Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society, full of sorrow and truth but without moral function. Stories of the vanquishing of the spirit expressed and underscored a certain societal spirit to spare. The weakening of the soul, the story of downfall and failed overcoming—trains missed, letters not received, pride flaring, the demolition of one’s own offspring, who were then served up in stews—this was awe-inspiring, wounding entertainment told uselessly and in comfort at tables full of love and money. Where life was meagerer, where tables were only half full, the comic triumph of the poor was the useful demi-lie. Jokes were needed. “And then the baby fell down the stairs.” This could be funny! Especially in a place and time where worse things happened. It wasn’t that suffering was a sweepstakes, but it certainly was relative. For understanding and for perspective, suffering required a butcher’s weighing. And to ease the suffering of the listener, things better be funny. Though they weren’t always. And this is how, sometimes, stories failed us: Not that funny. Or worse, not funny in the least.
I’ve wanted to read this book for so long. And now that I have–What could I possibly say about Lorrie Moore’s first novel in ten years, the hyped and lauded and bewilderment-triggering A Gate at the Stairs? Did I like it? Yes. Was it perfect? Only because I wanted it to be. Elaborate, please? Oh, Lorrie Moore is Default Love for me. But? But I realize the novel is flawed, very much so–but I didn’t mind those flaws so much. Why? Go back to the beginning of this conversation, why doncha.
That’s it in a nutshell. Add the words baffled and breathless here and there, and we’re set.
No, really. I’m not being cute here. I put this book down days ago, and until now I don’t really know what I ought to say about it. Yes, it’s a good novel–yes, Tassie Keltjin is one of the most memorable characters I’ll ever come across–yes, the book’s a good read. But there are so many buts to these statements. Primarily: Why do I love A Gate at the Stairs, even though I find so many flaws in it glaring at me? And, ultimately, when I do devote a deeper examination to those flaws, what would I feel about the novel then? I do not know.
In the meantime, one of the many passages that I have scrawled onto too many pieces of paper: This was love, I supposed, and eventually I would come to know it. Someday it would choose me and I would come to understand its spell, for long stretches and short, two times, maybe three, and then quite probably it would choose me never again.
I promise to come back less baffled. Or, rather, with an elaboration on said bafflement. [Reminds me of that poem by Jose Garcia Villa: Proceed to dazzlement, Augustine. Yes, sir, will do.]