Like Lives: On Lorrie Moore
"If September 11 had to happen," Martin Amis wrote in The Second Plane, his meditation on the fate of the imagination in the age of terror, "then I am not at all sorry that it happened in my lifetime." Amis was exhilarated by the subject and the spectacle of the attacks, animated by the feeling that afterward the playpen of liberal expression might seem once again to circumscribe a political purpose, that the crucible of cultural conflict could be an emboldening experience--and that men like Martin Amis might plausibly audition for the role of George Orwell. What 9/11 means to Moore, and why she would write a novel around it, is less clear. It seems unlikely that her characters share Amis's feelings about 9/11 (neither, we imagine, does their author), though they rarely speak of it. For them the climate of the preceding years was quite desperate and millenarian enough, and in A Gate at the Stairs, 9/11 appears less as a genuine intercession than as a complementary spectacle, with terrorism simply one more existential menace in a world already full of them--renewing old anxieties, deepening existing fears and substantiating a pervasive underculture of anomalous despair. For Lorrie Moore's people, the attacks were a Trojan horse, enclosing an entire army of familiar foes.
"I had come...to this university town of Troy, 'the Athens of the Midwest,' as if from a cave," Tassie tells us early in the novel, "like the priest-child of a Colombian tribe I'd read about in Cultural Anthropology, a boy made mystical by being kept in the dark for the bulk of his childhood and allowed only stories--no experience--of the outside world." Tassie's innocence is real enough, but she comes, in fact, from a less exotic place, a nearby farming community--the daughter of a marriage fractured and perhaps improperly reset--where her father dedicates himself to growing boutique lettuces and potatoes through what she calls, with affectionate derision, "Dadaist agriculture." "Once brought out into light, [the child] would be in a perpetual, holy condition of bedazzlement and wonder; no story would ever have been equal to the thing itself. And so it was with me."
Tassie is curious, even expansively so, but her intellectual profile is one of false bookishness: "My brain was on fire with Chaucer, Sylvia Plath, Simone de Beauvoir," she boasts, but she enrolls in courses on wine tasting, war movie soundtracks and "a double-listed humanities and Pilates course called The Perverse Body/The Neutral Pelvis." School does not seem to interest Tassie much, for all her vision-quest hyperbole. She is chasing experience, not secondhand stories, and her real education will be extracurricular, an immersive program of surrogate motherhood. She hires on as a "childcare provider" to a professional couple in middle age and just embarking on a maiden adoption. And there the Brontë architecture begins to emerge: a curious governess, a suspicious home, a forbidding Byronic hero and a troubled mother figure conspiring to hide some secret past from view. But in this novel the heat and light come not from the frisson of romance but the new glow of child life in an otherwise barren home.
"Adoption seemed both a cruel joke and a lovely daydream," Moore writes, and her portrayal in A Gate at the Stairs of the awkward, estranged network of surrogates and spouses, matchmakers and caretakers created by the birth of a single wayward baby is among the most subtle and moving depictions in recent fiction of motherhood and maternal desire. Adoption can be a forlorn kind of parenthood, and in her caustic early stories Moore might have mocked the anguish that courses through the meeting rooms of adoption clinics and gets registered on waiting lists that represent a roll call of American longing. In those early stories, childbirth is rendered as an expiration date for youth, and for youthful hope. But, returning to old themes in recent work, Moore has been more forgiving, presenting maternal self-doubt as a form of universal performance anxiety and yielding her mothers enough narrative rope for at least a proper second act. A Gate at the Stairs is a melancholy deliberation on the second act in the American life of an inconsolable but irrepressible mother-to-be named Sarah Brink.
"In everything I do there seems to be some part missing," Sarah tells Tassie in a reflective moment. "I'm discovering that it is almost impossible to be a mother and also do anything of value outside the house. But that almost is key, and I'm living in the oxygenated heart of that word." Sarah is the chef-owner of a pious local-seasonal restaurant ("It was an odd experience for me," Tassie says, of eating alone there, "to have the palate so cared for and the spirit so untouched") and the disappointed wife of a charismatic loner named Edward Thornwood, who seems only halfway committed to late parenthood, and perhaps even less so to Sarah. (His name recalls Mr. Rochester's Thornfield Hall, and his sporadic advances toward Tassie are the only erotically charged passages in the novel.) Sarah is neurotic--she bakes library books to sanitize them--and sorrowful; she is piecing together a new life for herself as if from an instruction manual. "I always do the wrong thing," she says at one point. "I do the wrong thing so much that the times I actually do the right thing stand out so brightly in my memory that I forget I always do the wrong thing."
Motherhood, it seems, is the right thing--one right thing, anyway. Distressed and discouraged--Sarah looks, Tassie notes at their first meeting, "like a highly controlled oxidation experiment"--she is nevertheless no defeatist, and adoption transforms her into a sympathetic family fortune-seeker. "I could see she was getting ready to enter a new understanding of society," Tassie observes, equal parts loyalist and skeptic. "It would be artificial and touristic. It would be motherhood in a safari suit," she says. "It was better than some. Probably it was better than most."
It seems better, certainly, than the foster home from which the Thornwood-Brinks extract their baby, Mary-Emma, though "baby" is not quite right--she's been juggled among various homes and agencies and is now, under the supervision of the teenage daughter of an indifferent foster mother, approaching 2. And yet the new family is no safe haven from familiar threats or latent fears. Mary-Emma is half-black, which in the adoption business, we discover quickly, does not make the most attractive package. Sarah is warned several times about the race of prospective children, warnings that rankle. "People would rather go to China!" she exclaims. "All the way to China before they would take in a black kid from their own state." An adoption agent who brags that she is raising a biracial son "with a sense of total racial blindness" later causes Sarah to spit, "Racial blindness--now there's a very white idea."
Gradually the problem of race shifts to the center of the book, pushed there by the forces of atavism at work even in the most progressive outposts. "I don't really believe in interracial relationships," confesses Mary-Emma's birth mother. "Looks like she's been eating a lot of squash and carrots!" jokes a receptionist. And then there are still uglier incidents, including one especially nasty encounter with a carful of loitering teenagers who, perhaps mistaking Tassie for the birth mother, holler a racial epithet as though it were a sexual reprimand.
Tassie is mystified by the outburst, amazed that it could happen in this right-thinking college town. ("Here was so proud of itself," she ponders. "Here was so progressive and exemplary.") Sarah is less surprised and more indignant. "I'm forming a support group," she announces. "I'm going to bring families of color into this home, and we are going to discuss things and pool our strengths and share our stories and plot our collective actions," she says, marshaling boilerplate language to address the persistent problem of racial prejudice. "Would you supervise the children?"
These meetings, which punctuate the second half of the novel, are half echo chamber and half key party, a first-floor retreat into dated political theater as Tassie, upstairs, minds the future generation. "War was devised to offset the number of women who died in childbirth," declares one partygoer. "I don't like the use of the word adoption for animals," testifies another. "I don't believe in gay culture or white culture or female culture or any of that." "I once heard I.B. Singer speak of the holocaust of chickens." "Don't get me started on Islam!"