In the fall of 1984 Bright Lights, Big City, the debut novel by Jay McInerney, was published by an imprint of Knopf. The book seemed to its early readers not simply a piece of fiction but a kind of talisman; it appeared to summon the cultural promise of an entire generation coming of age under Reagan. It was told in the second person, and the insistent “you” was like a serial invitation, one to a new kind of life, in Manhattan, lit by a string of parties in the city’s hipper quarters that might exhilarate you or make you feel despondent, but which certainly made the city itself feel alive again. For a stretch of time people had stopped believing in cities, even this one, and had, in patches, abandoned them, even this one. But Bright Lights was composed in the insubordinate spirit of a creative revival; it helped proclaim, to those who came and those who dreamed of coming, that New York City was available once more to the audacious and the reckless young.
In the spring of 1985, Knopf published Self-Help, an acerbic collection of stories by the precocious aphorist Lorrie Moore. Self-Help was also a debut, and it was also written largely in the second person, but it told a very different story about the allure of city life and the comforts of living in close quarters. One would not want to change places with anyone in Moore’s New York–“it is like having a degree in failure,” she wrote of living there–or, for that matter, with those characters in Scranton, Rochester or Owonta, who viewed the ’80s not as a new frontier but as a deadening stretch of the same old disappointments, romantic, professional, intellectual and filial. A mordant series of devotional texts, Self-Help traced those disappointments, mapping the lean inner life of the American boom years. The second-person voice of Bright Lights was flat, credulous and smug; Moore’s prose was briny, superior and self-loathing. The book was a study of the dream life of fatalism, and it was narrated in the clairvoyant mood.
“Meet in expensive beige raincoats, on a pea-soupy night. Like a detective movie,” begins “How to Be an Other Woman,” the cheeky first story in the collection. “Whisper, ‘Don’t go yet,’ as he glides out of your bed before sunrise and you lie there on your back cooling, naked between the sheets and smelling of musky, oniony sweat. Feel gray, like an abandoned locker room towel.” “Smoke marijuana,” advises an entry in “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes).” “Try to figure out what has made your life go wrong. It is like trying to figure out what is stinking up the refrigerator. It could be anything.” “How to Become a Writer”: “First, try to be something, anything, else. A movie star/astronaut. A movie star/missionary. A movie star/kindergarten teacher. President of the World. Fail miserably.”
There has not been much public failure in Lorrie Moore’s working life. She won a Seventeen magazine fiction contest when she was 19 and sold Self-Help when she was 26. The stories of that collection were drawn from her work as an MFA candidate at Cornell, and her subsequent stories–published in Like Life (1990) and Birds of America (1998)–are among the finest and most memorable short fiction produced by an American writer in the generation to follow Raymond Carver. And yet a spirit of devastating failure pervades her work and the lives of the characters who populate it–an acquiescent sensibility arising from quiet despair. Her stories are plotted, typically, with disappointments, and recounted in voices discontent and disconsolate, by characters buckled and wryly resigned to a supermarket culture that overstocks imagination and undersupplies real possibility, especially for women and especially in the strip-mall states she has called, archaically, “the Middle West.”
Geography is everywhere in Moore’s fiction, usually as a measure of personal estrangement. “Illinois. It makes me sarcastic to be here,” quips the professor protagonist of “You’re Ugly, Too,” from Like Life.
She used to insist it was irony, something gently layered and sophisticated, something alien to the Midwest, but her students kept calling it sarcasm, something they felt qualified to recognize, and now she had to agree. It wasn’t irony. What is your perfume? a student once asked her. Room freshener, she said.
“You had to get out once in a while,” declares the professor. “Even if it was just across the border to Terre Haute, for a movie.” “I feel like I’ve got five years to live,” says Agnes, in “Agnes of Iowa,” having made a brief go of things in New York. “So I’m moving back to Iowa so that it’ll feel like fifty.”
Alienation is the main preoccupation of this early work, rendered by Moore out of fidelity to her subjects not as a cultural condition but a social fact: the feeling of being pressed, as if by centrifugal force, to the periphery of conversations that whir before you wildly as zoetropes, of buzzing invisibly as an electron in the distant orbit of some truly nuclear party. Her protagonists are invariably witty, but wit is, in Moore’s wallflower fiction, simply another measure of human distance.
“At a party,” she writes in “How to Talk to Your Mother (Notes),”
when a woman tells you where she bought some wonderful pair of shoes, say that you believe shopping for clothes is like masturbation–everyone does it, but it isn’t very interesting and therefore should be done alone, in an embarrassed fashion, and never be the topic of party conversation. The woman will tighten her lips and eyebrows and say, “Oh, I suppose you have something more fascinating to talk about.” Grow clumsy and uneasy. Say, “No,” and head for the ginger ale.
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.
“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!”
“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.