Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

"A Gate at the Stairs" by Lorrie Moore (Faber and Faber, 2009)

The student narrator, Tassie, goes through a lot, and meets people who've gone through more. The themes are race/Jewishness, parent-hood and coping with tragedies, amongst them

  • Tassie's loss of lover - She's part Jew. He's not really Brazilian. She copes articulately with his rushed disappearance and soon gets over it. Maybe it wasn't such a big deal
  • The death of her employers' son - recounted to Tassie after years. What did she learn from it? It's unclear
  • The death of Tassie's brother - first a smokescreen of acronyms, then climbing into the coffin, then delayed depression

If you're a stickler for realism you'll find Tassie too articulate. In fact, all the characters are pretty good with words, having a sense of humour that they have trouble suppressing. It's a style one gets used to - the characters aren't easily distinguished by their quips. Here are some funny bits and some analogies (SPOILER ALERT)

  • "sold off last year "for a pretty penny, or, maybe not pretty exactly, but a penny with with personality" " (p.46)
  • "I remained the nerdy college girl under the siege of the weather, my days full of books that were rabbit holes of escape. Christmas music from the radio downstairs, playing through all twelve days of it, wafted up: 'Rejoice, rejoice,' sounded like 'Read Joyce, read Joyce' - and so I did" (p.64)
  • "In my absence the floorboards had readjusted and acquired new creaks. When I stepped into my own living room, it felt like someone else's house" (p.71)
  • "Because her dad was black and her mom was white, her friends called her Inter-Rachel. She would always laugh." (p.80)
  • "Her features had fallen but I saw her lift them again, one by one, the way one rights light porch furniture after a wind" (p.81)
  • "I nodded, trying to imagine the very particular sadness of a vanished childhood yogurt now found only in France. It was a very special sort of sadness, individual, and in its inability to induce sympathy, in its tuneless spark, it bypassed poetry and entered science" (p.136)
  • "The [snow]plows seemed to come from everywhere, with their front shovels angled like petrified fish lips" (p.150)
  • "Honey, if you're racially blind like you say, that's something of a handicap. Let me give you a cane! You'll notice, by the way, that it's white. Or maybe, since you're colorblind, you won't" (p.194)
  • "There was a tender but energetic adhoccery to our sex ... I bucked, humped, and arced, a dancer in a sea lion suit" (p.184)
  • "'Which is it?' she asked. 'It is clitoris or clitoris?'
    I don't know. Why didn't I know? 'It may depend on which you have,' I said
    " (p.220-1)
  • "'If we were still English,' said my father, 'we'd be drinking more and driving on the wrong side of the road - pretty much what people do on the Fourth of July anyway.'" (p.273)
  • "I put up Plath, whose brisk, elegant screams I never grew tired of, until I did, and then something different yet again I began to hang recipes of things ... I would study their notation, their confident sorcery, their useful busyness. They were the opposite of poetry, except if, like me, you seldom cooked, and then they were the same" (p.289)

Does the main character develop? It's not easy to say. Perhaps that's the point of the title - dangers are guarded against or awkwardly stepped over. Emotion's muted, and the comedy's shared amongst too many characters who use it for too many purposes (used most often as a barrier or diversionary tactic). And yet, it's the comedy and analogies that kept me reading.

Other reviews

The reviews will tell you the plot. Two doubts about Lorrie Moore seem to be whether she jokes too much and whether she's more suited to the short story. Even if some of the reviewers share these doubts, in this novel they see the relentless joking as part of the narrator's awkwardness, and the lack of direction as indicative of the narrator too.

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