Like Lives: On Lorrie Moore
Moore has now published three novels, and yet she is known primarily as an author of short fiction. She is a moody writer and a master of compression, and her stories stand up mostly on the stilts of her dry humor. She is such a skilled and cutting aphorist that she was criticized early in her career for writing stories that kept the emotional lives of her characters at an ironic distance--that made them the butt of jokes, hers and their own. But she beat that charge so thoroughly with the stories of Birds of America, and particularly its remarkable cancer tale, "People Like That Are the Only People Here," that the book earned the contrasting moniker "calamity" fiction. (If the joke was on anything in that story, it was on wordplay itself.) Her characters may share her brackish wit, but it doesn't seem to do them much good, in her more recent work especially. Irony isn't a weapon for these people; it's a brand of delusion. Most of them lack the vigilante wherewithal to propel themselves through plots and so find themselves trapped instead in scenes, often oppressive domestic ones. Yet the confines of these small narrative spaces are no bulwark against disaster; catastrophe still strikes, and miseries descend. Wit, for all its charm, is futile protest, a private gesture and, at best, a silent, often retrospective comfort.
A Gate at the Stairs, Moore's third novel, is also her third clotted with problems, and the lesser quality of these longer works has been for some time now the final critical obstacle to what would seem to be an otherwise inevitable coronation. In Anagrams (1986), she shuffled together a half-dozen variations on a single melancholic romantic pairing, substituting a stock formal trick for a narrative arc; in Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? (1994), a different kind of scrapbook novel, she stretched too thin a small canvas of adolescent memory to fit the oversize frame of its recollection in adulthood. And yet it is not simply the scale of these stories that has confounded critics over the years but the slipperiness of style and genre in her work. (She recently described the Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector as a "sphinx" in a New York Review of Books essay that could pass for self-criticism.) She has been called glib (the Los Angeles Times) and journalistic (the New York Observer); she has also been deemed a parodist (the New York Times), an ironist (Newsweek) and a raconteuse (the New York Times again). Most often she is dubbed a realist; the London Review of Books has even called her writing "super-real," whatever that is supposed to mean.
But objectivity and artifact have never interested Moore. Her "Middle West" is a spiritual state, and she can play fast and loose with the time stamp of period detail; her character studies are not sober portraits so much as glimpses, sidelong, through a bell jar. However incisive her prose, Moore is an absurdist storyteller, keen only on a particular variety of emotional verisimilitude, staging in the cramped theater of pathos fiction a familiar and often grotesque internal opera. That this absurdist spirit has been noted by so few critics can be explained, perhaps, by her chosen topics and themes, which are familiar as the tropes of "women's fiction" and may have eased her acceptance by the book-buying public (Birds of America is one of literary publishers' rarest and finest feathered friends: a short-story collection that became a bestseller).
A Gate at the Stairs is Moore's most ambitious novel and her slipperiest work to date, and its publication has only deepened the confusion about what kind of writer Moore really is. The novel, baggily modeled on Jane Eyre, purports to be a Bildungsroman devoted to the coming-of-age of Tassie Keltjin, a searching young woman so indistinct she can at times seem invisible. The book's prose is sharp, but its plotting is casual, if not downright reckless; rather than present a credibly straightforward narrative, Moore assembles a pastiche of adolescent reveries; cutting character sketches; idyllic reflections on landscapes, growing seasons and migratory patterns; biting academic comedy; immersive domestic melodrama; and intimate moments of genuine tragedy. The reader hopscotches through it and finds himself, after several leaps of faith, caught in the latticework of an improbable 9/11 novel.
The qualities that made Moore seem an unlikely novelist in Anagrams and Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?--a narrow focus on private and interior lives, a fastidiousness about the sharpness of language and an indifference to what is often called "relevance"--might seem to disqualify her from the hyperbolic business of writing broad, topical social novels. And yet A Gate at the Stairs is resolutely a book about 9/11: it covers the year following the attacks, terminating in the winter of 2002 with the buildup for war in Iraq (a "plot hatched with neocon intellectuals who, like aging former members of a high school chess club, wanted a tournament they could win"). It makes passing references to campus protests and political debates ("I was on the side of dissent and despair," confesses Tassie), and counts among its small circle of characters a radical Islamist and a volunteer American soldier sent hurriedly to Afghanistan.
It is an unusual approach to the subject: the book is slight, provincial, languid. The military drama transpires offstage; likewise the political theater. Rather than make 9/11 the centerpiece of her 9/11 novel, Moore introduces it in the book's opening passages as a red herring. The "events of September," as she calls the unspooling global drama, are unmistakably present in the story, but unmistakably as background. The themes she showcases at center stage are, instead, familiar ones: adolescence, race, motherhood, the Middle West. And the two main characters so closely resemble archetypes that Moore has deployed in her stories--a sensitive young wallflower puzzling through early adulthood; a longanimous woman reconciling herself to motherhood and middle age--that they seem summoned from those pages for the didactic purpose of suggesting continuity with her previous books and with the anxieties of the era that gave rise to them. In those books--Self-Help, Anagrams and Like Life--Moore offered stories of the dejected and adrift as a narrative counterpoint to the go-go triumphalism of the roaring '80s; A Gate at the Stairs represents a renewed protest on behalf of the natural complexity of lived experience and against the temptations of a narrative order that suggests that our public apologues are a reliable reflection of our private lives. Moore is concerned here not with the incinerating attacks but their slow-burn aftermath; not with disaster as public allegory but with our ordinary domesticated millenarianism; not with the few ways American life was transformed by terrorism but the many ways in which, ultimately, it was not.