Monday, January 25, 2010

Review: The best and worst of times at college

I read Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs because I enjoyed Self-Help enough that I thought that continuing on with this author might be amusing. It was - to a degree. As I thought when finishing Self-Help, I enjoyed Moore's sardonic, biting voice, but in smaller doses than a novel. It was noted as being one of the ten best books of the year by The New York Times, which suggested that a look might be in order.

A Gate at the Stairs is an observational novel in many ways. It tells the story of Tassie Keltjin, who is attending a midwestern liberal arts college, close enough that her father's potatoes are used by the local collegetown restaurants. She amuses herself by taking wine tasting and a Sufism course. In between semesters, she decides to look for work as a babysitter; and luckily enough she lands a position - with a woman, Sarah, and her husband who don't have kids of their own. Not yet at least. She's going to adopt. And wants Tassie to be with the child every step of the way.

Although this midwestern collegetown prides itself on being more liberal than most out there, there's still a vibration of racism that pulses through the neighbourhood. For the child, Emmie, that the parents end up adopting is black (at least partly), and people look and stare and judge as Tassie pushes the child in her stroller. Moore is clever enough not to make this the focus of the book - which would be a tradition and somewhat tired way of looking at this problem.

Emmie is suffused with literary allusions all around her - mixed raced she has the aura of the passing novels of the early twentieth century behind her. The name itself is faerytale like girl whose found on the miser Silas Marner's doorstep in George Eliot's eponymous novel. She wants to have 'blue eyes like Daddy', the wish of a young girl in Toni Morrison's first novel, The Bluest Eye. She is the catalyst for Sarah bringing together the minorities of the town to have their own kind of cerebral, academic 'neighbourhood watch', sitting down every so often to discuss the problems of the town. These are hysterical yet frustrating scenes, much out of a Woody Allen film or Samuel Beckett play, because everyone has all these grand ideas but no one seems to act on any of them. Downstairs the adults chat:
". . . institutionalized bigotry can subtly convince you of its rightness. With its absurdity removed, its evil can compel . . ."
"And even the adults pat her hair as if it's the funniest thing they'd ever seen on a mammal . . . and of course available for public patting, like a goat in a zoo. . . ."
"There's a great woman on the south side who does hair . . ."
"Of course homework is just a measure of the home! And so the kids of color will always fall behind . . ."
"The African-American peer group is the strongest and the Asian-American is the weakest--that is, Asian-American parents have power that African-American parents do not."
Moore is able to make these go on for eternity (and they'd be most amusing; they're funny, they're annoying, they're endless and perfect). While upstairs, Tassie has all the downstairs adults' children, playing with them, making them unaware of what their parents are saying, teaching them songs and always secondguessing whether or not said song was appropriate (did it have bad grammar? was it inherently racist?) A peace of mind rests on the top floor where the kids reside, blind to everything around them but simple pleasures and pains.

It's just unfortunate for all of these characters that shame pervades. (The only gate that I think is discussed outrightly is Watergate.) Lurking in every corner, leering for the right (or wrong) moment to jump out and ruin everything. And Moore does a decent job - some tricks work better than others - to keep the audience interested.

It took a while for me to warm up to Tassie's voice. The first chapter I found to be grating and almost decided not to go on because I didn't really want to spend 300+ pages with this snarky girl. And I didn't care about her freshman problems at college. This may be because a) I'm not female and b) college is still relatively close in memory, so I don't have a true nostalgia for it just yet. And this is in a strange way a looking back at a memorable year at college for Tassie. But when I got to the second chapter - the one from which Moore read when she appeared at the Union Square Barnes & Noble back in the autumn - the story picked up, the characters became more full, and the world created became quietly fascinating. Almost like a literary detective novel does A Gate at the Stairs unfold. And by the end you find yourself feeling for these people. It may get overly sentimental or predictable at times, but in a way you want to forgive the novel these faults.


Kari said...

When I saw you review a book by Moore last week, I initially thought it was this one (from the blog editing page...obviously not once I saw the cover image) since it's had such a huge presence in the literary world lately.

I'm guessing this covers a long span of time since you mention both childhood and college. Does it deal with the evolution of the town's opinions or judgment as time passes?

Salvatore said...

Actually it only covers basically a semester of life of Tassie in college. It seems bigger than it actually is. Which is kind of impressive. So there's no evolution in opinion or judgement. The ending though is kind of a doozy and makes one rethink a lot of the narrative. So your focus changes gears quite a bit, almost throwing the former problems out the window.