Like Lives: On Lorrie Moore
"Was this the grassroots whimpering of an important social movement, or was it a small, deep madness?" Tassie wonders of the shuffling conversation of synonymous minds. "If two things fell in the forest and made the same sound, which was the tree?" Stationed at the landing with the children, eavesdropping on the bickering and back-scratching below, Tassie, a wise naif like her antecedent Jane Eyre, embodies the wisdom generated by enforced distance, and is no more seduced by the temptation to narrate life through ideological principle than Sarah is by the temptation to narrate it through tragedy. From the landing, political piety looks to be a fantasy; like irony, it offers only an illusion of stability. It will not save Mary-Emma. And it will be a special kind of tragedy for Tassie when they lose her.
That small tragedy is the tender heart of the novel, but Moore papers it over with several sloppy layers of bathos. A cipher of a boyfriend reveals himself to be a sleeper-cell terrorist, and after inspiring some of the best writing in the book ("His penis was as small and satiny as a trumpet mushroom in Easter basket grass," thinks Tassie), he delivers some of its worst dialogue: "You are an innocent girl--though you are not pure. But still, I believe you are innocent. Especially for a Jew." Bizarrely, the revelation of her paramour's true identity excites no political horror in Tassie; instead, their breakup is rendered in terms borrowed from other dead-end romances in Moore's fiction. That her boyfriend is the nightmare incarnation of our American fears appears to interest neither the lover nor the writer as much as the quotidian revelation that he is, at bottom, a cad.
Later in the novel, Sarah discloses to Tassie an incredible parental back story, which, rather than making sense of her hesitant longing and muted romance with Edward, cheapens and flattens them both. When Tassie's brother places in her hands more or less complete responsibility for his life, asking her to decide whether or not he should enlist in the Army, she neglects to open his e-mail. At his funeral a few foreshortened months later, she climbs into his coffin and closes the lid.
One of these sensational twists might be forgivable in a novel as engaging as this one; two of them would be inexcusable for a writer like Moore, who has always demonstrated such dexterity and narrative control; three of them, however, must be willful, and as the histrionics accumulate in the second half of the novel, A Gate at the Stairs begins to appear more and more a 9/11 farce, mocking the very enterprise of fashioning a coherent and conventional novel from those terrible events and the chaotic years that followed. Moore seems to be mocking, too, the novelistic impulses of our hyperbolic public life, in which private histories are reconfigured into broad narratives dictated by distant events. She offers instead a Gothic melodrama for our particular age of anxiety, a new model novel wrapped in its own cautionary tale. In presenting her readers with both a poignant domestic story and a series of contrived and grandiose narrative flourishes, intrusions that seem more to obscure than to illuminate the lives of her characters, Moore appears to be suggesting that social novels need not be master-narrative dirigibles like those favored by Don DeLillo and Jonathan Franzen, among others. They can be assembled instead, like much social history, from the ground up, piecemeal, from minor and private testimony. They can be as local and ragged as a patchwork quilt. The history might even be better that way.
The novel--or this novel, unfortunately--is not. As a reworking of the story of American life in the aftermath of 9/11, A Gate at the Stairs yields little new knowledge about those years. As a new model of the social novel, it is ultimately neither ecumenically broad nor genuinely bottom-up; it is composed instead from the inside out, like a dream journal. And Moore, the master miniaturist, proves herself here remarkably undisciplined working outside the diorama of soliloquy fiction. That difficulty is only compounded by her peculiar compunction to conceal what vivid natural life there is in her story under heavy Gothic lacquer. Vigilant throughout A Gate at the Stairs about not letting 9/11 hijack her 9/11 novel, Moore allows the book to be carried away instead by her flights of fancy. (What does Charlotte Brontë have to teach us about war and terrorism, one cannot help wondering.) The result is a novel that is less a testament to the neglected imaginative commonwealth of intimate experience than to the esoteric ghetto of our autistic fantasy lives. And this failure is all the more damning for its being deliberate. "The people in this house," Tassie confides, channeling Moore late in the novel, "were like characters each from a different grim and gruesome fairy tale. None of us was in the same story. We were all grotesques, and self-riveted, but in separate narratives, and so our interactions seemed weird and richly meaningless."
The echo of E.M. Forster, and his advice to "only connect," is unmistakable, but the echo fills an empty room. In Moore's universe, depth of feeling has always been measured by distance from others. There is not, she suggests, more meaning to be found in more engagement, only less. The fiction wrung from this fatalism is not simply absurdist; it is fiction of the perverse. And yet, in dexterous hands perversity can seem like conjured possibility; with Moore the possibilities are, and remain, endless.