A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (Knopf, 336 pp., $25.95)
For much of its first half, Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs doesn’t seem like the kind of novel that will knock the wind out of you. It feels too stylized, the dialogue not quite real. The book gives its protagonist, Tassie Kiltjen, lots of space for musings and collegiate witticisms (often punctuated with exclamation points) that sometimes seem downright silly, as when, hearing a flight attendant announce that contents may have shifted during flight, she wonders, “What about the discontents?” Tassie and her absentee roommate joke about sex and boys with an ironic distance that one finds difficult to believe coming from college girls. A key character, Sarah Brink, is also given to relentless punning and though twice Tassie’s age seems much more immature. But the novel’s dark heart can be glimpsed in the joke that Sarah shares with her husband for Tassie’s benefit: “Darling, remember when we murdered someone and American Express took care of everything?”
A Gate at the Stairs charts Tassie’s coming of age from precocious, wisecracking bookworm to figure of suffering wisdom. She is a farmer’s daughter from Dellacrosse, a rural town in an unnamed Midwestern state that’s clearly Wisconsin (Moore teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison). She attends the university in Troy, where things are much more bohemian and liberal, as they typically are in college towns. The novel’s events span a year and a half, from the first winter following the September 11 attacks to the eve of the Iraq war. Its plot centers around Tassie’s life in Troy and particularly her acceptance of a nannying job for Sarah, who runs an ambitious restaurant in town called Le Petit Moulin, and her husband Edward Thornwood, a cancer researcher who enjoys a boy’s sense of cruelty and whose habit it was, Tassie observes, “to almost imperceptibly dominate and insult.” Tassie’s job is more assistant mother than nanny. The couple adopts the child, a girl, at two years of age from an agency in Green Bay. The child is biracial, the offspring of a poor white woman and an unnamed black man; Tassie and Sarah speculate that he is, or was, one of the Green Bay Packers. Sarah names her Mary-Emma, though she had previously been named Mary.
Tassie’s spare but not unhappy existence is mostly lived in her head—“my brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir”—and in her responses to the Thornwood-Brinks’ oddness and Mary-Emma’s sweetness. That is, until she begins exchanging high-school-like notes with Reynaldo, a Brazilian student who sits next to her in her Intro to Sufism class. Soon enough, Tassie is in love. The only problem is that Reynaldo isn’t in love with her and isn’t Brazilian, either—he’s a native New Jerseyan and budding Islamist. When the time comes, he abruptly slams his laptop shut and informs her that he is moving to London. “So you’re in a cell?” she asks. He denies it, but as their conversation proceeds, he becomes more insistent on the rectitude of jihad, his speech soon devolving to the humorless, pseudo-profound incantations of fundamentalists: “It is not the jihad that is the wrong thing. It is the wrong things that are the wrong things.” It sounds, Tassie thinks, “like Gertrude Stein speaking from inside a burka.”
Reynaldo’s desertion finally sets Moore’s underlying design into motion, and the novel takes off on a breakneck pace toward unrelenting sorrows. Tassie learns that Sarah and Edward have a terrible secret; she won’t be able to protect Mary-Emma, whom she has come to love, from its consequences; and her own family will be shattered by a loss beyond the comprehension of its survivors. Moore gives the Thornwood-Brinks’ astonishing carelessness something of the flavor of The Great Gatsby’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan, who in similar fashion “smashed up things and creatures . . . and let other people clean up the mess.” Her portrayal of Tassie’s love for Mary-Emma, of a child’s pure innocence, and of the helplessness of such innocence against its opposite, makes the novel’s relentless early playfulness seem an ingenious trap for both its characters and its readers. All of this is mere prelude to the novel’s final blow, which leaves Tassie with a sadness beyond her years and a sense of communion with a shadow world. “Life was unendurable, and yet everywhere it was endured. . . . Certain moments the whole earth seemed a grave.”
Moore’s social commentary is sufficiently deft that both racism and the presence of 9/11, the novel’s twin stalking horses, never tread heavily. We keep expecting the 9/11 shoe to drop, yet we’re surprised by Reynaldo and wonder how we could have missed it. The racial consciousness of liberal, well-heeled Troy forms an intriguing subplot throughout. Moore describes how people see Tassie walking Mary-Emma around and do double takes, silently drawing obvious conclusions. At one point, a white woman asks Tassie if her daughter can become a playmate with Mary-Emma because it would be good for her to have an African-American friend. At another, a group of teenagers yell “nigger” out a car window at the little girl. Sarah Brink is mortified and immediately sets up a support group for parents of biracial kids that will “discuss things and pool our strengths and share our stories and plot our collective actions and all that shit.” But to Tassie, the incidents, and perhaps Sarah’s response, only confirm the view held by many of the state’s rural dwellers: that “Troy was a piece of smug, liberal, recycling, civic-minded monkey masturbation. That it was gestural, trying to make itself feel good. . . . That it wasn’t real.” Fragments of the support group’s conversation run throughout the novel and are always irreverent, sometimes wise, and never less than vivid. Tassie, who listens to the meetings from an upstairs room where she watches the members’ kids, comes to see it as “a spiritually gated community of liberal chat.”
For all of the heaviness with which it ends, the novel can be quite funny. Moore has a sure ear for the way people speak when their words and meanings stand far apart, and her knowledge of the university milieu is evident in everything from her ability to convey college students’ irrational exuberance to the extraterrestrial messes of their apartments. And in Tassie she creates a heroine who engages us with her intelligence and wit—even when it’s annoying—long before she becomes a figure of sadness. “Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-colored, and her lips maroonish brown,” Tassie says of Sarah Brink on first meeting her. “She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment.”
Moore’s title, which describes the entrance to the Thornwood-Brinks’ home, serves as well to suggest the line of demarcation between worlds, the one that Tassie has always known and the one she is about to enter. That world is the world of loss, and A Gate at the Stairs is ultimately about the weight of loss and how to bear it. The novel catches us with our guard down.