A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Those of us accustomed to Moore’s short stories and her whimsical, witty and word-playing ways were delighted to read her newest book, this one about the world post 9/11. As I said in my last post, this novel reminds me of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me because of the way it too covers truly 21rst century issues and also because of the way the characters interact across an American landscape that includes both east coast cities and the midwest.
It is a difficult challenge: how to write about events of the present, when we are still so very close to the events of September 11, 2001 and the subsequent effects? Jonathan Safran Foer has done this in his book Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I have yet to read. Regardless, Moore tackles this post 9/11 topic, and I was drawn in. She sets her novel in Wisconsin, a setting familiar to Moore because of her teaching post at University of Wisconsin, Madison. Writers on this post 9/11 topic seem to delight in placing their tales in the midwest, if only to show that it is truly America that was affected by 9/11, not just New York. Indeed, it is this midwestern setting’s very out-of-the-way location that makes it a strong lure for characters trying to escape the imbroglio of the eastern cities.
OK, so, here’s what this book delivers: richly lyrical, vibrant imagery of setting. Honestly, some of the descriptions are so densely layered with physical description of color and flora and fauna and scenery I would linger over them, delighting in their almost taste-able richness. The main character has some appeal. And the parents of the main character along with her brother provide scenes of family bonding as well as disconnection that can be poignant. Moore also brings in the topic of adoption which provides an interesting side-focus for the main character’s own search for happiness. There are several times when Moore uses the technique of listing dialogue between groups of people as a sort of microphone for Americans’ various reactions to 9/11 and the various versions of xenophobia that resulted. This felt a bit transparent and forced. I was like, “OK, here is where Moore is acting more like an anthropologist/journalist than a novelist.” But, on the other hand, I appreciate that she gets this panorama of sentiments down on paper. She is, after all, making a record of the points of view in our current 21rst century world. It is when Moore brings all of the pieces of her novel together that she provides us with the “zinger” of the plot. Because it is such a zinger, I almost wanted her to go on longer, to truly draw out all of the ramifications of the story she had portrayed. She leaves the reader with an ending deeply poetic in imagery and description. I simply wanted a bit more in terms of her filling in of the “so what”.