marginalia || A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

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.]

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11 comments

  1. I know this one has been nominated for The Orange Prize, but I admit I wasn’t all that interested in reading it because I’ve heard that it’s not one of Moore’s best works. I guess you admit that it’s far from perfect (in your own way), and I totally get that it can be hard to be unbiased when it comes to beloved authors. If I were going to start with Moore, where would you recommend I begin?

    1. Oh, it’s hard to be so critical with an author you’re too stubborn not to love. Still thinking about this one, actually.

      You could start with her first collection of stories, Self-Help. Her language there is simpler, yet more refined somehow. And her characters, the situations, the sentiments–they made me gasp. I suppose if anyone wants to try out Lorrie Moore, this collection would be my best bet.

  2. I read one of her short a while back from My Mistress’s Sparrow and loved it. I have been wanting to read more of her works since then, but I’m not sure if I wanna read this novel. I just don’t get what it’s about from people’s reviews/summary.

    1. That’s one of my favorites too, “How to Be an Other Woman.” :] I know my post on A Gate at the Stairs is half-assed, haha, I’m still coming to terms with the reading experience, actually. Let’s see. It’s about Tassie Keltjin. She’s 20 years old in the story, but it’s told in the voice of someone older, looking back. She babysits for a couple. And, well, that’s the simplest thing I could come up with, eek. The rest is just a mess inside me right now. :[

  3. I haven’t read any Moore yet, but I’m working my way through the Orange shortlist, and I’m really looking forward to this one. I’m glad to hear you loved it!

    1. Hi, Carrie. Hope you like this when you get to it. It’s not perfect, but I like it regardless. It might just be a flaw of mine to be unflinchingly loyal to Lorrie Moore.

  4. Suejustbooks · · Reply

    I loved loved loved this book in spite of the flaws that I know it has. It’s funny how this book was on the “best of” and “worst of” lists in 2009 for so many people, but it was definitely near the top of my favorites list!

    1. It’s definitely divisive. But I loved it, flaws and all. [I still have to figure out how to articulate the semi-dilemma well, eek.]

  5. shigekuni · · Reply

    Odd how many people love this book. I thoroughly disliked it http://shigekuni.wordpress.com/2010/05/23/gaudy-lorrie-moores-a-gate-at-the-stairs/

    but the excellency of the language made me get two of her earlier books yesterday. Ha.

    1. An incredibly flawed book, but, yes, the language made me breathless. I hope you got yourself her collection, Self-Help. That’s always been her best, in my opinion.

  6. [...] A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore. [...]

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