Meditations Of a Midwesterner

'A Gate at the Stairs,' by Lorrie Moore (Alfred A. Knopf)

Eudora Welty once wrote, “What I do in the writing of any character is to try to enter into the mind, heart and skin of a human being who is not myself. It is the act of a writer’s imagination that I set the most high.” Lorrie Moore admires Welty and, on a vacation to Jackson, Mississippi took a photo of Welty’s house for her scrapbook. She appears to have retained Welty’s words as well. In her newest novel, “A Gate at the Stairs,” Moore enters completely into the mind, heart and skin of a dynamic and perceptive college student, and in doing so, has created an incisive portrait of life in America immediately after September 11th.

“A Gate at the Stairs” chronicles a year in the life of Tassie Keltjin, the 20-year-old daughter of a potato farmer who has left her hometown of Dellacrosse, Illinois, to attend college in Troy, a nearby university town. The novel starts in 2001, a few months after September 11, and focuses loosely on Tassie’s experiences working as a nanny to Sarah and Edward, a pair of well-meaning, well-to-do liberals who take a sanctimonious and labored approach to parenting their adopted mixed-race toddler.

“We are doing something important, unprecedented and unbearably hard,” Sarah says in reference to raising a biracial child in a prejudiced community, with a superciliousness that makes for a typical target of Tassie’s witty internal monologue. Tassie’s tone careens between ribald and elegiac, making “A Gate at the Stairs” a novel to read with caution. Tassie’s familiar voice can distract from Moore’s understated style and her love of detail and word games.

Although Moore’s tone is usually straightforward and conversational, she is at heart a writer deeply concerned with language, and many of Tassie’s insights about life in Troy are born from observations about local idiom. When a character drops the word “hogwash,” Tassie deadpans, “I had once seen a hog washed. In whey. The hog was Helen, and she really liked it, the slop of the whey, then later a cool hose.” Her constant language-play calls attention to the separate vernaculars of Troy and Dellacrosse.  As a result, the novel establishes an unusual and rather negative role for language—that of a barrier in the way of communication.

In the midst of the city’s political anxiety, Tassie seems to be a magical heartlander, a sort of cornfed mystic who bemusedly observes her employers’ frantic railing against racism, fate, and Karl Rove. Her dialogue is laconic, but her inner monologue is full of surprisingly acute observations. Moore gives Tassie an interest in the unsavory and a preoccupation with Sufism, extending Tassie’s savant-like eccentricities to ridiculous levels. Just when her confusion at the hypocrisies of people around her begins to cross the line between clever and insufferable, she’ll use her roommate’s vibrator to stir a glass of chocolate milk, or write a college paper about “The Plausible Sufic Geology of Stonehenge.” Tassie is at once herself, and a parody of herself, and if she still has a precious, irritating streak—well, who doesn’t at twenty?

The other characters in “A Gate at the Stairs” initially seem flat—they are colorful, but the reader is never given enough information to theorize about their motives. An epiphany concerning Tassie’s employers near the end of the novel explains some of their actions, but it ultimately reveals more contradictions than solutions to the mystery of their behavior. In the hands of a writer less observant of human nature, the enigmatic behavior of the supporting characters would rob the novel of its internal consistency. But Tassie’s observations of the people around her are often skewed by her misunderstandings of her new city and her employers, and the way their behavior confuses her is crucial to the novel’s concern.

In a 2005 interview with The Believer, Moore claimed that “awkwardness is where the tension is, and tension is where the story is.” If that is the case, story permeates every word of spoken dialogue in this book; dialogue that never seems to reflect what the characters mean. The novel is fraught with moments in which characters don’t quite seem to be responding to what actually has been said, creating a symphony of crossed wires.

Despite Moore’s unusual approach to creating characters, the most rewarding moments of “A Gate at the Stairs” come when Tassie is alone, reading and cooking and playing her bass in an apartment that feels too big. These quieter, pensive moments are lovely in their understatement and their insinuation of a profound loneliness that hangs over Tassie and Troy but is never directly acknowledged.

Moore’s concern with emptiness, decay and missed social connections should not imply that “A Gate at the Stairs” lacks humor. It is riotously funny, and not in the sardonic, bitter way of more traditional tragicomedies. Its puns and its politics are bold and even ostentatious, but this novel’s significance lies in its tightly constructed details and its singular main character—irksome, charismatic and wholly convincing.

—Staff writer Abigail B. Lind can be reached at alind@fas.harvard.edu.

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