A Gate at the Stairs

lorrie moore and the post 9/11 novel

A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore’s latest book, is a novel that encapsulates—in its plot, its aesthetics and even its reception—what it means to write fiction after September 11. Since that infamous day, much alarm has been raised regarding the state of fiction: Is it still possible to write a novel? Can fiction capture the agony of being alive in these trying, troubling times? If you were to listen to the literary alarmists, or focus on the latest statistics regarding book sales, you probably would have long ago lost faith in the genre as a sufficient conveyer of post-9/11 life.

You would be wrong. Lorrie Moore, in her insatiable quest for authenticity, depth of character and unconventional surprise, has written a novel that is strange and inviting, disconcerting and heartbreakingly beautiful. Moore’s is a novel that demonstrates the necessary disconnect between thoughts and form. While her writing is invariably praised as dead-on, accurate and addictive, her plots — especially in A Gate at the Stairs — feel more haphazard, constructed in large, clumsy brushstrokes. Yet perhaps it is this very disconnect, this inability to define, to conclude or to draw neat parallels, that is the most emblematic of our time. Moore resists the plausible in order to demonstrate what it means to be constantly on edge. Her novel speaks to a generation that is desperately trying to prepare itself for what can never be anticipated.

The novel’s protagonist is Tassie Keltjin, a student at a small liberal arts college in the Midwest and a recently-hired nanny for a young adoptive couple. After moving to college from her small town and leaving behind her family—a boutique potato farmer father, a Jewish mother and a slacker brother—Tassie is seduced by the intellectual Mecca of higher education. In order to make some extra money, she answers an ad placed by a quirky restaurateur and her husband, and is hired to be the family’s nanny. She accompanies the restaurateur Sarah Brink and her husband Edward on several awkward appointments with adoption agencies, which eventually result in their adoption of Mary-Emma, a biracial toddler. Tassie quickly grows attached to Mary-Emma, and takes her on walks around the college neighborhood and visits with Reynaldo—Tassie’s first boyfriend and classmate in “Intro to Sufism.”

Throughout the first two-thirds of the book, this is enough; Tassie’s eyes are slowly opened to the wonders of academia and sex, and she forms an odd but rewarding friendship with the Brink family. Characterization and setting are crafted in Moore’s signature witty, sure style. But then disaster strikes — and when it does, it is practically in every corner. Reynaldo and Sarah turn out to be harboring destructive secrets, both of which are revealed in quick and impossible succession. Moore not only takes the rug out from right under our feet; she practically tears it to shreds, casting doubt on all that is stable in the novel—character, place and personal identity. Tassie’s is a lesson in the sly and surprising workings of revelation, in the shock of life when it interrupts habit.

Because Moore’s previous fiction comes largely in the form of short stories, it seems only natural that a longer, more involved novel would pose some difficulties for her. Yet instead of reading the plot issues as representative of inexperience, it might make more sense to consider them in the context of a literary moment. Moore deftly describes what it means to strive for a center only to find oneself constantly decentered—chucked aside, derailed. While labels should always be questioned, especially when they are as large and all encompassing as “post-9/11 fiction,” there must be some truth to Moore’s representation of time. In Tassie, she creates a character whose naive ambition must be reconsidered and questioned in light of the world outside. In a 2005 interview, long before A Gate at the Stairs was published, Moore spoke to this kind of unwelcome intrusion of the outside world. “I’m interested in the way that the workings of governments and elected officials intrude upon the lives and minds of people who feel generally safe from the immediate effects of such workings,” she said.

If there is anything that can be said to be representative of the post-9/11 experience, perhaps it is this: a sense of constant echo and reverberations, of shattering and reparation. In its fictional gaps and its content lapses, A Gate at the Stairs writes us into being—seeing us in our incompleteness and our wounds, but also in our desperate struggle to be made whole.