Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Gate at the Stairs

Lorrie Moore's new book, A Gate at the Stairs, is her much anticipated novel and is getting great reviews for good reason. I started reading it and 20 pages in thought: This can't go on! She writes so beautifully, with so much wit and pleasure in language - and it does go on - she maintains this absolutely brilliant tone and language throughout the whole book.

A Gate at the Stairs is about a young college student who gets a job as a nanny, ostensibly. But what it's really about, and I don't think I'm ruining it for you, is what it's like to be a young college student. And more specifically, a mid-western college student - a subject rather dear to my heart, as I myself was but a lithe, young, art history major a mere mumblemumble years ago. Moore captures Midwestern Culture (you may laugh, but, it's does exist) with all it's feigning humbleness and linguistic creativity:
Prepositions mystified. Almost everyone said "on" accident instead of "by." They said "I'm bored of that" or "Wanna come with?" They pronounced "milk" to rhyme with "elk" and "milieu" as "miloo," as in skip to my loo - when they said it at all. And they used tenses like "I'd been gonna." As in, "I'd been gonna to do that but then I never got around toot." It was the hypothetical conditional past, time and intention carved so obliquely and fine that I could only almost comprehend it, until, like Einstein's theory of relativity, which also sometimes flashed cometlike into my view, it whooshed away again, beyond my grasp... Who else on earth spoke like this? They would look at the tattoo on my ankle, a peace sign, and, withholding judgment but also intelligence, say, "Well, that's different." They'd say the same thing about my electric bass. Or even the acoustic one - That's different! - and in saying it made the same glottal stop that they made pronouncing "mitten" and "kitten."

Moore skewers the misdirected good intentions of a group of well-meaning but ridiculous adopted parents of multi-ethnic children in a series of interactions only overheard by the nanny, upstairs, watching a brood of interracial children. Those parts were exhilarating - Moore really sets an incredible pace in this story.
"'I Been Working on the Railroad.' I've heard her sing that. There's just two things I'm worried about with that: the grammar and the use of slave labor."

I wasn't sure I was hearing things correctly. Her sense of humor was still not always explicit or transparent of of a finely honed rhythm, and it sometimes left me not in the same room with it but standing in the hall. The words "You're serious?" flew out of my mouth.

"Kind of." She looked rigth through me. "I'm not sure." And then she went upstairs, as if to go figure it out. When she came back down she added, "Correct subject-verb agreement is best when children are learning language, so be careful what you sing. It's an issue when raising kids of color. A simple grammatical matter can hold them back in life. Down the road."

While Moore's book reads like a structured story, it's really not - what you think is the main plot is not, themes emerge and then gently fade back, following not that pleasing arch of the classic story, but the one we're all more familiar with: the unpredictable twists of everyday life. I think Moore's a real deconstructionist at heart - and just as I was forming that theory, she verified it for me:
What had I learned thus far in college? You can exclude the excluded middle, but when you ride through, on your way to a lonely and more certain place, out the window you'll see everyone you've ever known living there.

I had also learned that in literature - perhaps as in life - one had to speak not of what the author intended but of what a story intended for itself. The creator was inconvenient - God was dead. But the creation itself had a personality and hopes and its own desires and plans and little winks and dance steps and collaged intent. In this way Jacques Derrida overlapped with Walt Disney. The story itself had feet and a mouth, could walk and talk and speak of its own yearnings!

I learned that there had been many ice ages. That they came and went. I learned there were no mammals original to New Zealand. I learned that space was not just adrift with cold, flammable rocks. Here and there a creature was riding one, despite the Sufic spinning of the rock. The spores of lightless life were everywhere. I think I learned that.

It's one of the finest books I've read this year and I'd recommend it to ALL my Midwestern friends and anyone who's looking for a really incredible read. You won't be disappointed.

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