time, however, to connect with Tassie. The experience of reading a first-person novel cannot be fully realized if the narrator isn’t interesting, if there’s no connection. And I struggled to connect with Tassie. In fact, she’s as boring as the Wisconsin landscape she grew up in. She’s not one to remember. She’s the girl your guy friend starts dating and everyone around them thinks: “Eh, give it two weeks. He’ll get tired of her.” I confess: I got tired of Tassie in about twenty pages. And that made the rest of the 300 pages a bit rough.

This book is packed with writing that falls flat. I think a lot of it has to do with Moore’s attempt at witty, scathing satire, which is not necessaril her strong point. She tries way too hard. Her metaphors frequently feel fake and Tassie’s inner monologues come seem forced and tired. There are sentences that I can’t believe someone has the pretentiousness to actually write.

“She would have to make do in this landlocked lake of love.”

“I became an unseemly collection of jostling former selves.”

“I had mostly in life tried to stand still like a glob of coral so as not to be spotted by sharks.”

Dozens of times in this book I read a sentence and asked myself, “Did Moore actually write that crap?”

Tassie finally gets interesting as she starts to care for Sarah’s adopted baby, Mary-Emma. The way she writes about this two-year-old is really touching. Tassie becomes human when she shows Mary-Emma love. This is where Moore is queen. The book really starts moving around page 150. The family and Tassie try to make it in their new life, but the baby’s biological father (who has been MIA) shows up back in town. This is the first hint of suspense in the entire book, and it’s a welcomed addition to the novel. Of course, Moore drops this thread and never picks it up again, leaving the reader wondering: Why did you introduce suspense if there’s no pay-off?

Also, Tassie falls in love with a guy she thinks is Brazilian. Turns out he’s a Muslim with fanatic inclinations. She finds out that this man, who took her virginity, is lying to her. This is what he tells Tassie when he admits who he really is: “A lie to the faithless is merely a conversation in their language.” Tassie doesn’t take his shit. This is when I start to like Tassie, just a bit. She rips up is ridiculous religious views for a good five pages, shatters all his arguments and points out the hopelessness of his ideology. In the process, though, she admits that she thinks love is equally as hopeless.

Tassie is pretty shook up by all this. “Fear and sorrow flared up simultaneously like fires that put each other out.” I actually liked that line. It’s kind of beautiful. Of course, this boyfriend flees the country and we never hear from him. Again, Moore misses an opportunity to connect with her readers, who have become invested in this terrorist-boyfriend.

“The people in this house, I felt, and I included myself, were like characters from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale. None of us was in the same story. We were all grotesques, and self-riveted, but in separate narratives…”

Maybe this quote sums up this novel, and also what’s wrong with it.

“A Gate at the Stairs” might be worth a beach read, but I think this book has more flaws than high points. But, hey, great writers don’t always write great books. I'm still going to read another Lorrie Moore novel, so that's got to tell you something.


  1. I stopped reading after she used her roommate's dildo to stir her coffee. So disappointed -- I loved Frog Hospital!

    1. Ha ha! I'm glad to hear I'm not the only one who loved Frog Hospital but was disappointed with this novel. I don't usually write "bad" reviews, but this novel irritated me, maybe because I was expecting more. Cheers!