Friday, January 11, 2013

A Gate at the Stairs

Finished Lorrie Moore's excellent A Gate at the Stairs. I've always heard great things about Moore, so when I was at a book fair a few weeks back I bought something like 3 of her books, even though I'd never read her before. But A Gate at the Stairs wasn't one of them, ironically. Instead I checked it out as an ebook from the library.

Note: ever think to check out the selection of ebooks your local library offers? If they have Overdrive, chances are it's a pretty awesome collection.

I fell so in love with Moore's prose reading this novel that afterward, checking the reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, I was seriously taken back when I saw all the vitriol aimed toward the book. The argument was mostly against the story, not her writing.

The story follows Tassie, a 20 year old woman who leaves the farm she grew up on to attend a state college. To help pay for her apartment she takes on a babysitting job, but under unusual circumstances. The white parents are adopting a bi-racial child and ask Tassie to take part in every step; including flying across the country for parent interviews. Her experiences watching the child, dealing with racism, the harsh reality of dating and love, and separation from family make her less and less naive during this first year of college. It's at times fiercely funny, and other times devastatingly sad.

I'm having such a hard time figuring out why people didn't like this novel. Several of the reviewers say they feel like none of the characters' actions or the events ever had "consequences." I guess people like feel-good morals and endings tied up in red bows. There is no "good" or "bad" in the book; a sentiment repeated by Tassie's boyfriend (who could be perceived as one of the "bad" characters, depending on how you look at it). Instead there's just the terrible things we do to each other, and the good things that we too often don't. Neglect becomes a prominent theme.

The racism depicted in the book were at times a bit too overstated and unreal, although maybe I'm being the naive one now. The subtle racism of the uber-liberals saturating the college town were the most believable, and the best written segments. Maybe that's why so many readers hated it: it holds up an ugly mirror to ourselves.

Here are some passages I liked:

Nothing had really prepared me. Not the college piggy bank in the dining room, the savings bonds from my grandparents, or the used set of World Book encyclopedias with their beautiful color charts of international wheat production and photographs of presidential birthplaces. The flat green world of my parents' hogless, horseless, farm--its dullness, its flies, its quiet ripped open daily by the fumes and whining of machinery--twisted away and left me with a brilliant city life of books and films and witty friends. Someone had turned on the lights. Someone had led me out of the cave--of Perryville Road. My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir. Twice a week a young professor named Thad, dressed in jeans and a tie, stood before a lecture hall of stunned farm kids like me and spoke thrillingly of Henry James's masturbation of the comma. I was riveted. I had never before seen a man wear jeans with a tie.

I never did get a professor who wore jeans with a tie. I did get my share of tweed and elbow patches, though. And not only from the professors. mother had given me a carefully wrapped present of a pearl necklace and watched, teary-eyed, as I opened it. "Every woman should have a pearl necklace," she said. "When I was your age I got one." From my father, I knew. And now, with no man in my life, even though I was only twenty, she would be the one to bestow this artifact of womanhood, this rite of passage, this gyno-noose, upon me. That I might in fact never have an occasion to wear such a thing or that I might look like the worst sort of Republican doing so probably never occurred to her. I think she saw it as a kind of ticket off the farm and out into the world, wherever that was.

"Thanks, Mom," I said, and kissed her cheek, which was simultaneously powdery and damp. I thrust the velveteen box of pearls high, as if making a toast. "Here's to Jesus," I said.

My mom looked at me from a great and concerned distance.

I think "My mom looked at me from a great and concerned distance" will be the title of my memoir.

We hiked down past the copse of sycamore and oak (as children, animating some dormant urban fear, we had witlessly shrieked, "The copse! The copse!" and raced through the underbrush, thrilled by our down concocted, dreadless terror). Now Robert and I weaved among piss elms toward the old fish hatchery, which in winters of the past we would have acted on; it was a former nineteenth-century mill pond that had long ago lost its falls, though the old paddle wheel still leaned against a tree, coated with squirrel shucks. Sometimes we'd tobogganed down the snowy trail all the way to the hatchery, where now there was no snow at all, just the matted hard grass and dirt and the dried, icing stalks of angelica and milkweed and bee balm. My brother liked to fish at the hatchery sometimes, even in winter, sometimes even in the stream, even if the fish were really now just trash fish, and even though it was stupid to ice fish in a stream,. But summers down this path I had always liked, and when the gnats weren't bad I had sometimes accompanied him, sat in the waist-high widgeon grass beside him, the place pink with coneflowers, telling him the plot of, say, a Sam Peckinpah movie I'd never seen but had read about once in the Dellacrosse Sunday Star. Crickets the size of your thumb would sing their sweet monotony from the brush. Sometimes there was a butterfly so perfect and beautiful, it was like a party barrette you wanted to clip in your hair. Above and around us green leaves would flash wet with sunsetting light. In this verdant cove I recounted the entire plot of Straw Dogs.

I just like that entire thing. The whole novel is filled with wonderful paragraphs like that.

If he had loved me, or even if he'd just have said so, I would have died of happiness. But it didn't happen. So I didn't die of happiness. Words for a tombstone: SHE DIDN'T DIE OF HAPPINESS.

322 pages
322/20,000 page goal

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