A Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore is a writer of exceptional quality. But a storyteller, a master of plot, she is not.

Moore's novel A Gate At The Stairs has some of the finest and most expressive passages I've read lately. Her descriptions are unusual but devastatingly precise ? a one-two punch few can accomplish. Take this, her description of a restaurant:

Le Petit Moulin. I knew of it a little. It was one of those expensive restaurants downtown, every entree freshly hairy with dill, every soup and dessert dripped upon as preciously as a Pollock, filets and cutlets sprinkled with lavender dust once owned by pixies, restaurants to which students never went, except if newly pinned to a fraternity boy or dating an assistant dean or hosting a visit from their concerned suburban parents. I knew Le Petit Moulin served things that sound liked instruments – timbales, quenelles – God only knew what they were. I had once tried to study the menu in the lit window near the entrance, and as I stared at the words, the sting of my own exile had moistened my eyes.”
– page 17

In Moore's thinly veiled version of Madison, spring comes in a haze of beautifully realized flowers. The wintry sun “melts in the sky like a lemon drop” and winter is the “pale gray of plastic copy machines and desktop printers.” Scenes of inventive description tumble into scenes of writing so elevated it seems another art form, creating pages my eyes couldn't zoom across fast enough.

The plot that this writing nominally propels forward, however, is a blunderbuss; a plodding, clumsy, paint-by-numbers collection of the obvious. I get that Moore is deliberately hyperbolic in her characterization of Midwesterners as hypocritical rubes because she is trying to get a point across, but her other observations are such a slap in the face they're less forgivable. The narrator is hostile toward her own mother, but the woman the narrator nannies for coddles her adopted baby obsessively; the parallels are obtusely drawn. At one point in the middle, Moore mentions Nazis every five pages or so. It's an attempt to draw a parallel to post-9/11 America, but really ? hitting the reader over the head with a rolling pin would've been more delicate.

Nevertheless, I will happily put up with such a forehead-slapper of a plot if it means I get to read writing like Moore's. I'd say A Gate At The Stairs is one of the best-written novels I've read in the past five years ? as long as the recipient of this recommendation understood the difference between “best-written book” and “best book,” that is.

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  1. Amy 09.Feb.10 at 11:27 am

    I wonder how it’ll fare in the Tournament of Books next month.

  2. Jodi Chromey 10.Feb.10 at 2:55 pm

    We need a NCAA Basketballesque bracket pool for the ToB. Winner gets something cool or money.

  3. David 11.Feb.10 at 10:21 am

    That would be the coolest idea ever, but I’d have to count myself out (I have inside information).

  4. Jodi Chromey 12.Feb.10 at 9:45 am

    We’ll take bets once the bracket has been released. Has the bracket been released?


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