A Gate at the Stairs Lorrie Moore
Bond Street Books, 2009

Earlier this year I picked through Self-Help, Moore’s first collection of short stories, largely drawn from her Master’s thesis, because somewhere I came across a reference to her story “How to Become a Writer”, which made me think that I couldn’t possibly *be* one if I hadn’t first read this instructional work.

Previously I had read some of her other short stories and, more recently, a half dozen reviews of Moore’s new novel that made it sound promising, but I wasn’t overly keen (about either the stories or the novel). Nonetheless, reading this particularly famous story brought to mind one of my ATF story collections (Forms of Devotion): soon my fondness for Diane Schoemperlen’s work bled over, until I was randomly sampling other stories in Moore’s collection and, finally, plucking A Gate at the Stairs from the shelf with a wide grin.

And I’m glad I did: I think this novel is one of the ones that deserves a re-read from the start, its crafting so delicate that it might appear inconsequential, the way that a fine cup of tea might have been just a bag of leaves with hot water in a mug if someone else was serving.

On the surface, this is just another story about a college student in the mid-west. When the novel opens, Tassie Keltjin is looking for work in childcare that will fit around her classes and it’s the description of one of her potential employers that snared me. It appears in paragraph form, but I’ve reproduced it on separate lines because there is a lot to take in.

“The woman of the house opened the door.
She was pale and compact, no sags or pouches, linen skin tight across the bone.
The hollows of her cheeks were powdered darkly, as if with the pollen of a tiger lily.
Her hair was cropped short and dyed the fashionable bright auburn of a ladybug.
Her earrings were buttons of deepest orange, her leggings mahogany, her sweater rust-colored, and her lips maroonish brown.
She looked like a highly controlled oxidation experiment” (10-11)

This passage reveals that this novel isn’t a page-turner: there is a lot of detail. Here I found myself pausing to consider each of these colours, to visualize them individually, and then after reading this passage to compile them into the final oxidized vision.

This isn’t necessarily a comfortable reading experience, and isn’t to everyone’s taste; Moore’s prose takes some time, but for readers who enjoy the specific, the sense of inhabiting another world (albeit a world that may bear some resemblance to your own: this is the American Midwest after 9/11, not speculative fiction), it is satisfying indeed.

Reading this novel reminded me of reading Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep for, although Lee Fiora’s story was that of a high school girl, Tassie shares some of Lee’s naivete; Sittenfeld’s prose is also thick with detail and the narrator’s inner life and her struggle to make a place for herself in the world.

It’s a style and theme that I appreciate and Tassie’s involvement in the process of her employer’s adoption process reminded me of how fascinated I once was by the theme of teenage pregnancy (I used to watch movies like “For Keeps”, “Immediate Family” and “I Want to Keep My Baby” repeatedly, and I’m sure if I’d come of age when “Juno” was around I would have memorized the entire script), so that was of personal interest as well, although really a sideline to Tassie’s story.

But setting aside my personal penchant for this style of novel and its coming-of-age theme, it’s worth reading this novel for the craft alone. And I don’t mean that in a Booker-prize-winning way (which isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate Booker Prize winners or that I expect Moore’s novel would be overlooked) because this novel doesn’t demand that you recognize its brilliance.

There are some very striking sentences. Moore has a way of describing characters very succinctly in some instances: “My mother’s capacity for happiness was a small soup bone salting a large pot.”

She can deliver a tidy but memorable metaphor: “I fell back, the way a cooked onion slid apart, in all its layers, when bit.”

And she can deliver a profound idea in tight, provocative prose: “It’s like postfeminist or postmodern. The word post is put forward by people who have grown bored of the conversation.”

But you needn’t stop and ponder these at length if you’d rather not because on one level (providing you appreciate her style) The Gate at the Stairs is simply a good read.

On another level, the author is taking images and themes and interweaving them subtly throughout the book so that a single (seemingly-inconsequential) description resounds pages later in a completely different (seemingly-unrelated) context.

You can take time to marvel at it, or you can just read on for character and story: I love books that offer readers that choice.

On Mondays and Thursdays in April and May, I am Buried In Print.