Friday, April 2, 2010

A Gate at the Stairs: Metaphor Mania

Like practically everything else in Lorrie Moore's novel, the title A Gate at the Stairs is a metaphor. No matter your station in life, there are always obstacles. But some "obstacles" -- like race, or past mistakes, or ignorance, or preconceived notions -- are harder to climb over than others. In and of itself, that's a great message, but the plot with which Moore frames this idea is such a tangle of subplots, digressions and varying styles, that this idea almost gets lost amidst the din.

In a thinly veiled fictional version of Madison, Wisconsin (Moore teaches at the University of Wisconsin), freshman Tassie Keltjin lands a job as a babysitter for the adopted, mixed-race child of Sarah Brink and her husband Edward. But Sarah and Edward's marriage is rocky, and they have secrets. But Tassie gets a boyfriend who isn't what he seems. But Sarah is a restauranteur. But Tassie's farmer father and Jewish mother are a little kooky. But racism exists, even in a liberal college town. But Tassie's brother is joining the army. But nothing is ever what it seems in a paranoid post-9/11 world.

Moore seems to have the literary version of attention deficit disorder. The style and story shifted so often that it was hard for me as a reader to get comfortable. When Sarah has meetings with other parents of mixed-race children, Moore writes these scenes as pages of modifier-less dialogue. But then the next section might be a long description of flowers and nature, practically bursting with over-adorned, metaphor-laden prose. And even when the plot is moving along, Moore will key off a single word or phrase, and spend a several-paragraph digression making jokes or describing further or generally trying to "wow" you with her words. (Here's an example: "Contents may shift during the flight, we had been told. Would that be good or bad? And what about discontents? Would they shift, too? And what if the oxygen deprivation in the cabin caused one to think in idle spirals and desperate verbal coils like this for the rest of one's life?")

When I did get comfortable enough to slow down or reread to get some of the jokes (like the one above about "contents shifting during flight"), I did enjoy them. Moore is frequently a clever and witty writer. But more often than not, these seemed like spaghetti-at-the-wall gimmicks. If it stuck with the reader, great. If not, well, Moore had amused herself. Similarly, with the multiple themes Moore tries to tease out of her many subplots, there just seemed to be too many balls in the air. Instead of trying to catch one or two of them to give them the appropriate attention and treatment, Moore actually just drops them all. 

So, now this is a bit awkward. I get to announce the winner of my giveaway...of a book I didn't care for. That'll learn me to have a contest for a book before I've read it!  Anyway....and the winner is....Lisa, at bibliophiliac. Congratulations! Also, I'd highly recommend checking out Lisa's blog -- she writes with great enthusiasm and flair, and it's a lot of fun to read!


  1. There's been quite a divide with this novel. Although many have found the content and form problematic, it's still lauded as an excellent example of, well, the craft.

    Then again, I haven't read it. Ha. I want to mainly because Lorrie Moore has long ago cemented herself as a You Have to Read Me Now Dammit writer.

    Also, you just broke my heart when I learned I hadn't won. Gah. Haha, but congratulations to Lisa. :]

  2. I found your blog via the blog hop. I look forward to reading it. My post is here.

  3. I think this is the first time I've won anything since about the 6th grade, so thanks, Greg. And thanks for recommending my blog! I'm looking forward to reading this novel, and I'll let you know what you think. I'll be contacting you via e-mail. Again, thanks!

  4. I wish Lorrie Moore would put out another short story collection and not a novel, since her novel's just aren't as good. I haven't read this yet, and your review nicely sums up why.

  5. I liked this one by the time I got to the end, though I spent lots of pages wanting to put it down.

    I found you via the Hop and am a new follower.

    BTW, I'm having a contest at my blog. Today is the last chance to become a follower at my blog and leave a comment to try to win one of two $10 Amazon gift certificates. Stop in today!

  6. "If it stuck with the reader, great. If not, well, Moore had amused herself." Makes me think of Ocean's Thirteen. Just to, you know, provide a metaphor. :)

  7. Hmmm, this book is on my wish-list at paperback swap. Methinks I'll take it off the list. Too many books, too little time.

  8. I agree with readerbuzz - I spent a lot of time wondering why I was reading this book and then getting into briefly. A meh read. LOL

    Maggie at tethered mommy dot com

  9. I completely understand what you mean about the distraction of so many subplots. When Sarah hosts her Wednesday night forums, I was a bit confused as to what I was actually supposed to be extracting. Maybe these so called "liberal-free thinkers" were just as clueless as the individuals they had lengthy discussions about. I did enjoy the wit, but I found Sarah and Edward's relationship completely unrealistic and too abrupt.
    Unlike everyone else, I couldn't put it down. I thought she nailed Tassie's character, and perhaps shepaid too much attention to this aspect and left other areas in the grey. I thought it left a lot open to interpretation, and was possibly intentional.